“We’ve Industrialized Care, That’s the *** Problem”: An exploration of policy and practice within current child welfare systems as it relates to youth risk of sexual exploitation in Nova Scotia

This presentation aims to explore a pilot study conducted in April 2023, which explored how policy affects risk for the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) that are involved with the child welfare system. This research began through conversations with service providers that work at the intersections of child welfare and CSEC where they identified a need for exploration in the realm of policy. This is particularly important to explore within Nova Scotia, Canada, as the province is known for having the highest per capita rate of human trafficking in the country and a significant correlation has been identified between human trafficking and our child welfare systems (Gagnon, 2020). Interviews and focus groups were conducted with service providers on the front line. The aim of these conversations was to elucidate how risk for CSEC is impacted by policy for youth involved in child welfare. A thematic and quote-based qualitative analysis was undertaken by the research team. From this, major themes relating policy to increased and/or decreased risk emerged. These themes included the youth’s placement and specialized programming, aging out of care, inter-organizational communication, social discourse, harm reduction, misunderstandings and conceptualizations of risk, barriers to policy change, relational approaches, critical reflexivity, and consent. From the wealth of knowledge provided by participants throughout the study, the research team outlined a range of policy recommendations. These recommendations were explicitly brought forward by service providers and articulated by the research team from the data collected. A pillar of this project was the importance of returning the knowledge back into the communities. This was done through a knowledge mobilization effort, where results were compiled and returned to service providers on the frontlines in a tangible format. Some of the key recommendations included that harm reduction practices should be embedded in all education, programming, practice frameworks and policy; that relational practice approaches should be prioritized in child and youth caring settings and in training for adoptive and foster parents, organizations, and government; that there should be more consistent data collection on CSEC survivors regarding child welfare involvement, place and location, and social identity information such as race and gender; and develop a practice and policy framework for working with sexually exploited youth in care.