Couple Accused of Using Foster Care System for Sex Trafficking Scheme

A married couple was charged with sex trafficking young women into a prostitution operation on Wednesday — a scheme that prosecutors said in some cases involved the use of New York’s foster care system to gain access to potential victims.

The authorities said the couple, Kareem Mitchell, 38, and Sharice Mitchell, 51, ran a sex trafficking operation that pushed at least eight women into prostitution, including at least two who were Ms. Mitchell’s foster children. Both defendants were charged in State Supreme Court in Manhattan with multiple counts of sex trafficking and with fourth-degree conspiracy and pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors from the Manhattan district attorney’s human trafficking unit said that Mr. Mitchell, a registered sex offender, had run the sex trafficking operation between November 2018 and February 2022. He recruited women through social media and then used physical and verbal abuse to coerce them into prostitution in cars and hotels in Manhattan, as well as in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, the authorities said.

One of the women was 24, prosecutors said. They did not specify the other ages, saying only that none of the women was under 18. In New York, young people can leave foster care once they reach the age of 18, but they can also choose to stay in care until they turn 21.

“Sex traffickers target the most vulnerable New Yorkers, including — far too often — young New Yorkers in the child welfare system,” the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, said in a statement.

A lawyer for Mr. Mitchell, Michael S. Mandel, declined to comment. A lawyer for Ms. Mitchell, Robert Levy, said in the courtroom that prosecutors had not demonstrated that his client was involved in the trafficking, and that other than her involvement in the foster care system, there was “nothing else to connect her with these very serious charges.”

Mr. Mitchell, who appeared in court wearing a black denim jacket embossed with a neon green skull and the word “cult,” was convicted in 2008 on federal charges of transporting a minor to engage in prostitution, among other related crimes.

Prosecutors said that Ms. Mitchell agreed to serve as a foster parent for at least two of the women, and that they were placed in her home in the Bronx. Within a month, one of the women appeared in an online advertisement for prostitution, according to Lauren Breen, an assistant district attorney.

Ms. Breen said in the courtroom that Ms. Mitchell had lied, saying she was separated from her husband and that no one with a criminal record lived at her home, even though Mr. Mitchell is registered as a sex offender at the same address.

In New York, the child welfare authorities have broad discretion to disqualify a prospective foster parent if any adult in the person’s household has ever been charged with any crime.

Foster parents in the city are typically vetted by nonprofit foster-care agencies contracted by the Administration for Children’s Services. An official of one such nonprofit who spoke anonymously to discuss frankly how the system works said it would be quite possible for a prospective parent to deceive the agency.

Prospective parents are required to fill out a form and attest to its truthfulness, he said. But, he added, it is possible to lie on the forms, and although the authorities do a “home study” that includes a home visit before approving someone to be a foster parent, caseworkers do not vet families with random home checks.

The official said the state does not allow foster agencies to run criminal background checks on relatives of prospective foster parents whose legal residence is somewhere other than the prospective parent’s home. The nonprofit’s caseworkers will ask the people who do live in the home for information on any relatives who might visit, including about their criminal records. But people can lie about that, too, he said.

A spokesman for the Administration for Children’s Services said the agency was prohibited by state law from sharing information about individual cases, but he said, “We are immediately reviewing the allegations made by the Manhattan D.A. and are fully cooperating in the investigation.”

Mr. and Ms. Mitchell were arrested separately on Wednesday. She was taken into custody at her home in the Bronx, while Mr. Mitchell was arrested after leaving an area known to be used for prostitution and returning to a hotel room where he had been staying, prosecutors said. A handgun was recovered from the hotel room, prosecutors said.

The judge, Felicia Mennin, ordered that Mr. Mitchell be held without bail, and that Ms. Mitchell be held on $500,000 cash bail, $1.5 million insurance company bond and $2 million partially secured bond.

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