On Tuesday, July 8, 2014, the Subcommittee on Children and Families of the Senate HELP Committee held a hearing on “Falling Through the Cracks: The Challenges of Prevention and Identification in Child Trafficking and Private Re-homing”

Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC) opened the hearing with remarks that focused on two key goals: prevention and identification in regard to both issues. In the first, addressing the issue of trafficking, she said that the victims are frequently “hiding in plain sight” in our schools and other common areas. She also raised the need for training saying that currently there is very little information and training for key personnel found in the schools, among health care providers and within social services community. Her comments heavily emphasized the need to better train and involve education and health care systems. Senator Hagan then discussed the issue of “re-homing” a term that came into focus after some recent reports by the Reuters News Service along with NBC News focusing on instances whereby a parent or parents placed their adopted child through the use of the internet into another home, frequently in unsafe circumstances.

Senator Hagan was joined by Ranking Member Mike Enzi (R-WY) who indicated he was interested in learning more on both topics with a focus on what the federal role should or could be in addressing either challenge. The witnesses included: JooYeun Chang , Associate Commissioner, Children’s Bureau, HHS, Abigail English , Director, Center for Adolescent Health & the Law, Chapel Hill, NC , Jenee’ Littrell , Grossmont Union High School District, San Diego County, CA , Megan Twohey , Investigative Reporter, Thomson Reuters, News

In her remarks Commissioner Chang outlined what HHS has done in regard to the re-homing issue, indicating that states have been advised to examine their child abuse laws since some of the instances documented in the news series were cases of child abandonment or abuse. She also indicated that there was a need for more post-adoption services and that while there were some federal funds available it was a growing need. She also highlighted the efforts of HHS to encourage states to build capacity, training and screening in regard to the issue of trafficking.

Abigail English, from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) highlighted the recent report by the IOM released last fall, Confronting Commercial Sexual Exploitation and Sex Trafficking of Minors in the United States. She indicated that the committee made the recommendations into three principles 1) trafficking should be understood as abuse, 2) they should not be considered criminals and 3) when you’re identifying victims of sex trafficking do no harm. She described the diverse background of those children who are victims with a range of incomes, race, geography, histories of sexual abuse, gender identity issues, unstable housing, substance abuse-related backgrounds, homelessness, juvenile justice and foster care histories.

Jenee’ Littrell from the San Diego high school district, talked about the efforts that that school system has implemented across several schools, partnerships between law enforcement, human services and the private sector. She testified that there strategy has four key components: 1) increased staff awareness and education on the indicators and the nature of the crime; 2) increased parent and student awareness of the risks and realities of trafficking; 3) clearly articulated district policy and protocol for identifying a suspected victim or responding to a disclosure from a suspected victim; and 4) strong working partnerships with law enforcement, child welfare, probation and social service agencies.

Megan Twohey , Investigative Reporter, Thomson Reuters, re-caped her earlier investigation that identified more than 260 instances where children were being “rehomed,. a term borrowed from the animal world with people attempting to place a pet in another home through the use of the internet. Twohey said, “We discovered that over this five-year period, in this one forum alone, a child was offered to strangers on average once a week. The activity spanned the nation: Children in 34 states had been advertised. Many were transferred from parents in one state to families in another. At least 70 percent had been adopted from overseas, and many were said to suffer from physical, emotional or behavioral problems.”

In regard to the issue of re-homing, members struggled with solutions curious as to whether adoptive families should be singled out or how to change and require changes I regard to state family law which varies in regard to the rights of families and the placement of their own children,

To read the testimony or view the hearing go to Subcommittee on Children and Families and to read the HHS guidance on how to address re-homing go to IM-14-02.