By Vicki Spriggs
Chief Executive Officer of Texas CASA
When I was young, my parents kept a close eye on me and my sisters. They were always teaching us to be careful around strangers; not to go out alone if possible; and to make sure they knew where we were at all times, and when we’d be back home. Chances are, many of you reading this blog were ingrained with the same sort of rules and messages growing up, and those of you who have children of your own have likely created similar rules in order to keep them safe.
Many of the children in the foster care system, however, have not had the benefit of this type of parenting. Removed from their homes due to abuse or neglect and placed far away from their home communities; they are much more vulnerable to a variety of dangers due to the trauma and isolation they experience, including the danger of child trafficking and exploitation.
It is tempting to think that this couldn’t possibly be a problem here in the U.S., but in reality, this monstrous crime is happening right here, under our noses, in our backyards. It is an especially real and present threat for children in foster care who are scared, lonely and desperately seeking connections and relationships; too often without the same adult guidance and oversight as the other children around them.
Many reading this have probably heard of the case of Cyntoia Brown. Earlier this month, Brown, 30, who has served almost 15 years of a life sentence for killing a man who bought her for sex when she was 16 years old, was granted clemency by the Governor of Tennessee. She will be released in August.
Brown entered the foster care system as a baby. She ran away in her early teens, and began living with a then-24-year-old man nicknamed “Cut Throat.” Cut Throat was sexually, physically and emotionally abusive; and eventually forced her into sex slavery. In 2004 at age 16, Brown killed Johnny Mitchell Allen, a man who had solicited her for sex and taken her to his house. Prosecutors at the time argued that the killing wasn’t motivated by self-defense, but by robbery – she had stolen money and guns, and fled the scene in his truck. Brown, however, said she was scared for her life, and had taken the money and guns for fear of returning to Cut Throat empty handed.
A number of high-profile advocates and celebrities brought Brown’s case back to the forefront in recent years, raising questions about juvenile sentencing guidelines and how our society views victims of sex trafficking, and prompting the call for her release.
Brown will be free in August and will be able to take steps to rebuild her life. Her trial also inspired a documentary that eventually helped change the way Tennessee deals with victims of sex trafficking, especially juveniles. But regardless, stories like these, quite simply, should not happen in the first place. Don’t misunderstand: there is no question that what Brown did was wrong; she admitted so herself. But what about the circumstances that landed her in this difficult situation? What of the perpetrators of the violence against her; what of those who were taking advantage of her and forcing her into slavery, and making her feel as though she had no choice? Was it fair and just that she was tried as an adult, convicted of murder and robbery, and sentenced to life in prison, despite being a 16-year-old victim of one of humanity’s most horrific crimes?
Had all involved in Brown’s trial been better educated on human trafficking and its devastating effects, perhaps her initial sentence would have been more lenient. Or even better, had someone intervened in Brown’s life in the right moment – recognized the signs of trafficking and exploitation and taken the necessary steps to keep her safe – so much pain would have been prevented.
We as a society can do more for people like Cyntoia Brown. We can better protect those at risk of trafficking and exploitation, help survivors find healing and bring offenders to justice.
January is Human Trafficking Prevention Month. In Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s proclamation, he encourages all Texans to stand up, learn to recognize the signs and do their part to help end modern-day slavery. To address this issue on the statewide level, he also created a Child Sex Trafficking Team with the purpose of preventing, investigating and prosecuting the commercial sexual exploitation of children.
But it’s not just up to our state leaders to take action against this atrocious crime – it’s up to you and me. Here are some ways you can help, right in your local community.
Use people-first language.
In the original transcripts from Brown’s trial, she was often referred to as a “teen prostitute,” rather than what she really was: a child who was manipulated, harmed and exploited by the adults around her.
Words are powerful, and when used carelessly, they can harm those we are trying to help. If you must label these children, rather calling them “prostitutes,” or “victims,” or “slaves,” call them what they truly are – survivors. And whenever possible, instead of defining them by their experience or situation, practice using people-first language. Read more about terms and language to avoid when speaking to or discussing survivors of trafficking here. You can also learn more about people-first language, and how it applies to other relevant situations, here.
Recognize the signs.
Educate yourself on the signs of trafficking and exploitation, and consider taking your awareness a step further by attending an in-person training. Texas CASA has partnered with the Texas regional office of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to open their free training opportunities on the signs of trafficking and how to help prevent it to CASA staff and volunteers.
Take concrete action.
First, if you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911. If you believe you have information about a trafficking situation and/or suspect that someone you know is being trafficked, call the 24/7 National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
There is also a brilliant app called TraffickCam that enables everyday people to help fight trafficking by uploading photos of their hotel room. The photos are used to help authorities determine where perpetrators of sex trafficking are committing their crimes. Download it for iPhone/iPad, or for Android.
Next, remember that the close relationship CASA volunteers have with children in foster care gives them a unique opportunity to look for the signs of potential, or current, exploitation. Volunteers also play a key role in ensuring these children have a positive adult support system both during and after their time in care – decreasing the likelihood that they will engage in risky or dangerous behavior or seek out connections with people who will hurt them. Help these vulnerable children by becoming a volunteer, nominating someone you know to be a volunteer, or making a secure online donation to benefit Texas CASA and the CASA programs across the state.
Also, I want to specially recognize Dallas CASA, a local CASA program that has taken on a leadership role this arena as a member of the North Texas Coalition Against Human Trafficking – a group of organizations committed to working together to identify, rescue and serve those who have been trafficked and successfully prosecute their traffickers.
And finally… listen.
Listen to those who are different from you. Listen to the stories of survivors. CASA volunteers, listen to the young people you serve. I’ll leave you with an excerpt from Cyntoia Brown’s recent guest column in the Tennessean – she puts it much better than I ever could.
“The biggest change in the trajectory of my life, which had seemed so hopeless at one point, began when someone chose to listen to the experience of a 16-year-old girl. It was only from others listening that my second chance was possible.
There is great power in listening to the insights of young people. As you think about the issues facing our society today, I invite you to view them from the lens of our youth with an open ear and mind.
Let us step fully into our roles as stewards of their future and open our minds to the issues as defined by them. The smaller, quiet voices can speak the loudest if we would only listen.”
If you are not currently involved with CASA, I ask you today to consider how you can play a part in making a difference in the lives of our most vulnerable children. Are you ready to take the first step towards becoming a CASA volunteer? Visit BecomeACASA.org to learn how you can speak up for a child who needs you. You can also support the work of Texas CASA by making a secure online gift that will benefit the local CASA volunteer advocacy programs across the state.