NARRATOR: News headlines often tell the story of human trafficking only in terms of young women who are trapped in international slave trade. We hear less often of exploitation within our borders and even less often about the exploitation of children and teens. This Achieving Excellence podcast features Mollie Ring, the former Chief of Programs at SAGE—the Standing Against Global Exploitation Project. Ring discusses the vulnerabilities of youth at risk for sex trafficking and the methods used to introduce them to prostitution.
MOLLIE RING, FORMER CHIEF OF PROGRAMS, STANDING AGAINST GLOBAL EXPLOITATION PROJECT: Basically what the trafficker is looking for are youth who have ended up somewhere that they know they don't want to be, like the group home, or are walking around the mall and just clearly don't have what maybe other kids have. They're coming from a poor household, they don't have the latest clothes, they're not up to date on the latest fashion, but they know that as a 13-, 14-year-old, that's exactly what they want.
NARRATOR: The profile of many children in foster care overlaps very closely with the profile of youth most vulnerable to this type of trafficking.
MOLLIE RING: All of these scenarios—which the traffickers are well aware of—means that the foster care system as a whole is targeted as a source for vulnerable children who are looking to get out, looking for love, looking for someone to buy them things, someone to take care of them, someone to treat them well when they feel that they've been, you know—not that they use this term, but they feel exploited by a larger system. They're drawn to someone who can make them promises. And the traffickers know that and that's why they prey on these children.
NARRATOR: The staff at SAGE Project meets many victims of human trafficking when they enter the criminal justice system. They enter the system because they've been arrested for drug crimes or prostitution. SAGE works to raise awareness about the commercial sexual exploitation of children and maintains collaborative relationships with law enforcement. Because of their efforts, more and more young people are being identified as victims of crime, rather than as criminals.
MOLLIE RING: Not only then do you have law enforcement identifying kids who are picked up on charges related to prostitution saying, "Wait, I think this might be human trafficking," but you have them and service providers delving deeper into kids who may be arrested for drug sales charges to say, "Well, who's giving this child those drugs? Where are they getting it from? Who is watching them when they're on the street?" Only to find out that the networks that they're involved in actually are trafficking networks, they're the same networks. Society sees them as bad kids because they are, in many cases, traumatized kids, and so they're acting out as a result of those traumas. And unfortunately, we see these kids as losing connection or falling through the cracks between the systems that could actually save them if they were identified earlier. So they don't make it through school because they can't comply with the behavioral standards or they end up in the foster care system because of the violence that's happening at home, and then it's those systems or the lack of those systems that the traffickers prey on in order to identify vulnerable kids who they can then exploit.
NARRATOR: Traffickers tend to target vulnerable youth. They draw young people in by offering material things or offering attention.
MOLLIE RING: They lure them in with promises of, "I can get you out of here. You want to come with me and we'll go on a trip? We'll stay in a hotel. I'll buy you beautiful clothes. We'll do all these adventurous things." Well, to a kid who's never had access to material things nor have they ever had the chance to travel, see the world, even be in a relationship with someone who says things like, "You're beautiful. I love you." You know, they are really preying on exactly what these youth have not had access to. And that is how they lure them in and that's how they keep them in through ongoing manipulation and emotional and physical abuse.
NARRATOR: The introduction of prostitution follows these material gifts and is proposed as a "one-time-thing."
MOLLIE RING: "Hey, you know, I don't have any more money because I bought us these plane tickets and now we're—you know, I got you those clothes before; how about you do this one thing for me and, you know, we'll make enough money to cover the whole weekend and then we'll go out for a nice dinner?" "Oh, okay. Well, this guy really cares about me so I guess, you know, why not?" That one thing is turning a trick, is prostitution.
NARRATOR: The relationship transitions from an exclusive one to pimp and prostitute. Although most of the victims are female, Ring says males are also targets.
MOLLIE RING: We see this particularly being the case in the LGBTQ community, where boys are targeted or vulnerable because of their sexual orientation or gender orientation and therefore are thrown out of their homes, run away from home, leave school, because they're bullied or because their parents don't accept them. And again, we see the scenario where traffickers prey on these youth, traffickers prey on runaway kids. And unfortunately, it's quite easy for them to get connected with the commercial sex industry as a disconnected youth.
NARRATOR: Youth are caught in the commercial sex trade and in survival sex.
MOLLIE RING: The definition of domestic minor sex trafficking is the exchange of anything of commercial value for a sex act. So that thing of commercial value may be money but it may also be a bed to sleep in, food, clothing, really anything. And so when we use the term "survival sex," we're talking about a youth who may exchange something of value, like a place to sleep or food—something you need to survive—for sex. It's not the commercial sex industry, which is what prostitution falls under; it's really a negotiation between two individuals that's not the sex industry. We call it survival sex because you're basically just trying to survive by exchanging sex.
NARRATOR: There are several signs that indicate a youth might be in a trafficking network. People who care for or work with youth can become familiar with these signs of exploitation.
MOLLIE RING: You're looking for kids who have sudden changes in appearance; so they went from being a kid who seemingly didn't have a lot access to resources and suddenly their coming in with new hair, new nails, new clothes, and access to a lot of cash, which maybe then they're flaunting or offering to buy other friends things. You also see youth who are highly sexualized at a very young age; so youth who seem to dress in a certain way or know a lot more about sex than you would suspect, or the way they talk about sex, the way that they interact with adults, specifically with male adults. If the interactions seem sexualized or there is a level of negotiation that is very inappropriate for that person's role, that's another major red flag.
NARRATOR: Red flags can be right before us, but victims can still be difficult to identify. Society avoids discussions of sexual abuse of children. And as we don't address sexual abuse, we leave children vulnerable to other forms of victimization, including sex trafficking.
MOLLIE RING: Well, I think as a society we're so disgusted by it, you know, we're so ashamed that we do this to our own children that we overlook it. It causes the opposite reaction of being totally enraged and empowered to act. We say, oh God, we don't even want to think about that. And that's one of the underlying issues. Another underlying issue is sexual abuse that happens in the family. So we don't want to look at kids who are sexually abused by their parents or an uncle or a family friend. And so typically it doesn't get addressed. And then what happens to that kid, well, they end up with a number of issues down the line, which then may cause them to interface with a victim services agency or another agency. But really, had only the issue of their child sexual abuse been addressed, maybe that wouldn't have been their trajectory. And I think, really, with this issue, you're looking at other issues that society has already turned a blind eye to, and this becomes kind of enveloped into that whole cycle of neglect.
NARRATOR: Victims and survivors who endure this kind of trauma often experience long-term effects. Once these youth are identified, victim services include both short-term interventions and long-term recovery.
MOLLIE RING: Deep down they are . . . they're scared, but I think the layers of trauma are so deep that they have developed an extremely tough exterior. And so working with them means trying to start to peel back that tough exterior and actually get to the heart of what made them vulnerable to this in the first place.
NARRATOR: Youth show their exposure to trauma in a number of ways.
MOLLIE RING: We see it in youth just not being able to focus in a group, you know, actually having it affect their ability to stay connected with a conversation or with what's happening around them because they're just disconnected, whether it's they've been triggered and now they have disconnected because you've talked about something that brought them back to the traumatic experience that they had, which they've never been able to process. One way that it manifests is actually through a physical reaction to particular words, phrases, or just a case manager or clinician trying to engage them. We see trauma manifest in ways where youth actually have sort of a foreshortened view of where their life is going to end up. They don't think that they're going to make it to their 18th birthday or 19th birthday. I mean, talk about, "What are your plans for when you become an adult," you know, they don't even think they're going to make it to adulthood because they in their experience have seen so much violence that the idea that they would actually be able to survive beyond what is happening to them on a daily basis or nightly basis is just too hard to comprehend. It's really hard for them to set goals for that reason. Part of the abuse actually caused them to skip over normal childhood into a form of adulthood that they haven't quite caught up to developmentally. And so we're often just trying to get back at the heart of that through, you know, through a range of services that help them know they can be a kid again.
NARRATOR: Among the skills needed to work effectively with youth is knowledge of technology and how youth prefer to communicate. The model standards for competency and for programs offer relevant guidelines on issues related to technology and its use.
MOLLIE RING: By the nature of working with youth, you have to be up on the latest technology. That is how youth communicate with one another, that's how they experience the world, and if you're not using technology in the way that you provide services to youth, you're not going to be able to form the same types of bonds. And so working with young people, in general, means that you need to be up on how technology and the role of technology comes into play in providing services to them because that is going to be their go-to and how you can be up to date on it; but then making sure that you know what the boundaries are and what the best practices are for using it are really key. So for example, whereas a case management style with a population that is not as engaged with technology—say, a much older population that doesn't . . . maybe has a cell phone but never uses their texting functions—a phone call to remind them about services or to let them know that a resource is there or that they need them to come in to see them might work perfectly. A youth may never answer their phone but be much more likely to text their case manager.
Similarly, youth who are in a situation of human trafficking may very well be surveilled, and so getting on the phone and talking to a provider may not be safe.
NARRATOR: In addition to technology, the model standards also address self-care, an area Mollie Ring says is crucial not to ignore.
MOLLIE RING: Self-care is really important for the providers who work in this field. The stories that you hear from youth directly, or even from other providers who are working with these youth directly, are extremely traumatic for the providers, not just because there is so much violence and brutality in this area but because we're talking about really young children. We're talking about 10- and 11-year-olds or we're talking about 15-, 16-year-olds who have already been doing this for years. These cases are all so really high intensity, and so a case manager who may otherwise be accustomed to working with 40 or 50 clients in their caseload because their needs are pretty easily met through specific phone calls or referrals and then that's kind of it. Some of our case managers only work with five or six of these kids at a time because they're so high-needs and they require so much follow-up, one, just getting the kid to stay engaged with services, but then making sure that all the referrals are happening and that providers know—other providers in the field know—how to appropriately take care of this child. I think the risk that you run is that burnout happens at a much faster rate and kind of in an irreparable way that providers end up leaving the field completely because the experience became so traumatizing for them.
NARRATOR: Solutions to this problem, says Ring, are in part found in enhancing the systems that already exist to serve youth.
MOLLIE RING: Devoting more time and attention to these other systems that the children currently exist in would actually help, rather than find new service providers to come and address the population. We could serve them perhaps even better within the systems that they're already naturally engaged in by having schools that are looking for this and addressing it effectively. Making sure that homeless youth shelters are asking the right questions to identify some of the other survival techniques or maybe who may have taken advantage of them while they were vulnerable is really important because they need to then either refer that youth for services to see if this is an additional issue that they'd like to address or incorporate educational services, resourcing services, or clinical services that that youth can tap into within that agency so that they can feel like all their needs are being met, including the traumatic experience of being exposed to human trafficking.
NARRATOR: Another way to enhance existing systems is to develop appropriate training for people who serve youth.
MOLLIE RING: I would really like to see this issue become more integrated into training, both of foster care parents and at group homes. I think group homes really need training on, again, what are the indicators, the red flags; how does this get addressed; what are the needs of this population; and how can you ensure that the facility that you're operating is more secure? Foster parents need to know how past trauma can manifest into ongoing behaviors but also, specifically, why they're at risk for human trafficking and then how to better address it if you start to see indicators that this youth may be targeted.
NARRATOR: Another important part of the solution is to build networks with law enforcement because it is a potential point of intervention for system-involved youth.
MOLLIE RING: We know that a lot of law enforcement who show that level of respect to these youth are able to build relationships with them where, when that child is in juvenile hall, she may not be intimidated by him, he may actually be able to be a source of support for her.
NARRATOR: The model standards can help victim advocates as they navigate complex cases such as these. The standards provide guidelines for networking with other professionals, for awareness and use of emerging technologies, and for effective support of staff facing such traumatic cases.