Foster kids are at a high risk for trafficking, but there's something we can do to help
How many young people who are exploited by human trafficking and slavery can relate to the feeling of their whole world being turned upside down? Those who exploit the innocent know how to prey on the vulnerable. Young people in the foster care system are primed to fall victim: no one looking out for them; moving from place to place; and feeling like their value is in the money the government pays to those who are to be caring for them. Their lives can be filled with trauma. They don’t know anything different.
But what if it could be different? How are these young people to protect themselves and overcome the obstacles in their path? Here is the first hand account of one such warrior.
I can almost feel the shock of cold in my fingertips as I recall those early winter morning walks to catch the school bus. I was ten-years-old, and I'd walk a half a mile alone from our apartment to the bus stop down at the high school parking lot. Those mornings were always very dark, and very quiet, and very cold. But that walk was really the least of my worries. Within a matter of months, my whole world felt like it had been turned upside down.
My dad was divorcing my mom and was filing for full custody of me and my two older sisters. Because my mom had been getting more and more physically and emotionally abusive, we had to formulate an escape plan to leave our home.
The morning we left, Mom began to understand what was happening. I remember sitting in the cab of Dad’s big, old Ford truck watching through the windshield as Mom and Dad shouted at each other. I covered my ears and clung to my sisters as Mom screamed hysterically and pounded on the hood of the truck. I remember watching in terror when she threw herself down in front of the truck as my dad tried to drive away.
Our "new" apartment was really a run-down, government subsidized box. We didn’t have any furniture except for a couple of old mattresses on the floor. Each night I'd set a small, plastic travel alarm clock that I'd won as a prize for selling boxes of chocolates for a school fundraiser. I’d wished I could have the chocolates instead of the cheap plastic prizes they were giving away. But the clock did come in handy as I had to get myself up for school. Dad was working two retail jobs and going back to school full time. Most days, he was gone before I got up and didn't get home until it was time for bed. So, I'd set my alarm and brace myself for the freezing half mile trek to the bus stop.
My First Mentor…
I was blessed to have people come into my life to mentor me and guide me through some very difficult seasons. One morning I showed up to school wrapped in my dad's huge, but very thin windbreaker jacket. It was the only thing I could find to cover myself up to block the cold on my walk to the bus. When my teacher, Mrs. Montgomery, saw how I was dressed, she asked me if I had lost my coat. I told her I didn't have a coat. Something about my statement must have touched her. That afternoon she sent a note home to my dad offering to pick me up for school each morning.
Dad, who was not one to accept handouts, consented to her offer. I was so relieved to know that I wouldn't have to walk to the bus stop alone anymore. Mrs. Montgomery also found me a proper winter coat. Each morning, she'd arrive in her big, warm Astro van. I'd get in, and she'd swing by the local donut shop to get me a donut and hot chocolate to have on the way to school. That breakfast treat, along with the free school lunch, would be the only food I'd eat all day. Many nights I writhed around on my mattress, hunger pangs gnawing at my stomach. When I got so hungry that I just couldn't stand it, I'd walk to the nearby grocery store and shoplift food to eat.
Two years after we escaped from Mom's, my dad suffered a massive heart attack and died suddenly. I was twelve-years-old. I had never felt so utterly alone. My dad was dead, and legally I could not (nor did I want to) go back to live with my mom. Once again, Mrs. Montgomery stepped into my brokenness and showed me love. She came to our apartment and helped clean, fielded phone calls from friends and family, and made sure my sisters and I had food to eat.
Those are just the things I saw her doing, but most likely she was also involved in making Dad’s funeral arrangements. And behind the scenes, I think she was helping line up a place for me to stay. No one could take all three of us together, but my friend's family said I could go to live with them. I will never forget the morning that we left that apartment. Accompanying the deep, aching feeling of loneliness was another feeling: shame. I felt so ashamed that all that I owned fit into one black trash bag.
From the time Dad died until I graduated high school, I lived with six different families. And in those years, as I bounced around from one family to another, I would often call Mrs. Montgomery for help. She would patiently talk through things with me and try to help me make good decisions. Looking back, without her help and loving, supportive presence, I honestly do not know how I would have made it through those tumultuous years. I thank God for placing her in my life as a teacher, mentor, and friend.
My Second Mentor…
Another one of my mentors was Mrs. Arthur. Originally my ninth grade world history teacher, she became my mentor. At that time, I was a very discouraged, bitter, and yet, driven young woman. School was basically the only place where I felt like I was safe.
At school, I could exercise some degree of control over my own life, so I delved into every academic and extracurricular activity I could find. I tried to overcompensate for my insecurity by becoming extremely ambitious, a perfectionist, and competitive. I made straight A's. I was captain of the women's varsity soccer team, president of the National Honor Society, student body secretary, the lead vocalist for a band, and a six-state champion buck dancer.
I felt extreme pressure to be the best at everything in order to distinguish myself. And as you can imagine, my ambitious, cutthroat drive did not win me many close friends. Most of the time I felt like a complete failure. I was stressed out, anxious, and alone. Although I was running myself ragged, I believed that I was doing what I had to do to survive. I had heard that college scholarships were very competitive, and I knew that financial aid would be the only way I could get myself to college.
Dangerously, I began to define my self worth by outward success: how high my grades were, how many boys' heads I could turn, and how many accolades I could wrack up before graduation. Despite my tough and meticulously polished exterior, Mrs. Arthur could see my heart inside of that hard shell. And who she saw was a young girl who was striving, scared, and in desperate need of love and guidance.
Throughout my high school years, Mrs. Arthur was there for me, offering loving support and straightforward advice. She often encouraged me to lighten up some and not get too bent out of shape if I didn't get the very highest grade on a test or paper. She and the school counselor helped me research scholarship and financial aid options. She wrote countless letters of recommendation for me, and she even helped me do a mock interview for a scholarship committee.
With Mrs. Arthur’s help, I graduated fourth in my high school class and earned a full-ride college scholarship, along with a number of other awards. Before I left for college, Mrs. Arthur had her old college sorority gather funds and items I'd need to furnish my dorm room. They even made sure that I had a bicycle to get around the large campus. To top it off, Mrs. Arthur and her friend helped me pack up all my belongings and dropped me off at college. This time, thanks to those ladies, everything I owned did not fit into one black trash bag!
Love and Generosity…
To this day, I still keep in touch with Mrs. Montgomery and Mrs. Arthur, as well as many of the families who allowed me to live with them during those difficult years. I know that I would not have made it through those tough times without the love, support, and encouragement that these mentors showed me. The kind of sacrificial love and generosity that they so willingly offered is nothing short of amazing.
This woman’s story could have read much differently. It could have ended with incarceration, addiction, or homelessness. It could have ended with her children ending up in the system, continuing the cycle of abuse and neglect. Or it could have ended in suicide. Unfortunately, this is how the story ends with many of the youth who age out of the foster care system.
Enough of the exploitation! Enough of leaving our youth in desperation! Enough of neglecting those who are already neglected and vulnerable to predators! Let us walk together, through the hard difficult mess, pulling strength from one another. If you are strong, be a mentor to those who are struggling. If you are weak, lean on the strength of a mentor.
Together we overcome.
About the Authors
Hope Anderson, the Warrior
Rachael Smith, Program Director Hope + Vine
The goal of Hope + Vine, a program by Oh Lord Help Us which employs and mentors young ladies who are aging out of foster care, is to provide stability while walking with them through this transitional season. By teaching through relationship and employment as artisans, they learn important life skills, self care, job preparation, and growth in their faith.