WATCH | Sofia had to turn to survival sex when she left her adoptive home at 18.
Turning 18 means something else for foster kids
When most kids turn 18, that means they can vote and maybe stay out later. When foster kids turn 18, it means it's time to leave their foster home or adoptive home.
Every year in California, about 4,000 children are emancipated from the foster care system, according to Human Rights Watch.
With no family and no job, a lot of these kids end up homeless. To make ends meet, some of these former foster kids are turning to "survival sex."
One in three homeless kids and teens engage in survival sex every year. (Source: National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2009)
What is survival sex?
Survival sex is defined as "trading sex for food, a place to sleep and other basic needs," and one in three homeless kids and teens have done it, according to a survey by the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
Those who practice survival sex fall into a different category than those who practice prostitution, called Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, according to the California Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).
Survival sex is not the same as Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children because there's often no money exchanged and a pimp- sex worker relationship.
How it differs from sex trafficking
"It's usually sexual acts in exchange of a place to sleep or a hot meal," said Naftali Sampson, assistant regional administrator at DCFS.
There's no accurate count of how many foster kids fall into survival sex, but this doesn't mean DCFS doesn't think it's a problem.
"Even if it's just one percent [of foster kids doing survival sex], it's too much," said Sampson.
Meet one survivor of survival sex
When Sofia (she asked that we use a different name) turned 18, she knew she wanted to leave her adoptive home.
After 13 years in the foster system, she said she was over being neglected by her family and her social worker and craved independence. But that independence didn't come easy.
"It's not a want, it's a need," Sofia told Circa about what she did for money, all the way up to and including intercourse. "And it's tax-free."
"It's not a want. It's a need."
—Justina, former foster child
'It's a real, real dark life'
Sofia, 23, was introduced to survival sex in 2014, she told us outside of a coffee shop in Los Angeles' Echo Park neighborhood. She was homeless at the time and sleeping in parks when an ex-gang member approached her.
"Basically, he said he was an ex-pimp, and he said he'd be my manager and look out after me," said Sofia.
It's not just older girls
Sofia was an adult when she was first introduced to survival sex in Los Angeles, but she says this is something younger girls are resorting to.
"It's many girls, from elementary school, to middle school, to high school, they recruit you," said Sofia.
One of Sofia's friends is 16 years old and currently doing it while she lives in a group home.
Hard to get out
It's easy to be roped into survival sex, according to various child welfare groups, but it's hard to get out.
"It takes a lot of will and self-determination," said Sofia, who hasn't had to turn to survival sex for a year now.
"Sometimes even today it's really, really hard to resist the temptation [to go back]," said Sofia. "I have to keep my mind busy."
Naftali Sampson is an assistant regional administrator for DCFS in L.A.
Paving the exit path
What Sofia didn't know at the time is that she could've called 9-1-1 and asked for help. Under California law, victims of survival sex, are seen as just that, victims.
And DCFS is doing what it can to curb the phenomenon. "The whole state of California actually has extended foster care," said Sampson.
This means that as of 2010, there are beds for the "18- to 21-year-olds who opt to return to the foster care system."
Under California law, victims of survival sex are seen as just that -- victims, not criminals.
Handling the transition from foster care to adulthood
Kids who fall into survival sex are also experiencing homelessness, food insecurity or lack of support. While some don't resort to selling sexual favors, teens still find transition to adulthood hard.
DCFS transition coordinators like Caroline Christian help kids reach independence.
"We have transitional housing program plus, which is a housing program they could potentially stay in until they're 24," said Christian.
Aside from extended foster care, DCFS also gives foster kids exiting the system monetary support with things like textbooks, clothing and car insurance.
DCFS also provides monetary support for kids exiting the system.
"This can be help with school, education, clothing, textbooks, car insurance," said Sampson.
There are also non-profit groups tacking the issue. The Rightway Foundation in L.A, for example, has a monthly bootcamp that gives foster kids financial literacy, job interview and resume building workshops--this in an effort to help them get a job.
Sofia is trying to get her life together. She'll be the first to tell you she's not fully independent. "I should've been at DCFS's building letting them know everything," she said.
It's been a long year for Sofia. Already she's found a place to live and has enough money to eat.
She has a part-time job cleaning a multimedia studio in L.A., is hoping to get a full-time job soon and wants to help other girls who are in a similar situation.
"From 18 and under, I never held 200 bucks, literally," she said. "But in 2014, I held at least 300, you know? The normal person doesn't get excited over 300 bucks."