Jeni Findley Murphy
The challenges in working with juvenile runaways and human trafficking victims
My role as a professional is to support victims through the criminal justice system and trial process; typically, this involves meetings, phone calls, and emails. The work I did with Dana King (not her real name), a 13-year-old victim of unspeakable sexual assaults, was definitely different from the norm.
Anyone who has met Dana will tell you that she’s a very special young gal. She’s incredibly intelligent and the most honest person I’ve ever met. She enjoys coloring books and loves pretty nails, as many teenage girls do. However, she also knows more than most adults about how to survive in the sex trafficking industry.
Dana has endured many hardships in her short life. She became involved in the foster-care system as a young child. As is common with most girls who enter “the life,” as forced prostitution is often called, Dana was sexually abused for several years. She began to run away from her abuser (the father in her foster family) and was ultimately abandoned by that family after she finally told someone about what was happening at home. Following this abandonment, Dana was placed in a group home for girls.
Shortly after her placement, Dana ran away from the group home by crawling through a bathroom window. A girl on the streets, Jeana, took Dana to her pimp, Don. Forcing another girl to search for young runaways is actually a very common tactic pimps use to gain access to vulnerable youth. Don fed Dana drugs and alcohol, and he sold her to several men who brutally sexually assaulted her for hours on end over several days. (Our trial of Don Lewis is detailed on the front cover.) Dana eventually managed to escape and returned to the group home, disoriented and speaking in a strange accent. She told her case manager what happened, and a police report was filed with the Austin Police Department’s Child Abuse Unit.
As the investigation and prosecution proceeded, Dana was in and out of different homes and treatment facilities and was constantly running away. She will be the first to tell you that if she’s not in a secured facility or if she’s around other girls trying to convince her to go back to the streets, she will run away. And sure enough, that’s what she did. That was an obstacle we faced throughout this case. We would hold our breath waiting to hear from her or from someone else with an update. Dana shares a close connection to the prosecutor on Don’s case, Victoria Winkeler, and she would occasionally call Victoria to check in, usually from her pimp’s phone and sometimes at 4 o’clock in the morning. Before the trial, Victoria and I learned that Dana had recently turned herself in and was residing in a juvenile facility in another county, so the two of us planned a road trip to see her as soon as we could.
This was the first time I had seen Dana in quite a while. She had been detoxing for two weeks and was in good spirits, considering the situation. I have found that when working with young people trapped in the world of sex trafficking, one of the most important things we can do is tell them that we care and that we support and believe them. There is no such thing as a child who “prostitutes herself”—rather, these children are sexual assault victims. Yet these youth frequently feel like they are responsible for the violence they suffer because they made certain choices (such as running away from home). It’s important to validate their emotions and stress that they do not deserve what happened to them, regardless of the circumstances of their lives that lead them to their current situations.
I also feel strongly that direct and honest communication is one of the most important things that can build trust. These victims are neither naïve nor unintelligent in most cases—it takes a great deal of strength and skill to survive in their world. Dana, for example, is an extremely direct, blunt, and genuine person. It was critical for us when building rapport with her not to sugarcoat the case’s facts or the difficulties we were facing in holding Don accountable for his crimes. We were forthcoming with Dana about how important it was that we knew where she was so she could be present to testify, explaining that certain evidence (such as Don’s semen on her cervix, linking him to her sexual assault) can’t come in without her direct testimony. Dana was frustrated to hear that the case potentially hinged on her presence, and we had to explain that defendants have the right to face their accusers. “What about my rights?” was her response. Ultimately, she said she would do her best to be there because she wanted Don to be punished for what he did to her and to save other girls from suffering the same fate.
Victoria and I told Dana that we feared for her safety and tried to come up with a plan for her to effectively transition out of juvenile detention and out of “the life” for good. We told her that we could see her doing amazing things for other girls in the future. Dana even told us that she thinks about that sometimes and wants to help others going through what she has survived. We left the juvenile facility feeling somewhat encouraged but with that same, haunting anxiety that we always had when it came to Dana, and we hoped that we would see her again for the trial.
Shortly after our visit, we received word that Dana was placed in a rehabilitation facility in a bigger city. This new facility was not secured, and Dana ran away again, as she said she would. Running away is unfortunately par for the course when working with girls caught up in the sex trafficking industry. It may seem counter-intuitive, that these girls would leave a relatively safe living situation. The reason why is not simple, and the truth is that every victim is different and has her own reasons for leaving. Most are accustomed to a very chaotic lifestyle and find that a structured situation is unnatural, threatening, and sometimes scary. Other times, it’s because other girls in these homes actively recruit for their pimps. Frequently, girls choose to run away because they encounter more abuse in their own homes than they do on the streets. To a certain extent, they can make more choices on the streets than when they are in placements.
We also can’t ignore the effect of addiction and drug use on these young people. Not many placements are equipped to support victims through active drug withdrawal, and those that are sometimes refuse to admit these girls due to the challenges typical to this population. Another significant problem is that these children are not frequently identified as victims of trafficking. Sex trafficking is still very much a hidden crime that is not often acknowledged or discussed. These children are more commonly viewed as “throwaway kids” or rebellious teens “choosing” to prostitute themselves. This is why an open dialogue is imperative amongst professionals working with these kids. They present as very tough and resistant at times, and they are a lot of work, but deep down, these are our most vulnerable, at-risk population.
We didn’t hear from Dana for several months, and she didn’t show up for trial. It wasn’t until the trial was over that we had any new information about her. She had escaped from a very dangerous situation. The pimp who got her this time was extremely violent and engaged in high-level criminal activity. Dana witnessed him assault another pimp who was infringing on his territory and trying to poach his “girls.” He had multiple weapons and was a “gorilla pimp,” meaning a particularly violent pimp. This pimp forced Dana to recruit and sell another girl, something that she felt extreme remorse and guilt over, and was violent with Dana and forced her to use excessive amounts of crack. Dana estimated that she was smoking $100 of crack an hour before she managed to get away. Dana called police, turned herself in, and was being held in the same juvenile facility where Victoria and I had visited her previously. Once again, the two of us dropped everything and went to see her. We wanted to tell her the outcome of the trial, certainly, but mostly we just wanted to tell her we were scared for her and that we care about her.
This time, Dana’s spirits weren’t as high. She had been sold to more people than she could count in several different cities and had been assaulted multiple times. She explained that the men had forced her to use the drugs, but she also said that being high was better than being present for what happened to her. She was in full detox and really struggling with what she had been through the past few months. We listened to her talk about how she was feeling and about the horrible things that were done to her, our hearts breaking the whole time. Dana begged to go to a state hospital so that she could get the psychological and rehabilitative care that she so desperately needed, but there was little we could do. Another significant challenge when working with many of these victims is that they are often in the foster care system and Child Protective Services is their legal guardian, so our hands are tied in terms of making decisions for her placement. We told Dana that we would advocate for her and help to educate CPS caseworkers on her behalf, but ultimately, CPS would have the final decision on where she would be placed. Dana expressed frustration with the system and didn’t understand why she, a crime victim, was treated like a criminal. I had no answer for this question except to acknowledge that she is right. We gave her all the phone numbers for services and caseworkers we could and pleaded with her to call us if she needed help.
We also told her what the jury had to say about her after the trial. They all wanted to know if she was OK or if we had heard from her. The jury asked us to tell Dana that they care about her and hope that she is pleased with their decision. This information meant a great deal to her. She again discussed wanting to share her story and help other girls. I told her she could do that and I even promised that if she can break free from the life, I would find a way to get her on the “Dr. Phil Show,” which is something Dana has always wanted to do. Dana says that she loves Dr. Phil and that she had seen girls like her on his show before and felt like Dr. Phil would like her. I agreed. We said goodbye and drove away, uneasy about the future of this incredible child. I truly believe that if we can find a way to save her from the streets, she absolutely will do amazing things in the future.
Working with traumatized children
What I found to be most helpful when working with Dana was the extensive training and experience I have in working with sex trafficking survivors, both adult and adolescent. I had previously been employed at a domestic violence/rape crisis shelter where I was working directly with victims of human trafficking. Following my time at the shelter, I worked as a forensic interviewer at a Children’s Advocacy Center, where I interviewed and supported child and adolescent trafficking and exploitation victims. I have attended multiple statewide and national conferences focused on human trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of children, and I also served on a local coalition against human trafficking representing the Children’s Advocacy Center. Trafficking has been an area of focus in my professional development, as I possess a particular interest in working with this volatile population. One of the most serious problems we encounter with these survivors, especially for domestic minors, is that they have very few options for safe housing. These particular victims need a specialized environment with staff who are trained to practice trauma-informed care. Some helpful websites for learning more about trauma-informed care are: http:// traumapro.net/wp-content/uploads/ 2014/06/IJTRP-V1-I1.pdf and http://traumainformedcareproject .org/index.php.
Domestic trafficking can also be an overlooked issue. When most people think of human trafficking, international victims come to mind. However, the domestic trafficking of minors is much more prevalent. The Department of Justice estimates that the average age of entry into commercial sex trafficking is 12–14 (Dana was 13 when she was introduced to the life). The numbers are astounding, and pimps know what they’re doing. They specifically target vulnerable children like Dana. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center reported that in 2013, Texas had 2,236 “substantive” calls into Polaris’ national hotline (across all victims and reporter categories). The only state with a higher number was California.1 The above report is referenced in the 2014 OAG report, which lists 764 child victims of human trafficking reported in Texas since 2007.2
It is imperative to understand the complex dynamics involved in domestic commercial sex trafficking to get through to this unique and oftentimes misunderstood population. Our meetings with Dana provided special insight into what exactly these children are being forced to do out on the streets, the details of which are graphic and disturbing. (Please reference the endnotes for examples.) Though Dana does qualify for Crime Victims Compensation and therapeutic services, until she is in a stable, drug-free, rape-free environment, getting set up with a therapist is an unobtainable goal. While many therapists are available to work with victims like Dana, specialized care is essential. These children need therapists who are educated in working with the specific challenges this population presents. Dana has more on her plate than most healthy adults, and therapy is not going to outrank her need for food, shelter, and survival. It is not realistic to expect a girl like Dana to make a weekly appointment with a therapist when she doesn’t even know where she’ll sleep at night, what her pimp has planned, or how many sexually transmitted infections she’s contracted. This is why the need for shelters specifically aimed at this population is so imperative in breaking this cycle.
Every time Dana runs away, we hold our breath and wonder if or when she’ll turn up again. We need to hold defendants like Donald Lewis accountable to send the message that preying on and selling human beings is not acceptable. Even though these cases are challenging on multiple levels, we need to prosecute cases like Dana’s. As professionals, we need more training and education for all who may come across these victims so that we can identify them as soon as possible. More training on the cultural dynamics of the victims and how to support them through the criminal justice process is also crucial to ending sex trafficking in our communities. Though it may seem daunting, if we can get through to just one victim, there is hope.
2 www.texasattorneygeneral.gov/files/agency/ 20142312_htr_fin.pdf; see page 5.