Girls’ involvement in the juvenile justice system is growing disproportionately at a time when arrest rates for boys are declining. And yet, girls’ behavior has not changed; rather, our response to their behavior has changed. This is especially true for girls in the child welfare system.
Much has been written recently about the “pathways” that lead youth, especially girls of color, from histories of childhood abuse and/or neglect to involvement with the juvenile justice system. We are starting to better understand the ways in which childhood exposure to trauma can lead to survival strategies and behaviors that are criminalized, while child welfare system involvement can exacerbate underlying trauma and result in law enforcement contact for youth who otherwise would have had none.
Our bodies are finely honed to respond to stress and danger in particular ways — through fight, flight or freeze. With chronic exposure to stress and danger, we develop survival mechanisms based on our evolutionary responses. These survival techniques include:
hypervigilance: constant scanning of the environment for threat;
exaggerated startle: moving to action quickly;
dissociation: a means of trying to cope with overwhelming stimulation; and
distrust of authority since the majority of trauma happens at the hands of authority figures.
These strategies help us survive trauma, but outside the traumatic context, they can lead to conflict with others, distractibility, noncompliance and disrupted relationships. In other words, and as described below, the very behaviors we need to help us survive can become “problematic” and criminalized.
Girls are disproportionately exposed to sexual trauma and sexual assault, usually at the hands of a caregiver or someone they know well. This type of experience can fundamentally change girls’ ideas about relationships, their bodies and the world.
For some who have experienced this type of abuse, oppositionality, aggression, self-harm and substance abuse are actually adaptive ways to protect oneself and deal with relationships, authority and the body. However, these coping mechanisms may often get them into trouble. Research has found a strong link between stimulant use and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in women, suggesting that women are often trying to self-medicate the distressing and disorganizing symptoms of PTSD.
Research consistently shows that exposure to one trauma increases the likelihood that a person will experience another trauma. Such polyvictimization can lead to youth’s expression of further PTSD symptoms and traumatized behaviors. We also know that polyvictimized youth are more likely to experiment with substance use, self-harm and risky sexual behavior, which may increase law enforcement contact.
Youth who enter the child welfare system due to childhood abuse face additional challenges. Involvement with the child welfare system itself can exacerbate underlying trauma and result in juvenile justice involvement.
Pre-existing traumatic stress may be amplified by removal from one’s family, disconnection from one’s community, separation from one’s siblings and frequent placement changes. Further, child welfare involvement itself may lead to juvenile justice involvement in several specific ways:
Placement instability, experienced by many youth in child welfare, may lead youth to run to the streets where they are more likely to become involved in “survival crimes.”
Similar to how schools often inappropriately refer youth to law enforcement rather than the principal, group home staff or foster parents often refer youth to law enforcement for normal behavior that would likely be handled through parental discipline for youth not in care.
Child welfare youth are more likely to be sent to juvenile detention than community youth for similar offenses. This is particularly significant because once youth touch the juvenile justice system, they tend to get pulled in more deeply.
If we are to interrupt the “pathway” from a history of abuse and/or neglect to future juvenile justice involvement, we must consider both the impact of traumatic stress as well as the impact of system involvement. We must intervene on this pathway with a way out, rather than a way deeper in.
Our current criminalization of trauma-linked behaviors has shown no evidence of healing or transformation; instead, it serves to pull these girls deeper into systems that are inadequate to meet their needs and that may exacerbate underlying trauma even further. We must develop alternatives that promote resiliency so that youth who experience childhood abuse and/or neglect can heal and thrive.
Neha Desai is staff attorney for the National Center for Youth Law. Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is an assistant professor at the Wright Institute, and a consultant to nonprofit organizations seeking to become trauma-informed and culturally accountable.
The final report on human remains at a Florida Panhandle reform school has been issued by the University of South Florida. Nearly 100 boys were known to have died at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, most of them African-American.
Researchers found 51 sets of remains, of which only 13 were in the school cemetery, NPR reported. Many of the remains can’t be identified. Surviving residents say they were viciously mistreated at the school, which closed in 2011.
For as long as anyone can remember, children bought and sold for sex in the United States have been ignored or worse — they have been arrested, incarcerated and released right back onto the streets. Some victims of commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) are reported to child welfare, but these cases are routinely turned away and referred to law enforcement. Our public systems have failed to identify these children as victims of child abuse in need of child welfare and community supports.
In the past few years, California has witnessed an expansion in services and attention paid to these children through the juvenile justice system. A handful of California county probation departments and juvenile courts have established innovative programs such as the Succeed Through Achievement and Resilience (S.T.A.R.) Court in Los Angeles County, which provides referrals for commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC), and the Girls Courts in Alameda, Orange, Sacramento and San Mateo counties. The treatment, as opposed to punishment, these programs offer CSEC has been a welcome reform.
But the changes that have taken place remain almost exclusively within the context of delinquency. Therefore, despite the increase in services, the message remains the same: Children who have been raped and traumatized by their traffickers and purchasers are criminals. Prostitutes.
In any other context our values are clear: When an adult rapes a child, the child is a victim and the adult is the criminal. When money changes hands, this same child is criminalized and the adults, more often than not, walk away.
Some claim that locking up youth is necessary for “their own protection.” This paternalistic message fails in translation. It communicates that the youth have done something wrong, rather than something wrong was done to the youth.
It is time we reform our systems so that these children are not further traumatized. All child victims of rape are victims. Period.
Acknowledging these children as victims is only the beginning. Our public systems must commit to effectively identifying CSEC. All major gatekeepers within our systems — from educators to social workers, police officers to homeless youth providers — should screen for victims and have protocols to connect them to trauma-informed services.
Systems must also prioritize prevention for at-risk children. Since children who become victims are frequently those with prior involvement with the child welfare system, we must start there. Our system and community networks must work together to reduce the number of victims by fortifying our children’s and their families’ protective factors, injecting preventive education into schools, and ensuring that all children have access to treatment to address prior childhood trauma and reduce their vulnerability to exploitation.
Now, as the country begins to implement the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act (HR 4980), all states share the same impetus to design policies to best serve children who are, or are at risk of becoming, CSEC. These policies include reporting requirements to determine prevalence and, ideally, begin tracking outcomes for children. Ahead of the curve is California, the state with the largest child welfare population, which is positioned to establish a model for system reform.
In 2014, California enacted legislation (SB 855) clarifying that trafficked children are victims and, as such, are properly served by child welfare. The legislation also established the groundbreaking Commercially Sexually Exploited Children (CSEC) Program, incentivizing counties to develop and implement interagency CSEC protocols. Most critically, these protocols must include a multidisciplinary teaming approach to identify and serve CSEC, with child welfare as the lead.
Since the law’s passage, child welfare agencies in 35 of California’s 58 counties have engaged in cross-agency dialogue to outline current and planned CSEC protocols. All of these counties received planning funding. The California Department of Social Services (CDSS) provided additional funding to 22 of these counties to finalize and implement their interagency protocols. To assist with these efforts, CDSS established a Child Trafficking Response Unit and worked with the California Child Welfare Council’s CSEC Action Team to develop a number of resources, including a model interagency protocol.
On Dec. 1, multidisciplinary teams from 21 counties convened for an innovative, peer-based learning opportunity organized by the CSEC Action Team and its partners. After a series of panels and simulations, county teams turned inward and worked together to digest new information and apply promising practices to their own protocols. Following the event, the CSEC Action Team launched a CSEC listserv to promote information sharing across counties on such topics as specialized child welfare units, prevention curricula and even successful Request for Proposals (RFP) for community-based providers.
Despite its progress, California still has a way to go. SB 855 is well over a year old and exploited children continue to be charged with prostitution and related offenses and sent to jail. Most CSEC Program counties have not finalized their child welfare-led protocols and another 23 counties have not yet opted into the program. Up until now, training for social workers and probation officers has been inconsistently applied throughout the state, and many system providers still believe in the need to detain CSEC for their own good.
Despite the slow start, there are strong indicators pointing to California being on the right path. Many additional counties are expected to opt into next year’s CSEC Program. The more advanced efforts in Los Angeles have led to plummeting arrest rates in pilot sites following the implementation of the Law Enforcement First Responder Protocol for CSEC.
Additionally, the county recently collaborated with Rights for Girls to launch the “No Such Thing as a child prostitute” public awareness campaign, and created a regional task force led by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Finally, 22 counties are now testing the West Coast Commercial Sexual Exploitation Identification Tool (CSE-IT). Due to the requirements of HR 4980, all social workers and probation officers across the state will soon be identifying, documenting and determining services for CSEC.
States across the country must act now to identify and serve CSEC as victims of child abuse. They can begin by learning from the progress we’ve made in California.
It’s part of the game. Because you got to establish a certain thing. You got to establish some fear in that female in order to get that respect. You have to really show that girl — if you told that girl you was gonna kill her, when it come time to [fighting], you have to almost kill her, to beg her to say, “Daddy, no please don’t kill me.” You have to be that serious.
(*Editor’s note: “Laura Abasi,” “DJ,” and “Quinn” are not the characters’ real names. All other names in the story are real.)
In early spring of 2004, Laura Abasi stepped out the passenger side of a white Mercedes coupe and onto a red carpet. Laura, 21, didn’t have much time to get ready for the event, an album premiere party at an entertainment studio on Manhattan’s west side.
It didn’t matter. DJ had walked into her room about 30 minutes before they had to leave and thrust a shopping bag at her. She slipped on its contents — a knee-length, multi-colored, long-sleeved wrap dress and strappy black stiletto heels. Both items fit perfectly. DJ knew her size — her body — better than she did.
At the party, DJ strode into a thicket of artists and music industry execs flitting around the crowded studio. DJ was Laura’s pimp, and he had purchased her outfit for the occasion. He knew some of the famous faces at the party through his boss, a Billboard chart-topping rapper. DJ introduced Laura to his boss and his wife, and maybe two other men in suits. Of course, DJ referred to Laura as “Amber,” her professional alias. She hadn’t heard “Laura,” her given name, since she was a teenager.
DJ’s boss knew he was a pimp. He had even cast DJ as a pimp in a recent music video, but MTV cut the scene when producers realized DJ wasn’t acting. If anyone else at the party understood or even wondered about DJ and Laura’s relationship, they didn’t indicate it.
“This is Amber,” DJ said.
Laura had turned her first trick on February 1, 2000, for a pimp named Quinn. The Kenyan-born, 5-foot-11 high school dropout thought she would become a model. At 18, she was old for a “green” prostitute — pimps usually “break” girls before they reach 14. And, with her doctor father and middle-class upbringing, Laura had seen more Volvos and college pamphlets than most trafficking victims ever would. Laura’s family emigrated to the U.S. when she was a baby and eventually settled down in a suburban part of Queens.
Laura was a high-worth prospect, so Quinn didn’t rush the “seasoning” process. Laura was 15 when Quinn, who was in his 20s, stopped in the market where she worked after school. He posed as a hopeful suitor, and then a trustworthy boyfriend, until Laura believed her captor was her soul mate. Once Laura moved into Quinn’s apartment — just a few subway stops away from her parents’ house — the road from impressionable teenager to brainwashed chattel proved to be short. Laura went into hibernation and out popped Amber, a hardscrabble bitch who could tell an eager john by his gait.
But Amber really took over when DJ entered the picture. They met in late 2000, when DJ’s Escalade rolled up next to her on Broadway and 55th street.
“Bitch, you mines now,” DJ had said.
When Laura didn’t hop in the car, DJ opened the back door to offer proof of ownership. Laura saw everything she owned strewn across the back seat, indicating that Quinn had traded her. She understood that DJ was now her pimp, so she acquiesced and moved into his New Jersey McMansion that night.
Since then, Laura had dangled on DJ’s arm at a number of industry parties. She knew she wasn’t a guest, so she never acted like one. As usual, she didn’t take hors d’oeuvres from trays or even go to the bathroom. Instead, she stood in a corner while DJ sidled up to celebrities.
Someone else may have felt awkward standing alone at a party, but Laura didn’t. Feeling awkward would have required Laura to think critically about how other people saw her. Laura hadn’t thought for or about herself in years.
Like thousands of other American girls, Laura gave up control of her mind when she fell into pimp-controlled street prostitution, a rampant form of human sex trafficking. Sex trafficking is a type of modern day slavery and, according to New York State Law, occurs when people profit from the control and exploitation of others through sex. The idea that street prostitutes exercise free will is a lie, according to advocates and former victims. Pimps target vulnerable girls — often runaways, foster children, undocumented immigrants, and victims of physical and sexual abuse.
Laura’s story, as bracing and violent as it gets, is not uncommon in New York, the country’s fourth-largest hub for human trafficking. Until 2007, sexually exploited children like Laura were criminals under state law. But in the past seven years, through anti-trafficking legislation and judicial reform, activists and lawmakers have worked to change the laws so that sexually exploited youth are treated as victims, not criminals.
Laura didn’t wonder why the outside world — white-collared men, rappers, neighbors, and town car drivers — either overlooked what DJ did or, often, helped him do it. She didn’t find it upsetting, or even odd, that people saw pimps like DJ as hard-knocks heroes — and women like Laura as property. Survival instinct and delusion subdued any impulse to question DJ’s perverted version of the truth.
For instance, DJ often said, “I love you so much, you’re gonna make me kill you.”
Wow, he loves me that much, Laura would only think in reply.
Although Laura stood in silence, the party itself was loud. Bass-heavy tracks competed with the din of conversations that surrounded her. She watched hip-hop artists toss back champagne and throw up crossed, sideways peace signs for photos. She might have ordered champagne herself, but DJ prohibited alcohol — he thought drunkenness was unladylike.
DJ did, however, endorse drug use, and dispensed generous helpings of whatever his girls needed to meet their nightly quotas. Some girls liked the hallucinogenic haze of an ecstasy-and-weed cocktail. Others preferred to turn tricks on a cocksure cocaine high. And then some girls liked the hard stuff. But drinking enabled sloppy behavior that threatened DJ’s control, and he didn’t tolerate it.
After a few hours of partying, DJ collected Laura to leave. They stopped at a diner in Weehawken, N.J. on the way home for a late night snack. DJ talked, cracked jokes and shared observations.
Laura ordered her favorite treat, pigs in a blanket, and responded when summoned. She knew to limit her contributions to conversations.
“Yes, Daddy,” and, when appropriate, “No, Daddy.” And after five years under pimp-rule, she knew to use the word “no” sparingly.
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After five years under pimp-rule, she knew to use the word “no” sparingly.
In late spring 2004, about two months after the rap album party, DJ called Laura and told her to cut the night short. Laura usually got home from work around 7 a.m. and flopped on her bed to watch reruns of the family sitcom "Home Improvement." DJ occasionally joined her. But that night, Laura walked through the door around 1 a.m. and found DJ sitting on the living room couch with a piece of loose-leaf paper in his hand. It was Laura’s to-do-list, which included a reminder to send her mother $2,000.
DJ just stared at Laura when she refused to give him a straight answer about the $2,000 on the list. He looked stunned. Until that night, he trusted her more than anyone — more than his mother Lil’ Ma; even more than his now dead attorney, Russell Paisley, who kept DJ, and a lot of New York pimps, out of jail and in the game year after year.
DJ’s steady timbre escalated into a gravelly bark and Laura, wise to his temper, took off. She dashed up the stairs and into her bedroom. Although her room provided little refuge, Laura didn’t consider going anywhere else. By that point, she had been arrested on prostitution-related charges over 20 times. To the justice system, she wasn’t a girl in need — she was just a criminal. And to the outside world, she was a whore going nowhere.
Laura waited at the far corner of her room, bracing for DJ’s attack. Like all pimps, DJ had strict rules. The handful of girls who rotated through DJ’s house couldn’t leave without permission or keep the money they earned from prostitution. Laura, in particular, could make over $10,000 a week — sometimes, she made that much in one day. Every penny was supposed to go to DJ. He bought everything Laura owned or used, from floor-length furs she wore while turning tricks to Tylenol and tampons.
But Laura had secretly held on to some of her earnings. She had hidden rolled-up bills in condoms, and stashed the condoms in Arm & Hammer baking soda boxes scattered around the house.
While Quinn avoided Laura’s face when he beat her, DJ didn’t care. DJ was a “Gorilla Pimp,” a distinction reserved for pimps who dole out near-fatal beatings on autopilot. DJ even preferred to have sex with Laura right after he beat her, before the slippery blood in her weave dried into clumps. She called it “grudge-fucking,” but it was textbook rape.
DJ kicked open Laura's door and stood in the doorway. His rabid gaze said he was angrier than usual. He’d ditched Laura’s to-do list and grabbed tools from his arsenal: his “nookie,” a whip made from twisted clothes hangers, and a metal bat.
He rushed at Laura, hurling his fists into her head. He swatted at her face until her eye sockets and lips swelled into bloody pillows of flesh. Then he proceeded to ransack her room for the money. Laura knew that she didn’t leave her to-do list lying around. Another girl in the house had found it while rooting around her room, and then gamely placed it in DJ’s hands.
He cut open her pillows and mattress, and pulled apart her dresser. Oh God, don’t tip over the baking soda, Laura thought. But, when he came up empty-handed, DJ turned on Laura again.
DJ beat her until after the sun came up, making sure to immobilize her so she couldn’t grab the hidden money and flee. Laura fought back until her kneecaps gave out, and screamed until blows to her face rendered her mute. But she didn’t cry. She never cried during beatings, even when DJ left her with “tiger stripes,” lines of open wounds in her back.
Grueling sensations hit every nerve ending in her body. She couldn’t distinguish stinging lacerations from throbbing joints. She assumed this was the feeling of dying. As hours passed, she grew numb to the deafening pain.
Sometime that morning an older white man entered Laura’s room, where her swollen body languished on the bed. Swaths of blood had turned the white wall beside her into a grisly canvas. Laura recognized the man as a doctor who sometimes visited the house after beatings. DJ only endorsed hospital visits when the doctor believed girls would die from their injuries.
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DJ only endorsed hospital visits when the doctor believed girls would die from their injuries.
DJ stood at the door while the doctor poked at Laura’s eyes and palpated her bruised neck. Although she wouldn’t walk for two months, and a broken rib made it hard to take even shallow breaths, the doctor decided she wasn’t about to die. So the two men left the room.
Laura had seen DJ morph into a monster many times since receiving her first beating at 18. Usually, she just vied harder for his love. But that night changed things. For the first time, DJ questioned her loyalty — and so did Laura.
Six months later, in October 2004, Laura tore away from the curb of the Plaza Hotel in the royal blue SUV DJ had bought her to use in "the life." This was her first chance to escape since she tried to leave DJ two months earlier. Her first attempt failed because DJ had secretly put GPS tracking devices on her car and phone.
Laura enjoyed three days of freedom before DJ captured her and left her naked and penniless in a hotel off the highway in southern New Jersey for four days. Then, he brought her to his house and locked her up again — for a month. DJ eventually released Laura to go turn tricks, but only under supervision of Kimmie, another girl in the house.
Laura and Kimmie went out together the next day. Laura tricked Kimmie into leaving her alone in the car while Kimmie met a client at the Plaza. Once Laura felt that Kimmie’s date was well underway, she hopped into the driver’s seat and took off.
Laura called her friend Tonya to meet her at the Queens Midtown tunnel, trembling as she coordinated her getaway. Laura decided to ditch the car and her phone across town from the tunnel because she knew DJ tracked them. So she drove to a garage by the Westside Highway, handed the car to a valet, and threw out her phone. Then she trekked back across Manhattan in four-inch heels to meet Tonya.
After moving onto Tonya’s couch, Laura burned all reminders of DJ — clothing, underwear, photos, and tchotchkes. But she didn’t cut ties with the life. Prostitution provided fast, easy money, and Laura had grown accustomed to a lifestyle that minimum wage work couldn’t support.
She feared DJ, not the johns, or “tricks,” whom she considered easy to manipulate. Sometimes, her clientele of mostly middle-aged and older white men paid $3,000 a night for intricate dry humping. Laura didn’t see any reason to get a regular job.
In August 2010, almost six years after leaving DJ, Laura walked into a Manhattan holding precinct on Varick Street in a lightweight work dress and heavy handcuffs. Once inside, the officer hollered that he had “another body coming downstairs.” Laura realized she was the body.
Can’t they use any other word?
She began to scream at the officer.
“My name is fucking Laura,” she said. “Laura Abasi, motherfucker.”
Laura didn’t know why she had to sit in the precinct in the first place. If she had one person to blame, it was Norma Platt. Too bad she didn’t exist.
When Laura started turning tricks in 2000, Quinn told her to identify herself to police as Norma Platt. When Laura moved in with DJ later that year, he gave her fake identity documents bearing Norma’s name. Because she incurred all 24 arrests as Norma, Laura technically fled DJ with a clean record.
Norma’s checkered past, however, caught up with Laura at JFK airport in the summer of 2008, on her way home from her grandmother’s funeral in Kenya.
JFK customs officials took her fingerprints and Norma’s criminal record popped up. This detainment triggered two years of court date postponements that Laura didn’t take seriously. Getting caught, however, compelled her to quit the life for good.
Eventually, on an August morning in 2010, Laura’s court date arrived. She expected to get a fine, at most. Instead, she ended up handcuffed in the back of an unmarked Chevy Impala. Immigration Customs Enforcement officers whisked her to the Varick Street holding Precinct. Later that night, ICE hauled her off to Monmoth County Correctional Institution in Freehold, New Jersey.
Six months later, on December 18, 2010, Laura milled around the prison common room after dinner. She wore long underwear below her burgundy standard-issue jumpsuit to keep warm. She knew ICE sent her to prison for “crimes of moral turpitude,” but she wasn’t sure what moral turpitude meant.
Previous experiences made her wary of lawyers, so she didn’t seek out any representation. Lawyers, however, came to her. In October, two Legal Aid attorneys visited the prison and told Laura she may get deported based on her prostitution history.
Laura didn’t know when her sentence would be over, but she hoped it wouldn’t last too long. So she sat tight and waited to bid goodbye to the 149 other female inmates to whom she spoke as little as possible.
Around 8 p.m., Laura heard a prison guard bellow her name from across the common area.
“Pack it up,” he said, without further explanation.
Laura didn’t comprehend that she had been discharged until the other inmates started clapping.
Packing didn’t take long. Laura retrieved the dress she’d worn to jail and threw books in a plastic bag. On her way out, the prison guard handed her a bus ticket, and pointed her towards a station across a wooded area. The temperature lingered somewhere below freezing and the air assaulted her bones, but she didn’t care.
Following the guard’s directions, Laura ambled through the brush in the general direction of a bus station. After about 45 minutes, she reached a thoroughfare lined with stores. A middle-aged man asked her if she had come from jail, and told her she missed a bus to Manhattan. Then, she heard someone yell her name.
Just a hallucination, she thought.
She turned around and saw her best friend Natalie’s Chinchilla jacket. She had no idea how Natalie knew she was there, but she didn’t care. They hotfooted towards each other, shrieking with delight.
On Laura's way to the car, the middle-aged man asked for her bus ticket.
Why the hell not, she thought, and handed it over.
Almost a year later, in November 2011, Laura walked down a cobbled side street in lower Manhattan with one of her Legal Aid attorneys, Meredith Ryan. Laura had an appointment at Sanctuary for Families, a nonprofit organization that provided counseling and legal services to victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking. Ryan had reached out to Dorchen Leidholdt, a sex trafficking expert and the legal director at Sanctuary, to prepare for Laura’s deportation hearing.
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Laura couldn’t see herself as a survivor of modern day slavery, or a casualty of a culture and legal system that patted pimps on the backs and then slapped handcuffs on their human cash cows.
Leidholdt had reviewed Laura’s case and determined she was a clear victim of sex trafficking. She saw Laura as a potential candidate for a New York State court process called vacatur, which could expunge her prostitution arrests. Vacatur entailed a separate legal proceeding because prostitution fell under state jurisdiction, whereas federal law controlled immigration.
The idea of another hearing exhausted Laura, but what choice did she have? The past year had been a whirlwind of setbacks. Laura moved in with Natalie after she left jail, and spent a month in a depressed haze. She lost her car and apartment from delinquent payments. Her boyfriend broke up with her. She didn’t have a job. And deportation still loomed on the horizon.
At Sanctuary’s unmarked offices, Laura met Leidholdt and Emily Amick, a young staff attorney. Laura told Amick her story through DJ’s eyes — a beautiful girl lured into a fast life of glamour and money. Laura couldn’t see herself as a survivor of modern day slavery, or a casualty of a culture and legal system that patted pimps on the backs and then slapped handcuffs on their human cash cows.
After Laura finished relaying her saga, Leidholdt and Amick said a lot of things that Laura didn’t understand. She cringed when they called her a victim, but she tried to suppress her frustration. Laura wanted to grab a cab home to Queens and sleep off the meeting.
She agreed, however, to join the three attorneys for lunch. Laura normally shied away from groups of women — flocks, she termed them. But she figured she’d be seeing these women a lot. So, she tried to get comfortable with them.
In April 2012, Laura, now 30, woke up in an Albany Ramada Inn well before her alarm blared. She’d spent many nights in hotel beds with clients, but this time she shared a suite with her attorneys. She had packed black business attire because the occasion called for it, not because men fawned over a hooker who looked like a CEO. Laura had agreed to tell her story at the state legislature to support the latest bill in a wave of anti-sex trafficking legislation.
New York State made sex trafficking a crime in 2007. The Legislature passed a law to recognize children and teenagers inveigled into prostitution as victims of trafficking. Before then, they were criminally liable sex workers.
Amick begged Laura to prepare remarks for her speech, but she decided to wing it. She performed better off the cuff. Laura hadn’t shared her story in public before, and she wasn’t looking forward to it. But, she knew that lawmakers needed to understand why sex trafficking was so lucrative and hard to curb.
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“He beat me every day — I have scars on my face, my scalp just so he could have that control, that mind control.”
Laura knew from experience that a female body was a more valuable commodity than any illicit good. DJ could have moved several kilos of high-grade heroin a week or sold shiny black Colt 45s by the trunkful, but pimping was a better bet. Higher earnings, lower penalties — the career criminal’s dream. Laura felt a duty to help squash that squalid dream, even if deportation followed.
Laura approached the podium around 9 a.m. and stood before about 30 elected officials. Her name-tag said “Kenya,” the name she chose when her attorneys said she needed a protective alias until her cases ended. Laura locked eyes with Amick and Leidholdt when she started speaking. When she felt tears forming, she tilted her head towards the ceiling. She no longer sounded like DJ’s publicist.
“He beat me every day — I have scars on my face, my scalp,” she said. “Just so he could have that control, that mind control.”
She described a law enforcement system that didn’t try to protect her.
“I was a child,” she said. “I didn’t know any better. I had no one to assist me. I had no one to go to. The police failed me. The judge failed me. Everyone around me failed me. The only one I thought was there for me was my pimp.”
She lamented the label “prostitute.”
“I’m at the point where I just feel worthless because I have this word “prostitution” follow me everywhere. I’m not a prostitute. I’m a good woman.”
The label would follow her for at least another year, until her vacatur hearing. Laura was among the first persons who could request to vacate prostitution arrests based on her trafficking status. A 2010 bill made vacatur an explicit legal recourse for trafficking victims — which meant sex workers who could show that their pimps kept them in prostitution through coercive tactics that included supplying drugs, withholding identification documents, lying, and threatening physical injury, deportation or public exposure.
Bill by bill, statute by statute, the state Legislature created a new legal system. It not only decriminalized prostitution for trafficking victims, but also gave girls like Laura the chance to re-enter society without stigma.
These anti-trafficking efforts were a huge coup, yet the laws still had gaps and loopholes. New York State was the fourth biggest hub for an industry that dealt primarily in young girls. Slavery was a bustling business, in New York and elsewhere.
When Laura finished speaking, Amick paraded her through a receiving line of lawmakers. In Amick’s eyes, Laura had graduated from survivor to leader. But Laura didn’t see it that way. She was just a woman telling her story, and she was exhausted.
A year later, in June 2013, Laura stood before a judge in a midtown courtroom for her vacatur hearing. Her legal team included Leidholdt, Amick, Ryan, and two more pro-bono attorneys from the white shoe firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. After months of arduous prep, the hearing only took 10 minutes. Laura’s attorneys presented documents. Then the judge shuffled the documents and struck her gavel against the wooden bench.
The judge vacated all 24 prostitution arrests, which meant that Laura would likely get to stay in the country. ICE had moved to deport her based on crimes of moral turpitude. Her newly clean record, however, bore no signs of moral turpitude. So ICE had no reason to send her back to Kenya.
Laura breathed a loud sigh of relief. She had lived in a daze for two years. Without any way to orient herself in the world, nothing quite made sense. But now, with a clean record, Laura could restart her life.
After hugging her lawyers outside the courthouse, Laura left by herself. She wandered into a restaurant on Broadway for a sit-down lunch. She liked dining alone.
Three months later, Laura arrived at the midtown offices of the law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell for The Abely Awards, an annual event to honor domestic violence victim advocates. She walked over to the sign-in table to get her name tag, which said, “Kenya” in black lettering. The Kenya era, however, had ended on August 15, when Laura won her deportation hearing.
With both her prostitution offenses vacated and her deportation order reversed, Laura could resume control over her life. She could call herself whatever she wanted. Laura didn’t fear rebuke from DJ, but her attorneys considered him dangerous and wanted Laura to keep her protective alias. So, she was Kenya for the night.
Women dominated the event, but Judge Jonathan Lippman, Chief Judge of the State of New York, was the man of the hour. A week earlier, Lippman had announced the creation of 11 Human Trafficking Intervention Courts to handle all prostitution cases that went past arraignment. The statewide system would be the first of its kind.
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Not all people in prostitution were trafficking victims, but many were. And at least half of these victims were children.
Specially trained judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors would jointly evaluate cases with a focus on providing defendants with social services rather than prison sentences. The creation of the courts reflected the basic tenet behind anti-trafficking legislation: the criminal justice system should treat people charged with prostitution as victims, not defendants.
Social services, including shelter, therapy, job training and immigration support, could help people leave prostitution for good. Not all people in prostitution were trafficking victims, but many were. And at least half of these victims were children.
Judge Lippman’s announcement came as a surprise, even to insiders like Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, who authored New York’s Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act, among other anti-trafficking legislation.
After Lippman accepted his award, Laura joined Leidholdt to introduce another honoree and one of Laura’s pro bono attorneys, Samidh Guha. During his short speech, Guha told the audience how Laura turned herself into the police when she didn’t meet her nightly quota. She knew DJ would beat her if she didn’t bring home enough money. Jail was a less daunting prospect.
Laura pointed her phone at Guha and joked about Instagramming the event. But as he shared snippets of her trafficking experience, Laura’s face gelled into a sober stare, and she looked up. She had never heard someone else tell her story. Coming from Guha, whom Laura regarded as a legal shark with deceptively sweet blue eyes, the details of her life sounded savage.
She closed her eyes and drew in a deep breath.
“OK, I think I deserve some wine now.”
It was Thanksgiving day, and no one ordered the turkey dinner. As usual, the smell of drawn butter clung to Laura’s apron as she carted around platters of battered shrimp. Laura scanned the few occupied tables in her section and wondered why she agreed to work on Thanksgiving.
Laura began waiting tables at a seafood restaurant after she got out of prison. In the summer, tourists filed into the kitschy eatery for jumbo portions of deep-fried seafood, but cold November weather brought sparser crowds. At times, when Laura collected checks, she couldn’t help but think back to the days when she made $30,000 in one sleepless weekend.
She didn’t mind waitressing. She was good at it, and her coworkers treated her like family. But Laura couldn’t deny that she missed the rush of cramming stacks of hundred-dollar-bills into her purse.
People who weren’t in the life — who didn’t understand the life — were “squares.” Laura knew she could never make it as a square. She tried to leave Amber behind when she left DJ. It didn’t work. At 32, with a clean record, Laura felt ready to start over. But this time, she accepted that Amber was part of her.
Once Laura recognized some of Amber’s contributions to her personality — brazen, strategic, unfazed by attention — she realized she needed to make use of them. Laura used to dread talking to strangers about her past, but she’d come to enjoy it. In the coming months, Laura would appear on the CW news to talk about sex trafficking at the Super Bowl. And in March, she’ll participate in a United Nations panel about prostitution as sex work.
Laura wanted to choose a career that would enable her newfound interest in public speaking — law seemed like a good fit. She once thought of lawyers as paid liars, but then they became her liberators. Some attorneys, she learned, worked hard to do good. Laura now thought she might want to be one of them.
Given the high rate of torment suffered by LGBT youth in custody, activists applauded last week’s finalizing of a landmark law that took nine years to get from adoption to implementation.
Last Monday, the federal Department of Justice finalized a set of guidelines under the Prison Rape Elimination Act that could help stem the risks of the already at-risk LGBT population that is incarcerated, including minors.
“We were already working on this issue while PREA was being passed, but this raises awareness,” said Sarah Schriber, senior policy analyst with the Chicago-based Health and Medicine Policy Research group and community convener for the Illinois Court Involved LGBTQ Youth Task Force.
According to Schriber, few juvenile detention center personnel even knew what the existing anti-harassment rules were. “A much harder part is making those policies meaningful on the ground,” she said. “We’re really lagging in education.”
Along with anti-harassment policy, the new regulations create federal requirements for employee training and place limits on cross-gender searches and screenings, ensuring they only happen behind closed doors with a licensed medical practitioner.
Much of this work was already underway in Illinois, due in part to a coalition of researchers, lawyers and justice department personnel. In 2010, the Illinois Court Involved LGBTQ Youth Task Force was established to draft better policy for the Illinois juvenile justice system and lead employee trainings.
Two years later, the task force has led trainings for nearly every Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center employee who works directly with youth, educating personnel on policy and broader issues and on definitions related to sexual orientation and gender identity.
Similar workshops are being held for juvenile prisons, run by the State of Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, as well as Cook County juvenile probation employees.
The issues facing LGBTQ youth in custody are often invisible to juvenile justice personnel and policy makers, because many young people choose not to self-identify, said Mykel Selph, director of the Office of Girls and Gender at Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.
But a 2010 study by Angela Irvine, director of research at the Oakland-based National Council on Crime and Delinquency, found 13 percent to 15 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system consider themselves gay or gender non-conforming. In the overall population, 5 percent to 7 percent of youth identify this way.
According to a recent report by the Center for American Progress, LGBTQ youth are more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system, likely due to higher rates of bullying and harassment and lower social support at home.
Once in custody, research suggests gay and transgender youth may be more likely to experience sexual assault and harassment.
Some sexual abuse and harassment stems from housing gender non-conforming youth with members of their biological sex. In the nation’s juvenile justice centers, a young transgender woman must still live among young men.
“People assume if you put a transgender female in a female unit, that person will assault others,” Schriber said. “Often it is the other way around.”
In Chicago, Cook County Jail has begun housing transgender women with other women, but Schriber said the policy is harder to change for youth facilities.
“People don’t understand that gender identity is pretty well established early on,” she said. “They think it’s a phase.”
The PREA guidelines mandate that “in deciding whether to assign a transgender or intersex resident to a facility for male or female residents, the agency shall consider on a case-by-case basis whether a placement would ensure the resident’s health and safety.”
But there are smaller changes detention centers can make to create a safer environment, Selph said.
Allowing transgender boys to wear boxers or having every youth in custody wear the same clothing, instead of blue and pink t-shirts, can go a long way in helping a transgender youth’s mental wellbeing, Selph said.
“Homophobia can happen in a very subtle, unintentional way,” Selph said, during a recent gathering of experts and practitioners hosted by the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. “When we talk about safety, emotional safety is implied but not focused on in a deliberate [way.] It is emotional safety that is of the utmost importance.”
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation have teamed up for a new $1 million project to divert youth with behavioral health conditions away from the juvenile justice system and into community-based programs and services.
According to SAMHSA, 60-70 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have a mental disorder and more than 60 percent suffer from a substance abuse disorder. Many of these youth, SAMHSA says, wind up in the juvenile justice system rather than receiving treatment for their underlying disorders.
Up to eight states will be selected competitively to participate in the new collaborative initiative. If selected, states would receive support to develop and initiate policies and programs to divert youth away from the juvenile justice system early.
"This innovative effort will help ensure that fewer at- risk young people fall through the cracks and into an overburdened juvenile justice system that is very often unable to address their underlying behavioral health problems," SAMHSA Administrator Pam Hyde said in a press release. "This initiative focuses on helping divert these youth whenever possible to community-based behavioral health services that can actually turn their lives around for the better."
The program will combine SAMHSA’s Policy Academy initiative and the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change Action Network and will emphasize reducing the overrepresentation of youth of color with mental and/or substance use disorders in the juvenile justice system while incorporating mental, substance use and co-occurring screening and assessment practices throughout the juvenile justice system recognizing the important roles of evidence-based practice, treatment, and trauma-informed services.
The National Center for Mental Health, Juvenile Justice at Policy Research Associates, Inc. and the Technical Assistance Collaborative, Inc. have agreed to coordinate the proposed initiative.
“The states selected will have access to leading experts in the field and the latest research and information on front-end diversion policies and programs for youth with co-occurring disorders,” said Laurie Garduque, Director of Justice Reform for the MacArthur Foundation. “With the seamless integration of SAMHSA’s and MacArthur’s demonstrated strategies for effective training and technical assistance, we will promote broader diffusion and new adaptations of models of best practices to states committed to systems reform.”
At the National Collegiate Recovery Conference Wednesday at Kennesaw State University, Michael Fishman, Director of the Young Adult Program at Talbott Recovery Campus in Atlanta, neatly summed up everything he had learned in 22 years of treating addiction in young adults. The recurring theme of his keynote address: It’s complicated.
“Most young adults are generally poly-substance abusers,” he said.
They aren’t just using marijuana; they’re also drinking, Fishman says. It’s not just opioids, it’s opioids and anti-depressants or any other combination. And that complicates the picture for doctors trying to get to know their patient’s true diagnosis.
“The drugs and alcohol may mask the underlying pathology,” Fishman said. Withdrawal symptoms, he added, “cloud the picture,” as do toxicity and detox.
Additionally, many young adults suffering from addiction are also suffering from mental illness of some kind, what Fishman calls “dual-diagnosis.” Depression and anxiety are common in substance abusers and the addiction may begin as an attempt to self-medicate, which Fishman says doesn’t work.
“Ask any young person who self-medicates how that’s working out for them,” he said with a laugh.
The three-day National Collegiate Recovery Conference was hosted by Kennesaw State University's Center for Young Adult Addiction and Recovery and featured addiction specialists from college campuses across the country.
At a separate address Thursday, John F. Kelly, Program Director of the Addiction Recovery Management Services at Massachusetts General Hospital, echoed Fishman’s assessment.
“Young adults,” he said, “have the highest rates of co-occurring psychiatric problems.”
According to Kelly, who is also a consultant to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, this is a serious cause for concern because of the impacts not only on the patient, but also on society.
“Drugs and alcohol account for more than $500 billion in economic impact,” he said. “It costs more than heart disease.”
In fact, he said, excessive alcohol consumption alone costs the nation $2 per drink, citing a 2011 report from the Centers for Disease Control.
Substance abuse in young adults is a systemic problem, Fishman said, leading to changes in the brain.
“Alcohol use disorder is associated with abnormalities in the pre-frontal cortex,” he said, the part of the brain responsible for decision-making and moderating social behavior.
Additionally, he said, “drinking at an early age impairs maturation.”
When asked by the audience which drugs he saw abused the most, Fishman said opioids — prescription drugs such as Oxycontin, hydrocodone, and roxicodone and illicit drugs such as heroin.
“Eighty percent of what I see is opioid dependency,” he said. “It’s rampant.”
He added that often young people become addicted to prescription opioids but when they become too expensive they seek out cheaper alternatives, such as heroin.
Abuse of prescription drugs by young adults, he added, “is an epidemic right now.”
Treatment is imperative and should include a specific and consistent structure, Fishman said. Also important is family involvement.
“Parents are often afraid if they set boundaries they [their children] will run away,” Fishman said. Young adults “need a sense of family support,” not the “potential for sabotage.”
This month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report quantifying the costs of child maltreatment in the United States. The report underscores that child maltreatment is a serious public health issue with financial impacts comparable to a stroke and Type 2 diabetes.
What the report does not quantify is the loss of a child’s innocence. What is the price of the smile on a baby’s face when he takes his first steps, or on the 8-year-old who scores her first goal, or on the 12-year-old who wins his class spelling bee? What about the joy and love brought into the lives of family and friends by that child? And what about the loss to all who might have been helped because the abused toddler may have grown up to cure cancer or end child abuse?
Actuarial calculations are useful for placing child maltreatment in the context of other public health and public safety concerns. They serve as a proxy for the lives of children in policy and budget decisions. When the final budget is passed at the end of this legislative session, how will child maltreatment compare with other priorities?
The CDC study examined confirmed new cases of child abuse and neglect in 2008 and estimated that the total lifetime cost for fatal and nonfatal abuse occurring in 2008 was at least $124 billion. In addition to medical expenses for the life of the child victim, the calculated costs included expenses of the child welfare, criminal justice, and special education systems, as well as productivity losses during the lives of victims. The study’s many limitations caused the estimated costs to be quite conservative. Knowing that the incidence of child maltreatment is much greater than the number of confirmed cases, the study says that the actual cost is closer to $585 billion instead of $124 billion.
In Georgia, where I have worked, in federal fiscal year 2011, approximately 19,000 children were confirmed victims of child maltreatment. Using the CDC calculations, if all these victims lived, the lifetime cost of this abuse will be nearly $4 billion. If 60 of those children died from abuse or neglect, which is about how many children the Department of Human Services identified as dying of maltreatment in 2008 and also in 2009, the total lifetime cost of child maltreatment in Georgia during FFY 2011 would be almost $4.1 billion.
Our community cannot afford the emotional or financial costs of child abuse. Preventing child abuse is our collective responsibility. Together we must figure out how to help our neighbors, support those who are most at risk of abuse and neglect, and protect all children by increasing the presence of five protective factors in our communities and families. These protective factors act as buffers against child maltreatment: social connections, knowledge of parenting and child development, parental resilience, nurturing and attachment, concrete supports for parents.
Elected officials play a particularly important role in preventing child abuse because the laws they pass define child maltreatment and determine how much the state will spend on prevention and intervention. This session, legislators are considering several bills discussing child abuse and neglect, including SB 127 and companion bill HB 641, which would revise Georgia’s Juvenile Code, and several bills addressing who is required to report child abuse and how the Department of Human Resources responds to such reports. Bills that call for educating children about the consequences of sexting and dating violence also help reduce child maltreatment. In addition, bills addressing the charging, processing, and treatment of children accused of committing delinquent acts figure into the future costs of child maltreatment because of the porous nature of the artificial divide between deprivation and delinquency.
While the role of lawmakers is higher profile than the neighbor who helps an overwhelmed mother with her energetic twins, or the Family Visitation Services/SafeCare home visitor who teaches a father how to comfort his crying newborn, each of these people, and you and I, plays a critical role in reducing the financial and emotional burdens of child abuse and neglect.
In Florida, a two-day symposium will bring together leading national advocates and experts to discuss the legal representation of abused and neglected children. Organizers of the symposium, sponsored by the American Bar Association, say there is an urgent need to raise public awareness that abused children need to have lawyers protecting them in all court proceedings.
The program begins with a media briefing Thursday, Feb. 9 followed by a symposium Friday, Feb. 10.
Expert panelists include Rosemary Barkett, former chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, and Frank P. Cervone, executive director of Child Advocates.
According to the advocacy group Child Help, more than 3 million cases of child abuse are reported each year in the United States; in approximately one third of those cases an investigation will show that abuse occurred.