Know the signs
A child is coming to school tired and disheveled. Maybe she has new cell phone, or her hair and nails are done, or she has a new tattoo, paired with her reputation for being sexually active. Now she is not showing up for class. Her parent or guardian isn’t looking for her. No one seems to know or care about the child’s well-being. As her teacher or counselor, you’d notice and show concern—but who would you call for intervention?
If you suspect a child is being sexually exploited, your first call should be to The Center for Youth’s Safe Harbour Program. Safe Harbour provides case coordination and advocacy for commercially sexually exploited (CSE) youth. The team addresses immediate life and safety issues by providing access to medical care and emergency shelter. Program advocates also assist with education and mental health counseling to reduce the risk of continued sexual abuse.
You don’t need to have a lot of information if you suspect a child is a victim of sex trafficking. A referral can be made to Safe Harbour based solely on hearsay and/or recognizing the signs of CSE youth.
What is sex trafficking?
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 defines sex trafficking as a crime that involves “force, fraud, and/or coercion, for the purpose of sexual exploitation.” In 2013, changes in legislation recognized survivors of sex trafficking as victims, to distinguish their predicament from the crime of prostitution. Simply put, a child under the age of 17 is not a prostitute, considering her/his inability to consent as a minor.
Valerie Douglas is the Director of Counseling & Runaway and Homeless Youth Services at The Center for Youth. “Children being sold for sex has been around for a long time,” she says. “Youth have always been a commodity and that it is reinforced in our current culture by art, music, advertising, etc. But now we are better at understanding and identifying sex trafficking.”
The majority of children who are sex trafficked are disconnected from supportive families. Seventy percent of homeless children have been approached for sex for money within days of being out on the street. But it is a misperception that sex trafficking happens only to urban girls in bigger cities. It ensnares girls and boys throughout Monroe County, from the city schools to the suburban districts.
Every county in New York State has a Safe Harbour program. Established in Monroe County in 2013, Safe Harbour is unique in its focus on runaway homeless youth programming. Safe Harbour partners with Child Protective Services and Foster Care to build bridges and connect with victimized youth on neutral territory. Since custody issues are not a concern in sex trafficking cases, Safe Harbour doesn’t follow the same guidelines as these other entities. As a result, Safe Harbour has the freedom to collaborate with trained victim advocates and law enforcement officers familiar with the nuances of sexual exploitation cases to build relationships with victims during a crisis response. This approach can make all the difference to a traumatized child.
Every year, Safe Harbour receives about 200 referrals from the community. Fifty percent involve case management connecting youth to services. And while roughly 30% will share enough to be confirmed as victims of human trafficking, the majority referred meet the Federal definition. Services are completely voluntary and it can take time to establish trust between the youth and the advocate, so disclosure is not required for services and supports. Because many of these children still go to school and participate in community activities, their victimized lives have become “normalized.” As a result, they are harder to reach, and breaking the cycle of sexual exploitation is more difficult.
Sparkle Wells, Program Manager of Safe Harbour and Street Outreach at The Center for Youth, says, “Parents aren’t always aware of what’s happening to their child, or don’t know how to react [to the notion of their child being sexually exploited].” As one of four counselors in the program, Wells provides the intervention to help them understand and assist in breaking the cycle of exploitation.
Be that one adult
Douglas explains, “Safe Harbour exists to let victims know that someone cares for them, that at least one adult will listen to what they say without judgement.” Sex traffickers are master manipulators, posing as someone who cares about these girls and boys, when in reality they are violating these children both physically and emotionally.
So what can mandated reporters do? Douglas says to be that one ray of hope in a child’s life to notice and care, to sound the alarm, to stay connected. The hypothetical missing child in the beginning of this article? It was one of Safe Harbour’s first cases. A school counselor reached out to the program and the child eventually returned home. The girl’s response to someone concerned for her safety was an incredulous, ‘You were looking for me?’
24-Hour Crisis Line:
The Center for Youth Safe Harbour Program:
Recognizing the red flags of sex trafficked youth:
How to talk with youth about sex trafficking:
Any behavior which results in touching of the sexual or other intimate parts of a child for the purpose of sexual gratification of the child and/or adult. It includes touching by the child and/or adult without or with clothing. Often, the sexual abuse occurs over time and may not be painful or cause physical injury to the child. The adult gets the child to participate by using rewards, threats, bribes and lying, and takes advantage of the child’s trust. This type of coercion by an adult, whom the child often loves, can result in long term emotional trauma that can last into adulthood.
If a child is being abused or neglected, there can be physical signs or ways in which the child behaves; these are known as physical and behavioral indicators. When you see a child with one or more of these indicators, it should raise a ‘red flag’ in your mind about the child’s welfare and prompt you to inquire further.
However, these indicators are not proof of abuse or neglect. A child’s bruises could be the result of a playground accident, while a dirty and disheveled child may be homeless.
The law requires that you have a reasonable suspicion that the indicator(s) you see could be caused by child abuse or neglect before you call. To establish a reasonable suspicion—or to rule out the possibility of abuse or neglect—you need to ask questions about the circumstances surrounding the indicators. You need to assess the location, severity, circumstances, and frequency of the injuries or behaviors. You need to consider the child’s age and the explanation provided.
If the information you gather causes you to form a reasonable suspicion that the child is a victim of abuse or neglect, call the Child Abuse Hotline. If you are not sure about what you need to ask, call for click here.
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