Perhaps the greatest challenge for children rescued from human trafficking is the shortage of available and appropriate treatment options and wrap-around services. The problem isn’t just limited to Florida. The same story is being aired in media coverage throughout the country.
Essentially, although laws were passed to move rescued children to child welfare from juvenile justice – in recognition that they are victims and not criminals – the dollars formerly used to confine or treat them have remained largely in the criminal justice system. This has resulted in too few services for the most complicated cases now hitting the child protection patchwork.
The problem becomes even more complex for the Florida sex trafficked children who are neither involved with DCF nor DJJ. Children with no prior dependency court or juvenile court involvement, also known as “community kids”, regularly fall through the very large cracks of mainstream systems.
Many Doors Closed to Community Kids
“Community kids perhaps have even more difficulties,” said Connie Rose, director of survivor programming & prevention at Selah Freedom. “Public funding often can’t be tapped for their treatment, insurance coverage is limited at best, and the average daily rates for treatment are more than what most middle-class families can afford.”
Rose recently became involved in a case involving a 15-year old sex trafficking victim who may be forced to travel across the country for treatment. Although the Baker Act was triggered three times already in Florida, Rose says no one has addressed the unique trauma that results from commercial sexual exploitation.
Insurance initially approved the girl to stay for 21 days in a Florida-based therapeutic program specializing in treating commercially sexually exploited children, but the placement was later denied. Without insurance, or the financial means to pay for treatment, the only program willing to take her is a non-profit in California. They offer free treatment for sex trafficking victims, but Rose and her parents agree it’s not the best place for her.
“The last two Florida children that were sent there didn’t last,” said Rose. “They ran away.”
Survivor Mentors Critical to Success
Running away is not uncommon. Sex traffickers condition their victims to be wary of others, Rose said, and engage in many forms of psychological manipulation. It can take several encounters before a victim begins to accept the sincere motives of those trying to help them.
“There are layers and layers of complex trauma and abuse to be peeled away,” explained Rose. “There’s no straight line for success. It’s often two steps forward and one step backward.”
Patience is crucial. Also crucial are first responders who are survivors of commercial sexual exploitation – a proven model being utilized in other parts of the country.
Open Doors First Responder Network Needed
Survivor-Mentors stabilize victims immediately following identification by law enforcement or child protection services. They build trusting alliances, reduce the frequency of running away, and provide support and motivation during the course of treatment, increasing the likelihood of success. The Children’s Campaign, in concert with the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, Voices for Florida, Selah Freedom, and Children’s Home Society, is leading a coalition to pilot Open Doors, a first responder network of Survivor-Mentors and Regional Navigators.
“It’s a very slow process with this population to gain trust because it’s been totally taken away from them. Every adult in their lives has let them down,” Rose said. “Who can understand them better than someone who has walked that same path?”
Sometimes, the recovered children are afraid of getting in further trouble with traffickers if they share details with law enforcement or child protection officials.
Vicky Basra, vice president of community & program development for Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, thinks often about a scared young victim she met recently in a Jacksonville detention center.
“Although she confided with her therapist that she was a victim of sex trafficking, she wouldn’t share that information with the Department of Children and Families or the FBI,” she recalled. “They were so supportive and met numerous times with her, but she was too afraid to reveal information with them.”
As a result, the girl was sent to a Department of Juvenile Justice residential commitment program.
“If we had a survivor-mentor in this community, I believe this girl would’ve been placed into the therapeutic services that she really needed,” she said.
Survivor-Mentors also are valuable because they demonstrate to sex trafficking victims that their pasts do not have to define their futures. They have the ability to determine their own self-worth.
Many commercially sexually exploited children, however, have been so brainwashed that they can’t even self-identity as victims or believe they’re worthy of a better life until they’re well into treatment. Of all trauma they must overcome, this is perhaps the slowest wound of all to heal.
Sex trafficked children need more than great laws and good intentions to help them. To learn more about Open Doors, a first responder network for commercially sexually exploited children, visit the Take Action Center today.
Read Part I of this story here.
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