Jan 27 2021

Human Trafficking Prevention Month at CASA: How Everyone in Our Community Can Keep Kids Safe

By Emily Witt

In recent years, the general public has become increasingly aware of human trafficking, but even as we acknowledge the insidious and pervasive nature of the issue, misconceptions and stigma create barriers for victims and survivors in need of support.  

An estimate from the U.S. State Department projects that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are victims of trafficking each year, with children making up an estimated 100,000 victims 

And of those 100,000 children60% of child sex trafficking victims in the United States have a history of being involved in the child welfare system according to Children’s Rights and the National Foster Youth Institute. 

The numbers can be overwhelming to process, but even more daunting is creating a pathway to ending this modern-day form of slavery.

There are many steps community members and child welfare professionals alike can take in the hopes of stopping the cycle of exploitation before it ever begins.

There are many steps community members and child welfare professionals alike can take in the hopes of stopping the cycle of exploitation before it ever begins. 

January is Human Trafficking Prevention Monthand we sat down with Emily LeBlanc, CASA of Travis County’s Chief Program Officer, to discuss the intersections of foster care and human trafficking and how we can all be active participants in prevention.  

For a long time, the picture we’ve painted in our minds when we think of trafficking in the United States has looked something like this: A young girl is left alone, maybe even for a few minutes, and is kidnapped by a stranger.  

However, as LeBlanc outlines for us, this is often a misrepresentation of how trafficking starts. 

“The most common misconception is that trafficking usually begins with young women and girls being kidnapped off a corner somewhere."

“The most common misconception is that trafficking usually begins with young women and girls being kidnapped off a corner somewhereIt is far more common for a trafficker to be family member, friend, or someone that they think of as a boyfriend at the beginning of that relationshipVery, very rarely is it kidnapping. But that’s how it’s portrayed in movies and in the media sometimes. 

There’s also a misconception about victims. The media portrays that a victim would know that they’re a victim, but in my experience, many of the girls that I’ve worked with as an advocate, as a therapist, or at CASA who have been trafficked would not have told me that they’re a victim of trafficking. 

These misconceptions can become harmful for victims seeking support, especially when they’re prevalent within the systems set up to help survivors.  

"I think social workers, judges, and attorneys—we all run the same risk of having in our head what a survivor looks like, and when the child sitting in front of us doesn’t meet that picture, not recognizing that they are a survivor. I think that’s how a lot of kids get missed, particularly in the child welfare system.”

I think [the misconceptions within the child welfare system] are not that different from those we see in the general public sometimes. In all my work with sexual assault victims, I start by telling advocates that, what you have in your head as the demure victim who is going to be so grateful and think that you’re saving her, you need to kick it out of your head because victims are all different. And particularly for children who have been repeatedly victimized, sometimes that comes out as traumasometimes it comes out as behavior that child welfare professionals can see as combative. Too often, I see girls especially written off as a behavior problem rather than seen as a survivor of trafficking. I think social workers, judges, and attorneyswe all run the same risk of having in our head what a survivor looks like, and when the child sitting in front of us doesn’t meet that picture, not recognizing that they are a survivorI think that’s how a lot of kids get missed, particularly in the child welfare system.” 

Unfortunately, traffickers are highly adept at seeing vulnerabilities, like history of abuse or involvement in the child welfare system, that can make a child more susceptible to coercion and less likely to understand what healthy relationships look like.  

In a study conducted by The University of Texas Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault, they found that out of the 466 participants, who ranged in age from 13-2750% had experienced abuse (either physical or sexual), 44% had experienced housing instability, and 41% had been in a foster care placement.  

These sobering statistics drive us to consistently assess risk factors with the children we serve at CASA, LeBlanc explains. 

“Just having been involved in the system indicates a vulnerability."

Just having been involved in the system indicates a vulnerabilityTeens, for example, if their basic needs aren’t being met, that makes them incredibly vulnerable. If a man shows up to give you basic needs, that can be attractive to the kids we’re working with. They might offer them things like food, clothes, or even manicuressomething else they might really want but don’t have access to in care. Traffickers know how to exploit this. 

Our best assessment tool is forming a relationship and being people with integrity that they can trustwith healthy boundaries. We’ve increased contact during the pandemic, a time when children might be particularly vulnerablethrough twice-monthly virtual visits so that we don’t lose that connection. 

I think for our volunteers and staff at CASA, a big piece of our work is not showing judgment when kids might disappear. We hear stories all the time about kids calling their CASA volunteer [after leaving a placement] and I think they know we’ll meet their needs and keep them physically safe without judgment. They know that they can always call us.” 

Much of the stigmatization victims experience starts with words and leads to laws that further harm them. For example, minors can still be arrested in the state of Texas for “prostitution.” 

At CASA, creating a space that’s free of judgment starts with the precision of the language we use. We know that words matter, and to LeBlanc and many other advocates, much of the stigmatization victims experience starts with words, and leads to laws that further harm them. For example, minors can still be arrested in the state of Texas for “prostitution.” 

If children cannot consent, they cannot sell themselves either. Even for kids over the age of 18, it’s incredibly frustrating that they can be arrested for prostitution. I don’t think the [criminal justice] system has caught up with where it needs to be on this issue. 

“If children cannot consent, they cannot sell themselves either."

The harm done after being arrested is long-lasting. Our TAPP (Teen Advocacy Permanency Project) Team works closely on the juvenile justice docket, and as children get closer to 18, arrest becomes the first response of the system rather than recognizing them as victims.

More commonly what happens is that the adults involved, even the language we use, adultifies children. Like saying non-consensual sex instead of rape and inappropriate relationship instead of trafficker. That signifies where our culture is, but it can also have a strong impact on how that child gets treated and whether she’s treated as a victim or a perpetrator. 

This is the same reason we say a kid is missing, and not that they’ve run away. We try to be very intentional with our language. Adults see children, especially girls, so differently when they hit puberty. Victims of trafficking are so vulnerable to that because they may seem like willing participants in something that they’re not able to be a willing participant in. 

Aside from creating a judgment-free space for the children we serve, there are many ways that CASA staff and volunteers can aid in preventing children in care from being trafficked.  

We definitely try to behave like trusted adults in the children’s lives we work with. We have strong connections and firm boundaries, and we have courageous conversations with kids about their bodies and healthy relationships. We advocate for access to healthcare, mentoring, and other things that will keep them safe.” 

However, "prevention is something we can all be a part of,” says Emily. For those of us outside of the child welfare system, it can be as simple as coaching your local soccer team. 

However"prevention is something we can all be a part of,” says Emily. For those of us outside of the child welfare system, it can be as simple as coaching your local soccer team. 

Finding reputable organizations who are working with youth and good mentoring programs is a great start. Trafficking has become a buzz word, so I think it’s important to do your research and make sure that the organizations you support really keep kids safe. The more we can make sure a child has access to a healthy adult in their life, basic needs, and normalcy, like music lessons and sportsthose are all protective factors that kids in the system are often denied. It costs nothing to have a healthy relationship with your friend’s kids. And then if you're able to volunteer or provide financial help to organizationsthat’s worthwhile as well. If you think of every child as a potential victim and protect them, that can go pretty far.” 

In Austin and across Central Texas, there are multiple organizations CASA works with that specialize in trafficking prevention as well as caring for victims and survivorsThe RefugeSAFE Cares, Central Texas Coalition Against Human Trafficking, and Allies Against Slavery, are all organizations that you can start supporting today. 

Thank you to our CASA volunteers, staff, and community members for everything you do to be a trusted, safe adult for the children we serve. Together, we can all do our part to make sure kids enjoy lives free of trafficking and exploitation.

We hope you’ll take the time to support our mission of ensuring that every child who needs us has a dedicated advocate by donating or volunteering today!

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