Anti-Prostitution Laws are Hurting Juveniles

The movement to decriminalize sex work has been pushed by sex workers for decades and has gained national popularity in criminal justice discussions. Decriminalizing sex work would halt arrests and charges for prostitution. While this may not seem like a juvenile justice issue, there is a small but significant group who have been impacted by anti sex work laws: juveniles arrested for prostitution.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act defines sex trafficking as recruiting, patronizing, or otherwise causing a person under 18 years old to participate in a commercial sex act.[1] Most states have statutory rape laws which state a person under a certain age cannot consent to sex with an adult. In Texas, for example, an adult cannot engage in sexual contact with a person under 17 years old.[2] These laws indicate a general consensus that minors cannot consent to sex work or sex with adults. If that is the case, the 290 children aged 0-17 who were arrested in 2019 for prostitution should have been treated as victims instead of criminals.[3]

The interception of child trafficking victims and criminal prostitution laws can be seen in the 2010 Texas case In re B.W. This case involved a 13 year old girl who was arrested for prostitution in Texas.[4] The offense was filed in adult criminal court, where it was discovered the arrestee was a child. [5] The prostitution charge was then dismissed, but B.W.’s involvement with the justice system was not over. The charges were transferred to juvenile court, where B.W. pleaded true to the allegation, which is the equivalent of pleading guilty in adult court, and was sentenced to 18 months probation.[6]

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled that because the legislature has determined children under 14 do not have the mental capacity to consent to sex with anyone, they are exempt from prostitution charges. [7] This was a win for B.W. and child sex trafficking victims all over Texas, but the impact of criminalization was already felt. B.W. had already been subjected to arrest and booking in adult court. In re B.W. protects juveniles who are 14 or younger, but leaves other teenagers in Texas age 15-16 vulnerable to prostitution charges and arrests. There is not clear data on how many 15 and 16 year olds have been arrested for prostitution in Texas since In re B.W., but Texas makes up part of the 290 total arrests, indicating there have been some. Not all arrests lead to charges, but all arrests traumatize the children who are subject to them.

The effects of arrest on juveniles cannot be taken lightly. Youth who have been arrested are much less likely than their peers to graduate high school or enroll in college.[8] A child who is arrested and is then confined at a juvenile detention facility is virtually guaranteed to not finish their high school education.[9] Young people without a high school degree will face more difficulties finding stability and employment.[10] High school dropouts may face an increased risk of grooming by sex traffickers because they are not around teachers who recognize the signs and can refer the student to school counseling or other services.

Criminalization of sex work is causing lifelong effects in vulnerable juveniles. While full decriminalization of sex work may not be popular in every state, laws preventing minors from being charged with prostitution would go a long way in protecting the country’s youth.


[1] 18 U.S.C. § 1591
[2] Tex. Penal Code §21.11
[3] Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, https://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/crime/ucr.asp?table_in=1
[4] In re B.W., 313 S.W.3d 818
[5]Id.
[6] ​​Id.
[7] Id.
[8] David S. Kirk & Robert J. Sampson, Juvenile Arrest and Collateral Education Damage in the Transition to Adulthood, 36, 47 (American Psychological Association 2013).
[9] Id at 55
[10] Id.

New Research Analyzes the Effects of Foster Care on Children’s Well-Being

New research, published in April analyzes the effectiveness of the foster care system in Michigan.[1] In what is perhaps a surprising result, children who enter the foster care system are better off than their peers who remain with their parents.

A recent study showed that 6% of all American children spend some amount of time in the foster care system. That number is much higher for children of color: 10% of Black children enter the foster care system at some point in their childhood, and 15% of Native American children enter the system at some point.[2]

Economists have been studying foster care outcomes since 2007. Previous research studied foster care outcomes from Illinois and found that foster care hurt children more than leaving children in the home.[3] That study looked at children on the margin – those who were on the boundary between being removed from the home and staying with parents – to show that those who were removed from the home were convicted of crimes at higher rates, and had lower long-term incomes.

This study uses the same research design in Michigan, and suggests the opposite result: these authors found that foster care reduced the likelihood that children were alleged to be victims of abuse by 52%, increased daily school attendance by 6%, and a small decrease in findings of juvenile delinquency.

So why is Michigan so different from Illinois? These authors suggest that Illinois’ foster care system was especially harmful, so rather than foster care in general harming children, Illinois’ implementation of foster care was to blame. As evidence, they show that Illinois children spent the longest amount of time in the system in the country, while Michigan is closer to average.

Another possible explanation is that foster care has simply improved over time. The authors cite to a child trends study which shows that children are now spending less time in the system, and are being placed with family members more often.[4]

What does this mean for those interested in child policy? It’s not quite clear. Hopefully, research like this will prompt other states to look at their own foster care programs to see if they are more like Illinois or Michigan. We know that removing a child from the home is a drastic measure that should only be taken when absolutely necessary. Nothing here suggests that more children should enter foster care, only that in this particular jurisdiction, it is effective for the child on the bubble between removal and remaining in the home.

My takeaway is this: good foster care that helps children is possible. It might look like shorter stays in the system and more placements with family members. It definitely looks like states should be analyzing their foster care systems with the most advanced tools possible, like the ones these economists employed.


[1] Max Gross & E. Jason Baron, Temporary Stays and Persistent Gains: The Causal Effects of Foster Care, American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 14(2): 170–199 (2022).

[2] Emanuel Wildeman, Cumulative Risks of Foster Care Placement by Age 18 for U.S. Children, 2000–2011, PLoS ONE 9(3): e92785 (2014).

[3] Joseph J. Doyle, Jr., Child Protection and Child Outcomes: Measuring the Effects of Foster Care, American Economic Review 97 (5): 1583-1610 (2007) (“the results suggest that children on the margin of placement tend to have better outcomes when they remain at home, especially older children.”).

[4] Child Trends, Child Trends Databank, https://www.childtrends.org/indicators/foster-care.

Developing Resilience as a tool for Breaking the Cycle of Substance Use

Building Resilience & Reducing Harm, Sanford Inspirations, 2017

Developing Resilience as a tool for Breaking the Cycle of Substance Use

Children and youth with adverse childhood experiences include those that have experienced “all types of abuse and neglect, parental mental illness, substance use, incarceration, and domestic violence.”[1] These children and youth are at an increased risk of “developing both chronic diseases and substance use disorders.”[2] Recent studies reveal that 54% of youth age 12-17 used alcohol at least once and 41% had used marijuana while in care.[3] Additionally, youth currently in foster homes reported using drugs other than marijuana, including “hallucinogens (13.5%), stimulants (12.1%), non-street opiates (9.8%), and powder (5.5%) and crack cocaine (5.2%), all of which were higher than the comparison group.”[4] Additionally, youth in foster care “begin substance use at an earlier age than their peers who had not been in foster care,” placing them at an increased risk for developing substance dependence disorders.[5]

Many youth in the child welfare system turn to substance use as a way to cope with their past trauma experiences.[6] However, this coping mechanism has a detrimental and harmful effect on the lives of many youth who have been in the child welfare system. Substance usage not only puts youth at risk of developing substance disorders, but it also results in an increased risk of academic difficulties, difficulty building lasting relationships, and involvement with the juvenile justice system.[7]

Child welfare systems across the country have sought to address the issue of drug use among foster youth, but “no system has mastered the prevention of drug use among foster kids.”[8] Child welfare systems typically refer children and families to substance treatment programs ex post. Additionally, systems have began  (1) differentiating behaviors from underlying needs in order to better identify and address children’s needs, (2) collaborating with and integrating other systems, including the Department of Mental Health, and (3) placing children with the highest needs in group care with specially trained caregivers.[9] However, at a more granular level, resilience appears to be an underdeveloped tool that may help many youth break the cycle of substance abuse.

Resilience is “the ability to overcome obstacles, preserve through hardships, as well as the ability to balance negative experiences with positive factors that protect [a child’s] overall well-being.”[10] This skill allows youth to bounce back from difficulties and more easily adjust to change. Resiliencies have been grouped into seven categories: 

[1]Insight begins with a sense that life in the troubled family is strange. Such insight

can eventually protect the child from a tendency to internalize family troubles and feel

guilty.

[2] Independence is the child separating herself from the troubled family.

[3] Relationships fulfill needs that troubled families cannot meet.

[4] Initiative is the desire to overcome feelings of helplessness that a child can succumb

to in the troubled family.

[5] Creativity is the ability to take pain and transform it into something artistic and

worthwhile.

[6] Humor allows the child to make the tragic into something comic and laugh at his

emotional suffering.

[7] Morality is developing a set of principles that differentiates bad from good both

inside and outside the family.[11]

Resilience provides children and youth with adverse childhood experiences the ability “to fantasize about another time or place, [be] able to read and learn about a better time and place, realiz[e] that they are not responsible for the abuse directed at them, and hav[e] an adult in their life for a considerable period of time who sees them in a positive way.”[12] Furthermore, a 2012 article published in the Journal of Alcoholism: Clinicial and Experimental Research reported, “that relisiliency is related to lower levels of initial substance use, fewer problems with alcohol, and better working memory.”[13] Several characteristics of resilient youth (including high self-esteem, empathy, help-seeking, and self-awareness) overlap with “factors that deter children from engaging in harmful substances like tobacco, marijuana and alcohol.”[14] Thus, developing resilience in children in foster care could help some children break the cyle of substance dependence.

While resilience should not take the place of other court ordered services, supports, or treatment programs, it should be viewed as a vital skill that every child and youth in foster care is given the opportunity to develop. Furthermore, in seeking the best outcome for children in foster care, every individual (foster parents, attorneys, social workers etc.) in contact with the child should play an active role in helping the child build resilience by encouraging insight, independence, relationships, initiative, creativity, humor, and morality.


[1] Resilience Helps to Prevent Youth Substance Use (Feb. 24, 2020), https://accesshealthme.org/resiliency-helps-to-prevent-youth-substance-use/.

[2]  Id.

[3] Jordan M. Braciszewskia & Robert L. Stout, Substance Use Among Current and Former Foster Youth: A Systematic Review, Child Youth Serv Rev. (2012) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3596821/.

[4] Id.

[5] Preventing, Identifying, and Treating Substance Use Among Youth in Foster Care (Oct. 2020), https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubPDFs/bulletins_youthsud.pdf.

[6] Understanding Substance Use Disorders—What Child Welfare Staff Need to Know, https://www.cffutures.org/files/nccan2019/web/usud/CWS_Practices_Tip_Guide%231_bg_cv.pdf.

[7] Consequences of Youth Substance Abuse (May 1998),  https://ojjdp.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh176/files/pubs/drugid/ration-03.html.

[8] American Addiction Centers Editoria Staff, 3 Risk Factors for Foster Youth Drug Abuse (June 30, 2021), https://rehabs.com/blog/3-risk-factors-for-foster-youth-drug-abuse/.

[9]  Id.

[10] Resilience Helps to Prevent Youth Substance Use, supra note 1.

[11] Braciszewskia & Stout, supra note 3.

[12] Id.

[13] Resilience Helps to Prevent Youth Substance Use, supra note 1.

[14] Id.