Children’s Bureau Grant Helps Raise Trafficking Awareness Among Arizona Youth-Serving Professionals
For one group of child welfare professionals in Arizona, identifying a group home resident as a victim of sex trafficking didn’t happen overnight. First, staff members noticed the young woman posting ads on Backpage.com, a website that can be used to find sex workers. They later learned that she had an older “boyfriend” helping her manage those posts. When the same resident began missing her 3 p.m. curfew, the different signs of possible trouble formed one clear picture—the young woman was being sex trafficked.
The group home workers eventually connected the dots, thanks in part to a training created by the Arizona State University Office for Sex Trafficking Intervention Research (STIR). A recipient of a Children’s Bureau grant to address trafficking within the child welfare population, the university hopes to educate youth-serving professionals throughout Arizona, so they can better identify and treat sex trafficking victims and prevent future trafficking.
“Our hope is that's not where we catch it,” says STIR Director Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, Ph.D., of the teen whose trafficking was recognized after it took place. “Our hope is that [if a young woman] starts dating a guy who is of an inappropriate age, and [staff] start seeing things in that relationship, [they] are able to intervene at that point to keep her safe.”
Exploring the Trafficking-Child Welfare Connection
Since receiving the Children’s Bureau grant in 2014, STIR has partnered with agencies across the state to get information to professionals likely to serve potential sex trafficking victims. They initially partnered with the state’s child welfare agency, the Arizona Department of Child Safety, to create a three-hour training delivered to 1,100 child welfare workers in multiple locations. Each of the 20 sessions included presentations from a trafficking survivor and agency representatives working with victims, as well as series of case studies to present common scenarios.
Like their homeless peers, many young people removed from their homes have a history of maltreatment and neglect, Roe-Sepowitz says. These experiences and their related trauma can lead to low self-esteem and unmet needs, causing youth to seek attention from would-be traffickers. Young people in foster care also experience less supervision compared to their peers, she adds, with fewer adults looking out for changes in their habits and behaviors.
Moreover, many youth with child welfare involvement end up in the juvenile justice system. Because of this overlap, STIR partnered with the Arizona Administrative Office of the Courts to train 546 juvenile justice professionals, including judges, probation officers, and prosecutors. Stakeholders in the child welfare and juvenile justice fields, as well as other youth-serving professionals, have since joined together to form a workgroup that meets three times a year to discuss new trafficking research, challenging cases, and common barriers to serving victims.
Lessons Learned from Runaway and Homeless Youth
Additionally, STIR researchers have connected with the Tumbleweed Center for Youth Development in Phoenix, a grantee of the Family and Youth Services Bureau’s (FYSB’s) Runaway and Homeless Youth Program. Through this collaboration, Tumbleweed staff members have shared their experiences identifying and working with young people impacted by trafficking to inform STIR’s recommendations for other youth-serving agencies. For example, researchers learned that some youth receiving Tumbleweed services engage in both sex trafficking activities and survival sex at different times, Roe-Sepowitz says, giving youth workers another behavior to look for in trafficking assessments.
The advice gathered from Tumbleweed staff has informed a training curriculum to educate clinical professionals who treat foster youth about effective therapeutic practices for sex trafficking victims. Similarly, a survey administered to 215 runaway and homeless youth receiving services found that more than half of respondents who experienced sex trafficking identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning (LGBTQ).
Whether collaborating with runaway and homeless youth agencies, juvenile court judges, or child welfare administrators, the relationships built with the Children’s Bureau’s support have helped STIR raise awareness about youth sex trafficking and its red flags across the state, Roe-Sepowitz says. Although more work needs to be done, she says she feels confident about the partnerships’ futures.
“This is a lifetime of work. We're not going to do any of this stuff super fast, and we have to be in it for the long haul,” she says. “I think we're all very committed to it.”