Interviews & Profiles

How misinformation hinders the early identification of child human trafficking victims

Budy Garcia-Whitfield, assistant vice president of behavioral health and wellness for Westchester programs at JCCA, weighs-in on what is being done to help youth subjected to sexual trauma and abuse.

January is Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

January is Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Gelu Popa - Getty

The New York City Human Trafficking Hotline has received 12,341 calls as of 2021, identifying 3,748 cases involving a staggering 7,703 victims. But according to the city’s child welfare experts, these numbers represent only a small visible portion of the widespread net of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of children. Despite these numbers, misconceptions surrounding human trafficking are often common and widespread, often preventing victims from being identified early on.

In recognition of Human Trafficking Prevention Month, the JCCA, one of the city’s largest child welfare organizations, is aiming to bring awareness to this rampant issue alongside the trauma-informed care they provide to sexually abused children. Serving young people who are in both foster and residential care, JCCA’s Center for Healing deploys experts who provide holistic, individualized treatment options addressing the impact of sexual trauma and abuse, among them stemming from human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. The center also issues community training to better inform foster families of the cues of human trafficking survivors and sexually exploited children. 

New York Nonprofit Media spoke to Budy Garcia-Whitfield, assistant vice president of behavioral health and wellness for Westchester programs at JCCA, to dispel common myths surrounding human trafficking and what can be done to prevent future harm.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does modern human trafficking really look like?

Human trafficking is the trafficking of a human being for work. Commercial sexual exploitation is the exploitation of children. If you're exploiting them for their service, you're exploiting them in order to gain benefits and means (including sexual exploitation). Modern human trafficking is the exchange of goods for services. With human trafficking, what's been happening with youth who are in child welfare, they're actually the most susceptible to be trafficked, because they are what's called ”unseen.” And so the youth that are the most vulnerable or neglected are placed here from the Department of Social Services or their local department social services. So Commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) involves a range of crimes and activities involving sexual abuse or exploitation of a child for the financial benefit of another person, or it's the sexual exchange for anything of value. It can be monetary or non-monetary. If we think of kids who run away from their homes, sometimes the non-monetary piece can be in order for them to have a place to stay, or food to have, or clothing on – any of their necessary needs. In New York City alone, there's an estimated 2,200 children who are victimized by commercial sexual exploitation annually. And in fact, there's a study that shows that 85% of trafficking victims had prior child welfare involvement, which shows why you know, this work is super important. We have worked with clients who have experienced CSEC as young as 10, and as old as 21. So these youth have come into the system in foster care and we provide them intensive therapy services, such as trauma focused cognitive behavioral therapy, game based behavioral therapy, some Dialectical Behavioral Therapy depending on the clinician skills. 

What’s the typical background of a child who may be vulnerable to human trafficking? 

There's a few risk factors. But I just also want to clarify that the average entry for girls into commercial sexual exploitation is 12 to 14, and the average entry for boys and transgender youth when they become victims is 11 and goes up to 13. We also don't want to forget that this is not only something that impacts girls, it also impacts boys. But here are some of the risk factors: about 70% to 90% of children who are victims of CSEC were sexually abused previously. So that is a risk factor. Runaways are especially vulnerable because of their circumstances. So lack of shelter, food, trauma, love, issues in their home life, survival, sex, etc. And also the LGBTQIA population can be up to five times more likely than heterosexual youth to be victims of trafficking. [LGBTQIA youth are targeted] because of their identity, and how people take more advantage of that. They are the ones who are also not seen or not accepted and so this is why they are victimized.

As you said, the majority of these human trafficked victims have interacted with child welfare. Is this a symptom of a problem within foster care not being addressed appropriately? 

I think it's a systemic issue. Kids are placed in foster care for various reasons, abuse and neglect are at the top one neglect, medical neglect, educational and all forms of abuse. What happens in their home or with their kin caregiver, that leads them to be neglected or abused and enter into the system, they're already coming in with some traumas. And so you place them in an environment where some are loving foster parents, and some might not be loving foster parents. And so there's some retrigger that happens. And there's this longing for love, affection, attention, acceptance, somewhere in it within their lives. And so when a youth is trafficked, you're usually trafficked by other friends. So friends might come up and use words like “dating”. This is the guy that I'm dating who’s going to be able to get this and that. So all of their needs that they feel are missing, they end up getting through being trafficked through other friends. And so this friend brings you into what's called the “life,” and they may introduce you to a motherly figure. You meet people who then start coercing you into these things, and saying that they love you, they'll provide better for you – in a way of grooming you. Because they'll start grooming you by giving things like food, drugs, money, when they're gaining means in order to bring you into trafficking. And once you're in, then further abuse happens, from further threatening manipulation tactics in order to keep kids consistently working for whatever was provided for them. 

Would you mind speaking more about the intersection between drug use or drug trafficking and human trafficking?

So human trafficking is a billion-dollar industry, because it goes unseen. It's easier to traffic humans than it is to traffic drugs, right? Because as a human, you don't know if the person is being trafficked whereas a drug, you find the substance, there's that exchange. Because for some in the criminal world, they have to have multiple streams of income, and this is one of them. So either the traffic victims are utilized to traffic the drugs as well, or the drug dealers are utilizing their traffic victims in tangent with their other business. Substance abuse at times can become secondary. With teenagers, it's mostly marijuana and alcohol. The population that we've seen, a very, very minimal fraction, use illicit drugs, such as heroin, cocaine, fentanyl, etc. The numbers are super, super, super low in the child welfare system from what I've seen in New York. I can't speak for other states.

Among the biggest misconceptions surrounding human trafficking is victim-blaming. What are some misconceptions that you've seen surrounding human trafficking?

Some misconceptions are that it is a girl's fault, right? A misconception is that those with disabilities are not trafficked. So they think that kids who are IDD or on the spectrum are not trafficked when in fact, they're at greater risk, and they're more vulnerable. However, there is a very large gap in data reporting for this population due to these misconceptions and beliefs. It's also that about 40% of foster care youth are in special education. So it's not a lot of them, but they can be more easily recruited, due to the difficulties in recognizing other bad intentions, manipulations and motivations. I think victim blaming is a deeper conversation, because if you look at it from a global standpoint, there's victim blaming in even adults who have survived sexual abuse and trauma. With adolescents and youth because there's so much “rebellion”that adolescents are experiencing and also not having good influences, this makes it seem as if they have a choice and the ability to discern right from wrong. If you look at children who have been sexually abused, we think about their self-esteem, their perception of how they view life, and with what lens, it makes it easier for them to be coerced and manipulated into being trafficked. Which is why for parents, caregivers, adults, therapists etc., we always have to look at the signs that these youth are exhibiting, because we can save someone if we catch it, perhaps at the beginning. Having conversations with kids is important, because you will catch on to certain things. But I think what happens is that we always focus so much on the negative behavior, the rebellion, that we tend to forget to have these conversations where we can extrapolate data in essence to help support or rescue someone.

How damaging can these misconceptions be?

It can be very damaging because you lose the ability to save someone. You can actually either push them further into feeling that no one loves them, which can then impact someone's life, detrimentally. In addition, we then continue to see a repetitive cycle, because what happens is that they force the youth to become further recruiters to have more friends [trafficked]. The Center for Healing is involved in an annual training on commercial sexual exploitation, where we offer trainings in the community] to not only providers but also to foster parents on identifying commercial sexual exploitation, what kind of treatment modalities, how to approach a situation, what are policies and protocols, if a youth does disclose that they are involved in commercial sexual exploitation, reporting lines, etc. And even how to be mindful of language that's being used. 

Why is it so important to dispel these myths surrounding human trafficking? 

It's important to dispel these myths because these are youth and children who are vulnerable, who have had adverse childhood experiences and are just seeking acceptance. And if we as adults are doing them a disservice and not providing the support, not paying attention to the signs and symptoms, then we are unable to help. So if you are someone who may be a victim of human trafficking, please call 911 or your local law enforcement. You can also call the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which is 1-888-373-7888 or text HELP or INFO to 233733.