Sex Trafficking: How I Survived Foster Care

By Tara Burns

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Sex-trafficking laws hadn’t been written yet when I was growing up in the mid 90s, but today sex-trafficking laws are all the rage. The laws are so broad, the authorities have used them to charge women with trafficking themselves. The media warns readers about violent pimps stealing girls from malls, but most victims’ stories are very different. I know this because I was a teen trafficking victim, and my experience reflects much of the research that’s been done with trafficking victims.

When my dad pimped me out during the Clinton era, the state called his crime “sexual abuse of a minor.” When the cops decided to try to “rescue” me when I was 15, they pressured the state to take custody of me so that my dad couldn’t snatch me and run. At that point, I had been living independently and with friends for years. My caseworker at the Department of Family and Youth Services (now the Office of Children’s Services) was reluctant to get involved—she thought I was a liar who needed to be punished for making up stories about my dad—but she eventually did what the cops said. Most of my foster-home stints lasted less than a week.  

That was how the state “rescued” me from being pimped out by my dad—but I was lucky. Other teens have been raped and pimped in foster care. I didn’t know it at the time, but this is why I was so lucky: Ten years before, my mother ran with me to a neighbor’s house because she was worried we would be hurt. We sat up all night, equally afraid of going home or calling the police. That neighbor went on to become a police officer, and when a report about me came across her desk—similar to the 13 reports about me that had been made to the Department of Family and Youth Services and the two other reports that had been made to the police—she made it her mission to rescue me.

Within a few months, the state had run out of foster homes for me, so they dumped me in a youth shelter—that’s when I got banned from the shelter. I had been living with adult friends, who had started the process of adopting me, for three or four weeks. It was the longest period of time I had lived somewhere in years. After I unpacked my bag, my caseworker arrived and said the fire exits weren’t sufficient. She demanded I collect my belongings, follow her outside, and climb into her car.

“I don’t have time for this,” my caseworker said in the car. “I was supposed to get off work half an hour ago, and my kids are waiting for me to come home and make dinner.” She claimed the state lacked any more foster homes for me, so she took me to the youth shelter. I was familiar with the shelter because I usually stayed there for a few days between friends’ houses, so I didn’t mind. Before she let me leave the car, she went through my bag and confiscated my money, saying that I would probably spend my cash on drugs.

A few weeks later, I found out my caseworker had lied about why she removed me from my friends’ home. In court, my guardian ad litem allowed me to read my file. I found a big stack of papers revealing the true reason I had to leave my adult friends’ home: My friend had allegedly abused her son and allowed a child molester to live in her driveway.

Though the shelter typically allowed kids to stay for only two weeks at most, I stayed at the shelter for seven weeks, since the state had run out of places to keep me. The shelter forbade minors from leaving without a good reason, like attending class or going to work. I hadn’t attended school in years, so I kept inside for the duration of my stay.

Eventually, I got really bored at the shelter and started carving on my arms. The next day, I held the shelter director's baby while she and all of the staff had a meeting about me in the kitchen. They decided I had to leave because I was too much of a suicidal liability. They called my caseworker. Since I wasn’t actually suicidal, the hospital wouldn’t take me. My caseworker found me new foster parents, a couple who had recently immigrated to America from India. My first night at their house, the husband angrily criticized the dinner his wife had cooked for him. She threw away the food and then cooked him another meal. The following day, I went for a walk and forgot to go back.

My caseworker called my friends and told them I was a runaway (she said if they harbored me, they could be charged with a felony), so I went to a hotel bar instead of bothering my pals. At the bar, I found a man to go home with. Today we would call this “survival sex.” According to a recent study of youth in New York City’s sex trade called "Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children," 30 to 50 percent of homeless youth work as sex workers and only 16 percent of girls started with a pimp or escort service.

A couple days and a couple men later, I ran into my best friend’s foster parents at the store. She had lived with them since her mother died years ago, and they said that they could easily take me in because they were already licensed to foster her. They called my caseworker, and she came right over. After my caseworker searched my bag for drugs and took my money again, she agreed that I could stay with them. My new foster mom took me shopping and bought me a pretty baby-blue sweater that covered the cuts on my forearms. 

My first night at her house, I sat down with the family at a big, round table for dinner. We look like a family! I thought—at least until I noticed the kids looked at the floor and stayed silent. I soon found out why they kept their mouths shut. Midway through dinner, my friend’s brother took a timid bite of macaroni, and my new foster mom exploded. She said his chewing was disgusting, called him a dog, dumped his plate on the floor, and then stood over him ordering him to eat like a dog and lick the floor clean. As he obeyed her demands, she kicked him.

A few hours later, my new foster mother tucked me into bed, kissed my forehead, and told me I had a family now. I waited for her to leave and then grabbed my blue sweater and climbed out the window. Outside, I realized we were miles out of town, and I didn’t have any equipment for cold-weather camping, so I climbed back in the window. The next morning, I called the cop who looked out for me, and she picked me up. I asked her to drop me at the store and promised her my new foster mom would pick me up later—adults accusing me of being a crazy liar had taught me to stop talking about abuse.

I walked to my usual bar, where I met their new bartender. He refused to let me in, since I was underage, so I walked in the cold through the areas where men usually picked me up and paid me for sex, stomping my feet in the snow to keep warm. No one stopped for me, so I walked to the shelter and begged them to let me in.

“I don’t think I’m supposed to let you in,” the worker said. “Just come in and warm up while I call and check.” She called the director at home, and the director said not to let me in. 

“You know I might just freeze to death in your parking lot,” I said. In response, the worker gave me a blanket. I wrapped my body in the blanket and then sat in the snowbank near where the director always parked.

“Fuck you,” I told her when she arrived.

“You need to get off our property or I’m calling the police,” she said.

“Call the cops! Call the cops and tell them how you don’t let kids in your shelter!”

She rolled her eyes as she stepped around me. “I don’t have time for this,” she said. I looked at the morning traffic and snow and then stripped down to my tank top. A couple minutes later, one of my regulars stopped to pick me up. Who needs a shelter when you can suck dick for cash?

Photos of legal document courtesy of the author

My situation wasn’t uncommon. The rescue industry and the laws it pushes cause so much harm that there is an entire book called Collateral Damage: The Impact of Anti-Trafficking Measures on Human Rights Around The World. “First, we were surprised how many stories we heard from girls, including transgender girls, and young women, including trans women, about their violent experiences at non profits and with service providers,” the Young ­Women’s Empowerment Project found in a participant-directed research project. “This was upsetting because adults and social workers often tell us that seeking services will improve our lives.” 

Their findings didn’t shock me. After I left that foster home, my caseworker once again said she had run out of foster homes for me. My friends were—understandably—still afraid to harbor a runaway. My cop gave me a list of charities to call, but they all said they didn’t get involved with minors, so some of the shelter workers snuck me into the shelter at night, when they were the only ones working, and let me sleep in a warm room downstairs. Other nights, I slept in the snowbank at the shelter so I could yell at the director when she arrived in the morning, or I stayed with men or in hotel rooms they got me. For a period of time, I got off on bringing men to the shelter parking lot to do our business, but the shelter director never caught me like I secretly wanted. Once I hitchhiked to another town, spent a summer turning tricks with a friend, and then became a glamorous stripper for a few weeks. Another time I built a treehouse by a lake and cooked rabbits over a fire like in My Side of the Mountain.

Looking back, I wonder what my caseworker thought I really was doing to survive—or if she thought about it at all. I’m pretty sure that anyone with even the smallest bit of common sense knows that if you take a teenager who’s done sex work, take away her support system, and leave her homeless during an Alaskan winter, she’ll do sex work to survive. Confiscating money from her every time you see her should make that picture even clearer—after all, inducing a minor to do sex work could make a person guilty of sex trafficking under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Did my caseworker sex traffick me? Did the state, or the shelter director, or the system traffic me? Why is the system so stacked that an independent adult prostitute can be charged with sex trafficking herself, but the state can allegedly coerce people into sex work with no consequences?

Studies show that my experience of sex trafficking isn’t uncommon. In a research project called the Bad Encounter Line, the Young Women’s Empowerment Project tracked violence in the lives of girls in the sex trade. The results showed that 30 percent of violent encounters were with police, 6 percent with DCFS, and 1 percent with shelters. Pimps accounted for only 4 percent of violent encounters. Sexual violence by police officers made up 11 percent of the total reports—almost three times as much as pimps, and overall there was seven and a half times more violence from police than pimps.

My story has a surprise happy ending, though: The state dropped custody of me. When I was 15, my caseworker told the judge plainly that I was a waste of resources. He read my psychiatric evaluation and agreed with her. “This is very serious,” he told me. “I’ve seen these diagnosis before. You’ll probably be dead before you’re 16.”

That night I slept in the shelter parking lot and fantasized about killing myself dramatically on their sidewalk. Unfortunately, that would have proved that they were right about my being a big suicidal liability.

Within a couple months, I petitioned to be emancipated. The judge granted my petition, allowing me to get a “real” job, rent a small house, enroll in high school, and do sex work much more safely and infrequently—all things that were impossible while I was in state custody. 

Tara Burns is the author of Whore Diaries: My First Week as an Escort and Whore Diaries II: Adventures in Independent Escorting

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