RAPID CITY, S.D. – Every child deserves to grow up in a family where they are loved, cared for and protected; to have a support system to help them make good life choices and a safety net to catch them when they fall.
Growing up Hollie Strand’s best friend was in foster care.
“I learned that there are some really good families and some not so good families out there. I realized that every kid needs a real home,” she said.
That realization inspired her to become one of the ‘good’ families and has lead her to foster more than 20 children in the last ten years and adopting one of the children she fostered.
Strand has made her career in law enforcement and currently serves as the Computer Forensic Examiner of Internet Crimes Against Children at the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office.
“I co-chair the Western South Dakota Human Trafficking Task Force and a lot of people will come up and say, well hey…. ‘I really want to work on trafficking. I really want to fight trafficking. I want to be a part of that.’…. I’m like awesome, great! Do you want to be a foster parent?… Because what we know is that there’s over 50% of the kids that are recovered they’ve found that were currently in foster care or had been in foster care prior to going into trafficking,” Strand said.
Human trafficking rings and leaders often target people who are at their most vulnerable therefore making them easier to exploit. Traffickers take advantage of desperate situations where people find themselves in unstable conditions, living in constant fear with limited options for survival or to earning a living, and with no family and friends. They often offer lure their victims in with false opportunities to seemingly help improve their circumstances. Traffickers will then often use chemical dependency and addiction to control and coerce trafficked people into forced labor and sexual exploitation. Victims with mental health issues are also extremely vulnerable, as they face a variety of challenges including isolation, diminished capacity to give consent and assess ill intentions which traffickers are skilled at detecting and manipulating to their advantage.
“A lot of foster kids age out of the system and when they age out there’s no support system there for them,” making them vulnerable to traffickers explained Strand.
When children age-out of the system at age 18 without a family, they are also significantly more likely to not pursue higher education, experience homelessness, crisis pregnancy, unemployment, incarceration and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Children in foster care also run away leaving them susceptible targets. Foster children might run away because of neglect, abuse, because they feel unsafe or that they are in a hostile environment. Others run away because they feel misunderstood or unwanted.
Of the 1.7 million foster care youth who run away each year in the United States, around 6,300 of them do not return and of those that do many report being sexually assaulted during their time away. Many of the children who do not return to their foster families end up homeless.
The high-risk attributes for human trafficking are alarmingly paralleled with experiences many children and teens have while in foster care. Those similarities include experiencing trauma and/or having adverse childhood experiences, having a history of running away, diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health and/or behavioral issues, experiencing homelessness, and unemployment or being under employed.
“The similarities between foster care and trafficking are astonishing. Foster parents get a stipend and children learn that their presence comes with an exchange of money, people get paid to take me. Just like a pimp gets paid for my presence in somebody’s backseat or somebody’s hotel room,” said Strand. “Having a social worker tell you where you can go to school, what you can wear, when you can talk to your parents, when you can call your siblings – is no different than having a pimp.”
Growing up feeling that their worth is tied to a paycheck, children and teens easily overlook that they are being taken advantage of for another’s personal financial gain, feeling that it’s normal.
A study from Depaul University in Chicago, Ill., interviewed 25 former pimps from the area and found that 24% where in foster care as children of which 88% had experienced physical or sexual abuse as children in their foster homes.
Traffickers who target children in the foster care system often look for their victims at group homes, homeless shelters, on the streets and at alternative high schools. They also use social media to introduce themselves to children seeking attention and stability.
Through no fault of their own, the state of South Dakota currently has around 1,500 children in the foster care system, who need loving, safe and supportive homes until they can return to their families. On average, children are in an out-of-home placement for one to two years before being reunited with their family or adopted. In South Dakota, approximately 70 children are waiting to be adopted into their forever homes.
“If you feel that trafficking is so horrible and so wrong I challenge you… the best way to get involved and the best way to make a difference is to become a foster parent,” said Strand. “If we don’t get involved the odds of these children being trafficked increases so much.”
“I would love to say it’s easy…. It’s tough, it’s very tough, but I haven’t came across a single kid that’s not worth it. Every single kid that I have ever come across either fostering in my own home or meeting other foster kids through my employment, I’ve never met a kid that’s not worth somebody opening their homes and trying
If you are interested in becoming a foster parent to be stabilizing and strengthening force in a child’s life visit the Department of Social Services on their website and by contacting your local Child Protective Services Office. The phone number for the Rapid City office is 605-394-2525.
Strand urges that if you can’t be a foster parent, “support those that do,” through mentoring, teaching or donating to the Fountain Springs Church Foster Care Supply Closet.