NCFY Reports

Creating a Safe Place for Trafficked Youth in Runaway and Homeless Youth Programs

Photograph of young women sitting together in a group.The girls sit on the floor and on the sofa. They listen and share. Sometimes, it’s hard to talk. But in this space, no one is judged.

This is Rachel’s Group. Once a week, Rachel Lloyd meets with members of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, the New York organization she founded to help young women leave “the Life,” as sex trafficking is called by those involved with it.

When they’re in Rachel’s Group, the girls feel safe—empowered, listened to, sheltered from the brutality of their lives and the stigma that the outside world places on them. Like the girls she mentors, Lloyd was trafficked for sex as a young woman. She knows firsthand the manipulation, degradation and rape the girls face. She knows the danger inherent in trying to leave the Life, and the strength it takes for girls to break the exploitative bonds that tie them to their pimps. She knows the girls won’t come here for help if they feel endangered.

“The girls say, ‘We like being here because it’s safe and because it’s a community,’” says Julie Laurence, chief program officer at GEMS.

Survivor-led programs like GEMS have emerged as models for other youth-serving organizations that come into contact with trafficked youth, but aren’t sure how to ensure their physical and emotional safety. Experts say that with some precautions and training, runaway and homeless youth programs, with their dual focus on understanding and treating young people’s trauma and on empowering youth to reach their full potential, can create their own version of Rachel’s Group: a safe, nonjudgmental environment where formerly trafficked youth feel comfortable getting help.

“It’s about having rapport and establishing a context of safety and non-exploitation,” says Mary Schmidbauer, director of Second Chance, a Toledo, OH, program that works with trafficked women and girls.

Keeping Danger at Bay

Physical safety is paramount for trafficked youth, who have an extra level of safety concerns, above and beyond those of other runaway and homeless youth, Laurence says.

“Pimps use violence and threats of harming their families if young people try to escape,” she says. And often traffickers know each other, so young people might fear that their attempts to leave the Life might reach the wrong ears.

Runaway and homeless youth programs also have to be vigilant to ensure that pimps don’t try to recruit vulnerable young people from emergency shelters, and that trafficked youth don’t attempt to recruit others while they are in a program.

To address those safety concerns, Schmidbauer says programs that serve trafficked youth shouldn't open up near prostitution zones. Second Chance is tucked away on a church campus, but it’s in the center of town and on a bus line. Girls can easily get there without being observed or followed by pimps.

At GEMS, a security camera monitors the locked outside doors, and all visitors have to be buzzed in.

If trafficking does occur near a youth shelter or program, or if pimps attempt to harass or recruit youth entering or leaving the facilities, the best remedy is to work closely with law enforcement, says Jake Hardie, special agent with the FBI and coordinator of the Northwest Ohio Violent Crimes Against Children Task Force.

“What helps is if the staff at these shelters relay information to law enforcement that helps us build a baseline of what’s going on with trafficking in the area,” he says. “Just by giving us that type of information, that helps us deal with the problem.”

Schmidbauer and her staff keep an eye out for youth who seem interested in recruiting their peers. Often these girls are overconfident and act over-sexualized, Schmidbauer says, unlike many typical victims, who often are unassertive and unassuming and won’t make eye contact. Schmidbauer assigns a staff member to shadow the suspected recruiter and be in the room with her at all times (short of following her to the bathroom) as long as she is at Second Chance, to keep her from recruiting other youth.

Feeling Safe

Experts say ensuring safety for trafficked youth is not just about physical safety from exploiters and johns. It’s also about making youth who’ve been used and abused by adults feel safe, as the girls in Rachel’s group do, and making them feel that staff won’t harm or manipulate them.

“It’s important for these girls to see that there’s someone who’s there just to help them and doesn’t want anything in return,” says Jennifer Meyers, an FBI victim specialist in Cleveland.

For a youth-serving program to feel safe, staff need to have training, Laurence says, “so they know how to engage and ask questions and not have their own biases [about prostitution] come through,” Laurence says.

Laurence and Meyers emphasize that those who work with trafficked youth need to make no judgments. At the most basic level, staff need to understand that trafficked youth are coerced and exploited victims who often don’t see themselves that way. A trafficked girl might call a man her boyfriend and believe he’s her boyfriend, Schmidbauer says, “but he’s really her pimp.”

To promote the feeling of safety, programs should have policies that prohibit staff and youth from using the word “prostitute” or other derogatory terms, Laurence says. She also recommends hiring culturally competent staff and aiming for racial, ethnic and age diversity, as well as having staff who have survived trafficking or who understand the subculture and issue.

“People who won’t say, ‘Oh that’s so horrible,’ or have a rescue mentality,” she says. “It’s not about rescuing young people. It’s about giving them a safe environment to grow and have opportunities to move on with their lives.”

More Information

NCFY’s “Bought and Sold” brochure lists signs to look for to identify trafficked youth, and provides basic information for youth workers about how to help these young people.

GEMS offers survivor-led training and technical assistance.

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