According to the Children's Bureau, children and youth that are involved in "systems" like foster care, juvenile justice and corrections, and youth who are homeless are at a "high risk of being trafficked." Because of the frequent "lack of stability in their living situation, physical distance from friends and family, and emotional vulnerability" they are often more likely a target for traffickers who are looking to exploit youth.
When we look at youth in juvenile corrections systems, we often see a makeup of already-marginalized populations that have faced systemic injustice through the entirety of their short lives. We see youth who most likely have been hurt by those closest to them. And we marginalize and criminalize a group of people who suffered abuse at the hands of people who were supposed to love and care for them: 90% of teen girls in prison are victims of physical, emotional or sexual abuse (1). (Alarmingly, 9 out of 10 women in prostitution report experiencing sexual abuse as a child.)
Even more so, the system further enhances the youth's identity as "bad" or "delinquent" or "unworthy." If this youth has already suffered at the hands of their family or the brokenness of our cultural injustices, they have no positive foundation on which to build their identity. Our society deems them as a criminal and writes them off entirely.
Yet, building positive relationships with youth is one of the strongest influences one can have upon their self-esteem (1). My eyes and heart have been opened to the truth that what these youth need are unconditionally-loving positive relationships.
Before my first session at King County's long-term rehabilitation center for children (think "prison"), I was apprehensive. "Am I going to be in a room full of hardened youth who can play me before I know what's going on?" "Am I going to be safe?" "Will they like me or want to come to my group?" While, I will admit, the first time was a bit rocky (imagine if there were 12 teenage siblings testing the new babysitter), something inside me shifted and has cemented during my weekly visits.
These girls are incredible. There is nothing scary about them. Yes, some of them have done some scary things. But, almost always, those "scary things" were a result of even more "scary things" that had happened to them. Each one of them is incredibly fun and lovable. These teenagers--who use words which I have no idea of the meaning and were born when I was their age--have slowly opened up to let me into their hearts and allowed me to become a friend.
As we laugh together and build friendships, my heart fills with joy but it also breaks. It breaks knowing that these girls have been put in terrible situations in which they did things they would not have done in different circumstances. It breaks knowing that these girls feel excluded and marginalized from "normal" society. And it breaks knowing that, when they leave to go back into the community, they may end up stuck in a cycle that pushes them into exploitation.
Many of these girls have no where to go when they leave--they have no safe, healthy family. In that case, they likely end up in a group home where their "high risk" status for exploitation will persist.
I love that I get to help these girls learn strategies to recognize exploitation and stop it from happening. But, when it boils down to it, what we need is a cultural shift.
We need people to LOVE girls, boys, and marginalized populations before they end up in corrections systems. We need people to see "criminals" as "people who endured a lot of pain," and to reach out a helping hand. We need people all over our country who are willing to bring foster children into a safe, loving, and supportive environment.
We need mentors and people who are willing to believe in the inherent value and ability each of these youth hold. We need people who are willing to do the long and hard work of helping them build a positive identity.
I believe that, when this truly happens all across the board, we will see a sharp decrease in exploitation.
I challenge you to do something. Find a Boys and Girls Club of America location near you and become a big brother or sister. Find a mentorship program in your area and sign up. Become a sports coach and be a safe person for each child. Volunteer in a juvenile detention center in your area and--without judgement--build relationships with the youth.
There are girls and boys waiting for someone to love them, to help them, and to lift them up. There is a role for you to play in loving those who have not received the love they need. Will you play it?
For photos and narratives of girls in different correctional systems across the country, check out the photo journal here.
1. "Hidden from View: The Plight of Girls in Juvenile Detention." 20 October, 2016.