Why Locking Up High-Risk Children in the Foster Care System Is a Bad Idea

On occasion, I get notified that a child in the residential program has eluded staff and left the campus without authorization. As you can image, this is a significant concern. Typically this is a child who is experiencing an episode of frustration and anger, clouding any logic or reason, and who yields to the impulse to disengage and run away. There is always great anxiety until the child is found safe and returned to the campus. Each time I hear of such an incident, I ask myself why this child chose to run away. Inevitably it is because of anxiety associated with traumas he or she has experienced.

I thought of this on Sunday while I was reading an article in the Los Angeles Times that highlighted a debate by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and others of whether or not to establish a locked facility for sexually exploited children in the foster care system because some of them run away back to their contacts on the street before a more suitable and permanent alternative can be found.  Admittedly, the proposal to lock these children up is a desperate measure on the part of the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) to keep these children safe and away from further trauma at the hands of those who would sexually exploit them. That being said, to lock them up is just another version of the containment their exploiters impose on them. Whether it is being in a locked facility or under the domination of a pimp, both are traumatizing. Granted, one is less- risky and well- intentioned, but it would be hard for a defiant and confused youth, victimized by a foster care system that failed him or her, to appreciate the benefits of a secure facility.

Locking children up is not a good option and certainly not a solution. Once again, the proposal reflects a system of care that has lost sight of what it is trying to accomplish. It reflects the sincere attempt at remedying a problem but only exacerbates a poor situation.

Rather than a locked facility or a holding tank, a safe house is a much more appropriate alternative.  Here, specially trained staff can attend to the needs of these exploited children individually in a nurturing setting away from perpetrators. The safe house is meant to provide the attention these children need and give them enough distance from the chaos of exploitation to begin to see a better alternative to being manipulated on the streets.

As understandable as the proposal to create a locked facility is, the leadership of DCFS and the County Board of Supervisors should be encouraged not to be blindsided by a sincere desire to protect but rather channel their concern into exploring alternatives. A locked facility may be tempting and indeed a quick fix but it does not address the complex issues that these exploited children experience. Countering exploitation with confinement only furthers the trauma experienced by these children and has the potential to drive them into the grasp of their exploiters. Resources that could be spent on a locked facility would be better utilized on developing a network of safe houses throughout the county, staffed by specially trained personnel, whose ultimate mission is not to secure and hold but to attend to and free children lost to a  vicious cycle of exploitation.

For more information: 

Several intervention models for children who have been sexually exploited have been developed across the country.  For information on alternatives to effectively address the needs of such children, please visit the following links:

Ending the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children:  A Call for Multi-System Collaboration in California

In Harm’s Way: Child Abuse, Child Rape, Sex Trafficking

Center for Children & Youth Justice `Project Respect’

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