A Shaky Start for New Data on Sex Trafficking Victims, Prenatal Drug Exposure

The federal government’s annual Child Maltreatment publication, released last month, showed a continuing trendline on the report’s central issue. The number of child maltreatment investigations has risen by nearly 10 percent since 2014 – the amount of documented abuse and neglect from those investigations has also increased, but only by about half of 1 percent.

But this year’s report also saw the addition of two new data elements foisted on the Child Maltreatment report through legislative mandates. It was a rocky start for collection on both counts, and it will be interesting to see if states are able to do better over time or if these are doomed to be murky, scattershot data points.

Victims of Sex Trafficking

The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, which became law in 2015, required the U.S. Children’s Bureau to begin collecting information from states about the number of maltreatment victims who are also identified as trafficking victims. In the first year, 27 states provided data on this metric, including some of the most populous like California, Texas, Georgia and Michigan.

In those 27 states there were 741 victims of sex trafficking confirmed by child welfare agencies. Nearly 30 percent were reported by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

This is obviously an early and incomplete picture, but they do convey a few not-surprising trends among these victims. They were overwhelmingly female (89 percent) and older teens (72 percent). And while 91 percent of documented maltreatment is committed by parents, just 16 percent of sex trafficking victimization was connected directly to parents.

The figures in some large states leave one to wonder whether child welfare agencies are just not good at tracking this group in data, or if sex trafficking victims just don’t come into contact with child welfare agencies very often.

For example, California reported 56 sex trafficking victims statewide, even though recent estimates are that 100 children are trafficked every night in Oakland alone. Is that because the state and counties don’t have a great and consistent process for collecting information yet? Or because these young victims are mostly handled by the law enforcement side and not referred to child welfare?

Several child exploitation groups reached about the report said they had not yet looked at it.

Plans of Safe Care

As was laid plain in the 2019 reporting of Jessica Huseman, Emily Palmer and company at The Boston Globe, no state is fully compliant with the federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), which was passed in 1974 but has always been somewhat toothless because of the small amount of money connected to it.

One of The Globe’s stories in a series about CAPTA focused on how since 2003, the law has required states to have what’s called a “plan of safe care” for “infants born and identified as being affected by illegal substance abuse or withdrawal symptoms resulting from prenatal drug exposure.” The Globe found that few states provide safe care plans with any regularity.

In 2016, Congress included a requirement that they start reporting on this issue through the Child Maltreatment report. States are asked to provide four data points: the number of infants with prenatal substance exposure; how many of those babies are screened in for investigation or an alternative response; how many screened-in babies have a plan of safe care; and how many are referred for services.

Forty-two states provided data on the first two points, but only 13 states had any information to provide about plans of safe care.

The 42 states reported a total of 27,709 babies born with prenatal drug exposure. And while a high rate of all maltreatment reports are screened out early in the process, the vast majority of these cases (88 percent) were screened in for either an investigation or for alternative responses.

The responses of 13 states on safe care plans shows that about 64 percent of the babies born with prenatal exposure got one, but a closer look shows a wide range here. Texas reports a safe care plan for all of the 1,216 babies born with exposure, and Michigan reported plans for about 85 percent. On the other end, Nebraska reported safe care plans for just seven of the 201 newborns.

But Nebraska was among the states with the highest reported rates when it came to referring these families for services, as was Texas. Minnesota and Ohio were the states that handled the majority of prenatal drug exposure through an alternative response, diverting mom and baby away from a formal substantiation of maltreatment.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
About John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change 1211 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org.