Imagine you are a vulnerable young girl, with a history of family disruption and abuse, little to no parental involvement, and possible mental health needs. Along comes a very smooth young man with a cute, gentle name such as Pooh Bear.
He’s nice looking, he buys you hair extensions and nice clothes, pays for you to have your nails done, and, most of all, he tells you that you are beautiful and he loves you. Before long, he involves you in having sex for money, to show him your gratitude.
In time, he has you recruiting friends to join you in the life. He threatens you or your family with grievous harm if you refuse.
Wisconsin Girls Caught in the Cycle
This is a typical scenario in sex trafficking, which is widespread in Milwaukee and other so-called “hubs” located on interstate highways in Wisconsin and around the nation. SaintA is creating a new child welfare case management team to reach out to young girls caught in this cycle, many of whom already are in the child welfare system, and to identify those who are at high risk of falling into “the game.”
The Human Anti-Trafficking Response Team (HART) is led by Lisa Vega, SaintA Program Director, who is building a team of seven full-time, dedicated HART staff. Specialized, extensive training will follow with the goal of assignments beginning this fall.
SaintA is working closely with the Milwaukee Joint Anti-Trafficking Task Force and the Division of Milwaukee Child Protective Services Sex Trafficking Committee as well as several criminal justice agencies. Practices will focus on identifying at-risk girls, locating missing youth, mapping popular sites where runaways end up, and creating a data base of traffickers, recruiters and johns.
It’s Called “The Life” for a Reason
One of the biggest hurdles, however, in working with these young girls, Lisa said, is “they will say this is exactly what they want to do. We have to try to get them to understand that there are different choices they can make.”
But it’s not easy. Group homes, where teens in child welfare often are placed because foster parents tend to want younger children, often become hubs for recruitment of girls, Lisa said. And recidivism is not uncommon.
Lisa tells the story of a girl who was recruiting other girls in Milwaukee county for sex trafficking, and authorities wanted to charge her as an adult. Instead, she spent almost two years in a specialized program in Michigan, where she was, Lisa said, “very successful and engaged. Within two months back in Milwaukee, she was back in ‘the game.'”
Trauma Informed Care Helps Build Trust
Lisa and Alison McMorrow, SaintA’s Director of Child Welfare Services, think the agency’s success can be built around its trauma-informed practices and its focus on restoring healthy connections while building safe and trusting support systems.
“If we are able to identify these vulnerable kids early and get them the supports they need in life, they will not have to look to people who will be harmful to them for love,” Alison said. SaintA is the only child welfare organization in the state involved in such a project, she said, and that provides a “great platform for us to infuse our trauma-informed practices.”
How do professionals identify at-risk kids, to better reach out to them early? The Wisconsin Sex Trafficking and Exploitation Indicator and Response guide lists three levels of risk for professionals to consider.
Caregivers can Watch for Red Flags
Some red flags to look for in the “at-risk” level, include a history of truancy and physical abuse, unexplained travel without caregiver permission, older boyfriend or partner about whom the child is reluctant to talk, possession of money or material goods that are unexplained, and a history of multiple sex partners.
In the “high risk” category, indicators include, among other things, unexplained injuries, a history of running away and reported use of hotels for sexual encounters.
“Confirmed” risk indicators include the child reporting “consensual” participation in sex in exchange for food, shelter, transportation or money; admission of being forced into sex for the benefit of someone else; and confirmation by law enforcement of the child’s involvement in trafficking or sexually exploitive activity.
It’s important to understand, Lisa said, that trafficked girls are not prostitutes but rather victims. “In treatment, we want them to become survivors.”
And yanking a girl out of the life may cause more harm, Lisa said. “We need to help them understand what independent choice really is. It’s about creating safety and trust. They may continue for a while in the life until trust is gained. They need to understand that we are not going to jail them, rather get them to the point where they can leave safely on their own.”
HART Training is Intense, Comprehensive
Training staff for work with this population will involve five elements offered in a five-day training course, Lisa said. The elements are: identification and screening; boundaries (which are important because they often become blurred while trying to gain trust); engagement, or how to build trust with these kids; technology, keeping on top of the ever-changing ways kids are trafficked over the internet; and collaboration with local and national resources.
Technology particularly has caused sex trafficking to explode, Lisa said, from sites that are relatively obvious about soliciting to more sophisticated ones that use seemingly innocent pictures.
Increased face-to-face contact with the youth and interactions based on trust and healthy relationships will be the backbone of this program. Health, safety and survival needs will be prioritized.
The SaintA training initially will include members of the HART team, but eventually will be offered to all agency staff. The agency currently serves 1,300 kids in child welfare. As children are assessed, if suspicion of sex trafficking arises, they will be assigned to the new specialized team.
The team will serve the entire family, including siblings not involved in trafficking, with youth in Intensive In-Home and Ongoing services.
“If we can build relationships of trust with these kids and identify sex traffickers and get some of them off the streets, that it is success to me,” Lisa said. “If we save one or two of these youth, it’s a start.”