Following a recent speaking engagement, a woman asked me what she could do to combat child trafficking besides giving money. I get this question a lot, actually. In response, I encouraged her to become a foster parent or support a foster family within her community.
A quizzical look washed across her face before she started speaking again – more slowly this time and with the same intonation she must use when speaking to young children. “No, sweetheart,” she laughed (in Texas, calling someone “sweetheart” can be both polite and patronizing – one of the great paradoxes of southern culture). “I said child trafficking,” clearly enunciating each syllable so that I didn’t misunderstand her question twice.
Admittedly, it can be hard to see the connection at first glance. But in many ways, the mission to abolish child trafficking is fundamentally about addressing its underlying causes. And those causes usually relate to children’s vulnerabilities.
When it comes to trafficking of children within the U.S., children and youth in the foster care system are extremely vulnerable. As an anti-trafficking advocate, I’ve known this for years. As a relatively new foster parent, I’m re-learning it daily.
So in honor of Foster Care Awareness Month – and with the hope that some of you might join the ranks of foster families – here are three things I’ve learned about foster care:
1. Foster Care & Human Trafficking Are Often Tragically Linked
Many of the children taken into care by state welfare agencies come from serious neglect or abuse, which means they already possess heightened vulnerabilities. The pattern of repeated displacement that often follows – being shuffled between various homes, shelters, and institutions – exacerbates those vulnerabilities. Because traffickers’ business subsists on the peddling of vulnerable people, kids in foster care can be incredibly easy targets.
A survivor of child trafficking in California once likened her experience in foster care to preparation for being commercially exploited:
“Being in foster care was the perfect training for commercial sexual exploitation. I was used to being moved without warning, without any say, not knowing where I was going or whether I was allowed to pack my clothes. After years in foster care, I didn’t think anyone would want to take care of me unless they were paid. So, when my pimp expected me to make money to support ‘the family’, it made sense to me.” 
In Texas, for instance, there are roughly 30,000 children in state care at any point in time.  But unless that same number of safe, nurturing people open their homes for those children, they will simply languish – developing compounded trauma and acquiring additional vulnerabilities.
When people of principle commit to caring for their state’s most vulnerable children, however, it changes the equation entirely. Children who reside in safe, loving, and stable environments see many of those vulnerabilities dissipate, which makes them much less likely to experience commercial exploitation.
If you sincerely want to help decrease the prevalence of the trafficking of children in the United States, consider the direct impact you can make in the lives of foster children. Consider going beyond simply funding a “safe home” for trafficking survivors and actually become a safe home to help children avoid exploitation in the first place.
2. Fostering Changes Us and the Way We See the World
Whether we’d like to admit it or not, all of us suffer from inherent bias and prejudice. These insidious maladies can revolve around race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, socioeconomics, and any number of other factors that make people different from us.
For a simple self-assessment, think about the times you choose the pronouns “they” or “them” when talking about people who don’t live in a neighborhood like yours or work in a job like yours. You can also think about the language you use in reference to those parts of town to which you avoid traveling (e.g., “the hood,” “the ghetto,” “the trailer park,” or “the sticks”).
One of the problems with this us/them mentality we all carry is that it reduces our sense of responsibility for people who appear different from us. Fostering confronts that mentality by asking us to care for someone who is different from us. 
Part of the beauty of becoming a foster parent is that it moves us from passivity to engagement – from bystander to activist.
All the good intentions and philanthropic ruminations in the world won’t impact our hearts as much as choosing a radical act of compassion. It’s in the acting that we discover true transformation and change.
But in the end it’s not about the foster parent; it’s about the foster child. And though I don’t know all the foster children in the United States, I know one simple thing about each one of them: they would rather be supported by compassionate caregivers than surrounded by indifferent bystanders.
Through fostering, I’ve come to a deeper understanding of the kind of humanness encompassed in the ancient principle of imago dei – that every person bears the image of God. It’s helped strip a layer of my latent prejudice; in its place a deeper, stronger love remains.
3. Serving as a Foster Parent Can Dramatically Increase Our Joy
The most compelling thing I’ve experienced as a foster parent is joy. It’s hard to manufacture joy in life, isn’t it? We often look for it amidst “fun” and “happiness,” but in our most lucid moments we know it’s a separate thing altogether.
Wise people throughout history have endeavored to help us understand a simple but difficult truth: a life poured out is a life filled up. 
Yes, fostering can be difficult at times – excruciatingly so. But aren’t all truly lovely and worthwhile things? And isn’t joy worth it?
What grace that in fostering we have the opportunity to directly address the severe vulnerabilities of children in our community, experience a transformation of our minds, and gain access to a deep and profound joy – both in ourselves and in the children for whom we have the privilege of caring.
Some people have neither the opportunity nor the inclination to serve as a foster parent – and that’s ok! There are many other opportunities to pursue the end of child trafficking by supporting the foster community in your area. Here are a few practical ways you can be engaged in serving foster children without becoming a foster parent yourself:
ORGANIZE A MEAL CALENDAR
It’s fairly common for churches, community groups, neighborhood associations, etc. to organize a meal calendar for a family when a new baby is born. Consider doing the same for a foster family when a new child is brought to their home.
In many states, it’s impermissible to leave a foster child with a babysitter who doesn’t have a CPR certificate and background check. Accordingly, families struggle to find babysitters. Host CPR certification classes in your community and have sitters ready for families.
DELIVER CARE PACKAGES
Most foster placements occur with little to no notice. Have things like diapers, gift cards, baby supplies, and other necessities ready to go to be dropped off to a family immediately after receiving a child.
BUILD A RESPITE CARE TEAM
Certified babysitters can watch a child for a short period of time (generally less than 48 hours). When extended breaks or travel plans require it, respite care providers are necessary – and extremely hard to find. Have a team in your community ready.
If you’re a person of faith, pray for foster families in your area. They are often doing very hard work and usually feel in over their heads. They deeply need help, support, and encouragement.
 KATE WALKER, CAL. CHILD WELFARE COUNCIL, ENDING THE COMMERCIAL SEXUAL EXPLOITATION OF CHILDREN: A CALL FOR MULTI-SYSTEM COLLABORATION IN CALIFORNIA 5 (2013).
 “Research has shown that people are more likely to help those they perceive to be similar to them, including others from their own racial or ethnic groups.” http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/we_are_all_bystanders/
 As a person of Christian faith, I see the idea expressed beautifully in Philippians 2:17: “But I will rejoice even if I lose my life, pouring it out like an offering to God, just like your faithful service is an offering to God. And I want all of you to share that joy.”