RHY Program Grantees Support Victims of Human Trafficking

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December 29, 2023

Human trafficking is a national public health priority and criminal justice issue that involves the exploitation of individuals for the purpose of forced labor or a commercial sex act through the use of force, fraud, or coercion[1]. Of the more than 23,500 cases of youth who run aways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2018, 1 in 7 were likely victims of child sex trafficking[2]. Although anyone can become a victim of human trafficking, youth who are experiencing homelessness, or at risk of experiencing homelessness, or who are contemplating running away are especially vulnerable.

 The National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families (NCHYF) spoke with two Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB), Runaway and Homeless Youth (RHY) grantees about their human trafficking prevention efforts and other topics. One grantee, the Wichita Children's Home (WCH), was founded in 1888 and is the longest running nonprofit organization in Wichita, Kansas. The other grantee, Northland Family Help Center, located in Flagstaff, Arizona, was established in 1978 and is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year.

WCH, which operates the only young-adult homeless shelter in Kansas, receives funding from three FYSB RHY programs:

  • Transitional Living Program (TLP) funding provides up to 18 months of housing and support services for approximately 22 youth a year at the WCH.
  • Street Outreach Program (SOP) helps the WCH to connect annually with about 127 youth.
  •  Maternity Group Home (MGH) program funding helps to meet the needs of approximately 22 homeless pregnant and parenting young people a year, as well as their dependent children.

Although the WCH primarily serves urban youth from Wichita and surrounding areas, it also supports youth who are referred from other parts of Kansas. Demographically, their clients are approximately 54 percent white, 31 percent African American, and 13 percent Hispanic.  

While WCH mainly serves urban youth, the Northland Family Help Center (NFHC) serves a large, rural area in Arizona, including the city of Flagstaff and the rest of Coconino County—the second largest county in the lower 48 states, which is also home to a large Native American population, encompassing part of the Navajo Nation and several other tribal lands. Due to their large service area, NFHC Executive Director Shaleen Seward explains,, "We sometimes have to be creative in how we connect with a guardian or family member or arrange transportation for youth." While human trafficking can occur without travel, some trafficked individuals are transported from state to state, or internationally into US territories. Flagstaff is located near the intersection of two major interstates, I-17 and I-40, making it a hub for human trafficking activity. NFHC operates a 24-hour crisis line and receives funding from the FYSB Basic Center Program (BCP), which provides for up to 21 days of shelter for youth under 18 who are experiencing homelessness or housing instability and works to reunite them with their families or appropriate alternative placements. On an annual basis, the BCP supports shelter for about 15 to 20 youth and outreach to about 325 youth. Nearly 48 percent of the youth served by NFHC's BCP are Native American, 20 percent are white, 10 percent are Hispanic, and 5 percent are African American. 

The fact that WCH serves urban populations, while NFHC serves rural populations, highlights the pervasiveness of the human trafficking issue. In addition to RHY-funded programs, WCH also operates a human trafficking youth residential program (10-18 years of age. WCH CEO Debbie Kennedy explains that "the moment that any child or youth is brought to WCH, through any of our programs, human trafficking is part of our assessment. NFHC staff also assesses all youth for human trafficking as part of shelter intake. The NFHC staff includes trauma therapists, including a specialist certified in sex trafficking and exploitation. Additionally, all NFHC staff receive 40 hours of initial training, which includes issues related to exploitation. 

WCH stresses the importance of including an assessment for identifying signs of human trafficking upon client intake because often youth who experience this type of exploitation do not associate their experiences with human trafficking. CEO Kennedy explains that they may indicate that their trafficker is their "boyfriend," not believing or understanding the dynamics of control and conversion that lead to trafficking. By working with them, Kennedy says that WCH staff will "walk that journey with them" to help those clients recognize that the manipulation and trauma perpetrated upon them, is in fact, human trafficking. Traffickers also often convince their victims to mistrust the system, including any agency, such as WCH, that serves youth experiencing or at risk of homelessness. "We always start from a nonjudgmental perspective," says Soutdaly Sysavath, Director of Runaway and Homeless Youth Programs at WCH. "If they (clients) are in denial, or have not identified as a victim, we help them to recognize the signs of being trafficked on their own. My job is not to put a label on them, but rather to help them see how they're living their life." 

Angie Nguyen, WCH's Survivor Aftercare Program Coordinator, offers this perspective: "If the client is ready to seek change in their lives, we introduce what legal employment looks like, how to conduct job searches, and a process for getting back into school. But if they are hesitant about identifying themselves as a victim, we provide them with warning signs—red flags—related to human trafficking.” WCH also provides aftercare services and contact information for clients after they exit the agency. This provides for ongoing support of potentially trafficked youth. Nguyen explains that, following their connection with WCH, "I've had youth call me later and say, 'Hey, what do you think about this guy asking me to do this? Is that considered trafficking?'"

In their work to address human trafficking, both grantees understand the value of coordinating and collaborating with youth and youth-serving organizations within their communities. For example, both work with McKinney-Vento local homeless education liaisons within their local school systems, law enforcement and probation offices, partner organizations that support victims of human trafficking, and medical and mental health providers. WCH's Street Outreach Program provides youth with Safe Place cards that include WCH’s website and telephone numbers and a list of locations, including local businesses, identified as safe places for homeless youth to seek help. The Chief Executive Officer (CEO) also serves on the Kansas Attorney General's Advisory Board on Human Trafficking. WCH also developed a “Lend Your Voice” box, consisting of information about human trafficking and steps to take in confronting it. This box was sent to more than 150 organizations throughout Kansas to help them improve their ability to identify exploitation and human trafficking. WCH CEO Debbie Kennedy believes that this approach led to more responses than sending emails.

NFHC's RHY Outreach Coordinator, James Kennedy, reaches out to youth at strip malls, parks, and other locations. The NFHC's Community Education Department also conducts informational presentations at local schools. NFHC partners with a variety of local partners, such as an ice skating rink that allows youth to skate for free, and the Native Americans for Community Action (NACA), a more than 50-year-old organization that provides services to Native and non-Native populations in Flagstaff and surrounding communities. Kate Wyatt, NFHC's Director of Human Trafficking Services, also created the Flagstaff Initiative Against Trafficking, a citywide organization, housed at the NFHC, that addresses human trafficking.

The organizations also work to address the shapes human trafficking can take from one community to another, including in the tribal landscape. Wyatt makes the point that, in addition to responding to other forms of human trafficking, NFHC is connected to the missing and murdered indigenous people's movement. She says, “We have learned that human trafficking can look much different on the neighboring tribal lands. While it can be similar to what we see in other towns and cities, involving peers, family members, and intimate partners, we also know that indigenous people often go missing and are forced or coerced into sex and labor exploitation outside of their own communities.”

Both organizations implemented substantial changes to their normal operations during the COVID-19 pandemic; however, they also managed to continue serving youth and their families by providing virtual services (including counseling and therapy) and instituting more indoor activities to keep housed youth engaged and entertained. WCH reached out to families and youth in the community during the pandemic by being present for outreach when the schools distributed lunches to families when school buildings were closed. WCH developed a plan for managing health outbreaks, which they employed and shared with others in the community.

Closures and other conditions during the pandemic led NFHC to get creative in their attempts to keep the youth they housed engaged and connected. "You couldn’t go to the movies or bowling," says Seward at NFHC about the limited activities available to youth at the height of the pandemic. As a solution, NFHC increased the number of computers for study and other activities, added a fish tank to the shelter (the youth loved to identify fish and learn about keeping up the fish tank), and housed ducklings in the shelter, allowing youth to learn about their hatchings. A new program was added for their clients based on mindfulness and observation that gave youth a chance to explore more of the outdoors in northern Arizona.   

When asked about recommended human trafficking prevention strategies for organizations supporting youth experiencing homelessness, both organizations identified meeting youth where they are, forming trusting client relationships, and providing staff training on identifying and supporting human trafficking victims. WCH also focuses on hiring staff, at every level, who are Survivor Leaders (staff members who have their own lived experience with abuse, exploitation, or trafficking).

"We are a trauma-informed agency," NFHC's Seward says. "From interns to administrators, all of our staff goes through trauma-informed care basic training and our staff at the youth shelter receives weekly trauma-informed supervision." Seward notes that employing these tactics helps to create a team that understands that a youth’s behavior and actions are reflective of their lived experience, which helps staff meet the youth where they are in a nonjudgmental way. WCH CEO Kennedy says that Survivor Leaders can be especially valuable, particularly in helping disrupt the patterns that occur during trafficking and helping create conditions for healing. In working with youth who have been trafficked, she says, "I think our biggest impact is for our staff to develop a trusting relationship with them (youth) from the beginning. Trust is the foundation for creating a transformational relationship, one that can help our clients walk through the trauma from being a victim to becoming a survivor."

[1] https://www.justice.gov/humantrafficking (accessed January 21, 2023)

[2] Child Trafficking in the U.S. Happens in All 50 States (unicefusa.org). https://www.unicefusa.org/stories/child-trafficking-hits-close-home/36189 (accessed January 21, 2023)

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