The State Department issued a withering condemnation of the institutionalization of children away from family settings, saying in its annual report on human trafficking that those who spend time in such facilities suffer long-term emotional damage.
The report was prepared long before the Trump administration instituted a policy of separating children from their families. But it says institutions, whether run by governments or private groups, are harmful to many of the 8 million children worldwide who live in such facilities.
“Studies have found that both private and government-run residential institutions for children, or places such as orphanages and psychiatric wards that do not offer a family-based setting, cannot replicate the emotional companionship and attention found in family environments that are prerequisites to healthy cognitive development,” the report says.
“The physical and psychological effects of staying in residential institutions, combined with societal isolation and often subpar regulatory oversight by governments, place these children in situations of heightened vulnerability to human trafficking,” it states.
A State Department official referred questions about the criticism of institutionalization to other agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security. The report recommends screening for those who are suspected to be victims of trafficking so they can be referred to care and an investigation can proceed.
“We have those systems in place and use them when problems arise,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity following State Department ground rules for briefing reporters.
In the report’s introduction, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that human trafficking, also known as modern slavery, undermines national security, enriches criminals and terrorists, and is an affront to universal values. He said combating it is a priority for the Trump administration.
“Modern slavery has no place in the world, and I intend to ensure, through diplomatic engagement and increased action, that the United States government’s leadership in combating this global threat is sustained in the years to come,” Pompeo wrote.
The State Department defines modern-day slavery as coerced sex trafficking, forced labor and debt bondage, and recommends governments form task forces to address the practice. Many of the lowest-ranking countries are in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
The report added Myanmar, Iran, Iraq and Niger to the list of countries that use child soldiers. Both Myanmar and Iraq were taken off last year, over the objections of some State Department officers and advocacy groups.
Myanmar was downgraded to the lowest ranking, reserved for the worst offenders, Tier 3. The report cited military operations in Rakhine state that dislocated hundreds of thousands of minority ethnic groups, especially Rohingya Muslims. It also downgraded Bolivia, Gabon, Laos and Papua New Guinea.
The section covering the institutionalization of children delves into the psychological impact on children who do not get the attention and nurturing that would be more likely in a family setting. It says that some facilities are so ill-managed that human traffickers operate freely nearby or even inside some places that double as brothels.
The experience of living in a residential institution, the report says, can leave emotional scars on children that render them vulnerable to the ploys of human traffickers, even long after they leave.
Melysa Sperber, head of public policy for Humanity United, said the administration’s “zero tolerance” and family separation policies have undermined U.S. credibility in critiquing human trafficking, and she called on the White House to fill a vacancy for an ambassador to head the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.
The report emphasizes the need for federal governments and local communities to work together to identify human traffickers and warn of the inherent dangers. It highlights cooperative efforts between officials, organizations and individuals in Edo state in Nigeria, Maadi municipality in Nepal and Houston as successful models.
“If we’re going to win this fight, national governments must empower local communities to proactively identify human trafficking and develop the local solutions to address them,” Pompeo said in remarks at an event at the State Department.
Pompeo lamented the exploitation of African migrants in Libya, North Koreans pushed into forced labor during harvest time and the death penalty meted out to sex trafficking victims who were judged guilty of adultery.
“We will not stop until human trafficking is a thing of the past,” he said.
The State Department acknowledges that human trafficking is a problem that exists in the United States, even though it is ranked at the highest level, Tier 1, reserved for countries actively trying to combat the practice. The report relates the case of 16-year-old Taylor, a girl who met some men at a mall who took her on dates and bought her clothes before coercing her into prostitution. Within a year, she was earning $1,000 a day, most of it going to the men, and eventually started recruiting other teenage girls, with the men threatening to harm her family if she refused.
The report also describes the challenges of domestic servitude in the households of diplomats based abroad, who have immunity. It says the treatment of household workers is not an official act and recommends diplomats be held accountable for maltreatment and exploitation.
Ivanka Trump joined Pompeo in handing out awards to 10 men and women who have combated human trafficking in their home countries.
Yanira Violeta Olivares Pineda, who heads a specialized team of prosecutors in El Salvador dedicated to trying human traffickers, said they have attained convictions on sex exploitation charges for traffickers, who were sentenced to 10 to 16 years in prison. Her unit has received U.S. funds for training and investigations.
She declined to criticize the U.S. zero tolerance policy of separating children from their families.
“I think all countries, whether they are the source, transit or destination point, should see immigrants in a humanitarian way,” she said. “I think each government should be humane.”