By Jessie Slafter JD, MSW

I met Veronica for the first time outside a courtroom on a Tuesday afternoon. Despite arriving early for the 1:30p.m. detention calendar, I see her sitting in the hallway outside of court and instantly know that it’s her, despite having not met her before. Veronica carries the emotional and physical presence of a youth who has been in survival mode for many years. During lunch, I’d read the detention report, written hastily by a social worker on a deadline. It described the circumstances that brought Veronica to this courthouse: running away from her mom’s home, threatening her mom with violence, and scaring her two younger siblings that live in the home with them. In between long paragraphs about Veronica’s drug use and older boyfriends, there are hints at a traumatic past: her father died suddenly five years ago, possible molestation, and exposure to domestic violence. She’d been diagnosed with multiple mental health conditions, each doctor seeming to see a different side of Veronica and come up with different treatment plans and medications. The tone of the report detailed repeatedly the ways in which Veronica was out of control, impulsive, and disrespectful of authority.

As a children’s attorney in dependency court, I am tasked with representing children who have been abused or neglected. Youth like Veronica, whose primary presentation is that of defiance, anger, and antisocial behavior, fall somewhere in between vulnerable youth in need of protection and youth whose behavior will bring him or her to the attention of the juvenile justice system.

In fact, Veronica’s mother had called the police on her, terrified for her safety and helpless to communicate with a daughter she sometimes feels she doesn’t recognize anymore. When the police arrived, instead of being taken to juvenile hall for assault or criminal threats, she was taken to a psychiatric facility. Her mom couldn’t have her at home anymore, and Veronica refuses to go back. Veronica’s mom needed help, and so she signed a voluntary release of custody so that Veronica could be taken into social services custody. This initiated the court process, where I would meet Veronica and be appointed as her lawyer. The judge will consider the facts and determine whether Veronica should be removed from her mother’s care.

Even amidst all of the other troubling aspects of Veronica’s history, the part of Veronica’s report that really seizes my attention is where she is referred to as a “CSEC youth.” CSEC, or commercial sexual exploitation of children, captures a wide variety of youth behavior and victimization. When I read this term in a report, it could be used accurately or inaccurately to describe a variety of sexual behaviors, assault, or chronic victimization. CSEC may be used to indicate that a youth has been forcibly kidnapped and trafficked for sex, that a youth believes themselves to be performing sex work to support themselves, that a youth has sent nude photos to a boyfriend, or pejoratively to refer to relatively typical teenage sexual behavior. Almost always, the young person may have been screened for risk factors of sexual exploitation, but not told that she had, in fact, met criteria to receive the CSEC label. In many cases, the youth vehemently deny being exploited.

Sexual exploitation or trafficking is most commonly understood as a crime that occurs elsewhere, somewhere outside the United States. Human trafficking brings to mind ghoulish images from movies of young women kidnapped, shackled, and raped, while a remorseless evil villain profits. This portrayal has a victim that is clearly blameless and pitiable; a perpetrator that is deeply rotten and culpable. The truth of domestic commercial sexual exploitation of children is much more complicated, and much more common.

In California until 2016, a child could be arrested for soliciting or engaging in prostitution. These children were seen as agents in their criminal conduct, choosing to break the law in order to make a profit. They were held in juvenile halls, charged, and sentenced to probation, incarceration, or treatment programs. Their freedom was negotiated for cooperation in an attempt to catch the johns and pimps. Oftentimes, such youth were kept in custody due to the risk that they would flee. Driven by a paternalistic desire to keep the children safe, juvenile justice systems sent youth to locked facilities, to other states, and kept them under court supervision.

In 2016, SB1322 passed in California, which made solicitation and prostitution charges inapplicable to minors, while still permitting authorities to bring children engaging in such conduct into temporary custody. On a larger scale, SB1322 and accompanying legislation provided for a paradigm shift in the way such children are viewed. There is now no such thing as a child prostitute. Children who have solicited or engaged in sex acts for money are victims of crime, regardless of how actively it appears they participated in their own exploitation. SB1322 also provides a pathway for children who have been sexually trafficked and whose parents failed or were unable to protect them to be brought into the foster care system.

With this in mind, I sit down in a private room with Veronica. Understanding sexual exploitation as a crime committed against children, not by children, I soften my approach and speak with her the same way in which I approach discussing any other abuse she may have experienced.

Veronica is slow to open up to me, wary of the courthouse, the legal terminology, and having just been in the same court hallway as her mother, whom she hadn’t seen since the police arrived at her house days earlier. The hallway was also teeming with families in various states of healing from the fracture that led them to the courthouse.  But once we are in a private room, we begin to talk. We have much to cover in only a short time, as the court calendar churns and I am anxious to relieve Veronica of the brain-numbing wait times that can accompany such court appearances due to a loaded court calendar that requires my attention to be divided among many cases throughout an afternoon. Despite our short acquaintance, by necessity I ask her about the trauma that brought her here, and eventually about her experience with exploitation.

At this point, she is resistant to talking, shutting down as I ask questions about what I’ve read. Had I approached my interview with her by viewing her silence as dishonesty, her problematic sexual behavior as something merely to be solved, then I would have already limited my capacity to develop a relationship. Veronica would likely sense my skepticism. My response to her might have been to lecture her on safety, on the risks and consequences of her behavior, or to challenge her story in order to get down to the truth. The result of this approach would be to damage the relationship before I’ve built it. At best, she would feel she’s lost a potential ally. At worst, I would have been another adult who has shamed her for her trauma because of my inability to meet her where she is.

Traditional approaches to interviewing a child may be ineffective when working with a youth who has been sexually exploited. Unlike the archetype of the kidnapped sex trafficking victim, who is grateful for help and willing to provide information about her experience to bring the perpetrator to justice, a youth who has been exploited may feel protective of her exploiter. The lifestyle that the professional views as harmful may be the part of the youth’s life that feels most supportive, consistent, and familiar. Instead of being met with gratitude at the chance of being rescued, the professional may be met with resistance, anger, or dishonesty when pushing for the exploitation to stop.

But I use a different approach, one that helps me meet Veronica where she is.  The Transtheoretical Model (Stages of Change), developed by Prochaska and DiClemente, utilizes a framework for understanding where an individual is in their progress toward changing. Instead of viewing all youth as being ready to change their behavior but for the intervention of a professional, the Stages of Change model incorporates the steps one must take before change is contemplated.  The framework creates therapeutic intervention even for individuals who are actively expressing that they don’t want to change. The six stages are pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, and termination. Interventions should be targeted toward where the individual is, not merely where the professional wants them to be. For example, a youth that is in the pre-contemplation phase of change may see her exploitation as an unproblematic choice that she is making. Discussions of leaving her exploiter may risk hardening her resolve and feeling misunderstood. Meeting such a youth where she is may mean focusing on relationship development and building trust before focusing on my agenda to change their behavior.

In contemplation, the youth may begin to see the ways in which their behavior is impacting their life and become curious about what change would look like. For a youth who is experiencing sexual exploitation, this may appear as an increase in sharing challenging feelings about their exploitation or as curiosity about others who have left an exploiter. In preparation, the third phase, before action to change behavior has been initiated, the individual may outline action steps and reaffirm their choice to change. A youth in this phase of change may create a safety plan or identify safe places to stay away from their exploiter.

Harm Reduction, an approach adopted by the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) has created complementary guidance on how to support such youth to the Stages of Change model. CDSS is now tasked with caring for exploited youth that previously may have been served by the juvenile justice system. The Child Trafficking Response Unit within CDSS endorsed a harm reduction approach for working with children who have experienced sexual exploitation and provided guidance for statewide agencies working directly with exploited youth. The harm reduction approach, as opposed to abstinence-based approaches, acknowledges and prepares for the likelihood of relapse into old behaviors. It supports the agency and decision making of the youth, focuses on decreasing the impact of harmful behaviors, and recognizes that the youth’s harmful behavior may still serve them.

The challenge in meeting youth where they are is that we may fear that, when a youth later makes a mistake, we will feel responsible for not having warned them about the consequences. The reality is that most youth will make mistakes, regardless of an adult’s warnings, and they will be more likely to come to an adult to process this mistake if the adult has developed a safe relationship with the youth first.

Applying a harm reduction approach in my interview with Veronica, I take a step back from my interrogation and begin to ask her open-ended questions about her experience. I continue developing my relationship with her by asking about interests and experiences outside of the trauma that brought us together. I inquire as to her safety in the room and prepare her for the experience of court and dependency intervention in her life. Understanding her to be in the pre-contemplation phase as it relates to her exploitation, I focus on developing a relationship with her.  Over the following weeks, I will reach out to Veronica more than I do with my other clients to create opportunities for her to develop trust in our relationship.

Quickly after entering foster care, she is placed into a group home that doesn’t meet her needs. She begins to leave her placement without permission for days or weeks without checking in with anyone. When I do hear from her, my desire to lecture her is strong – I want to keep her safe, to warn her about the dangers of the world. Despite those urges, I utilize the harm reduction approaches of validating tiny successes, not putting conditions on her contact with me based on her conduct in group homes, yet also telling her the truth about how I am impacted by her lack of stability.

I’ve also learned from my clients that it is powerful for me to show my client what a normal human reaction is to something terrible that has happened for them. If I react to my client’s trauma with a stone face, I miss an opportunity to demonstrate that the harm they suffered should not have happened and causes sorrow to hear.

I take an opportunity to show Veronica that sorrow when I visit her for the first time in juvenile hall. She was arrested when a vehicle she was in with her exploiter crashes. The vehicle was stolen and she gave a fake name to police. Since entering foster care and moving between different group homes, Veronica has been mostly absent from placement. Unlike the nights where Veronica left her mom’s house and she would be followed or found by her family, when Veronica leaves a group home, no one follows her. She couldn’t be forced to stay in a placement, and the relationships she’d developed in the group home are minimal. She tells me the staff seems to expect that she will leave, and doesn’t acknowledge her when she returns. As a result, her exploitation accelerated.

In juvenile hall, she begins to open up to me more honestly about her exploitation. When I push too hard for answers, she closes up, so I have to let her go at her pace in sharing or get no information at all. When we lightly touch the subject of what alternatives there are to her current situation, she describes very real barriers to getting the support she needs. The therapists that she meets with are not trained to work with the type of trauma she has experienced or they are inflexible with their schedules, closing out when Veronica misses a session or two. Some have been interns that move on to other positions shortly after they begin working together. The case managers and therapists who worked with her kept weekday, daytime hours, so she had no one to call when an after hours crisis hit.

The placements where Veronica is sent have minimal programming outside of the television, and often plans are canceled due to limited transportation within the home. Veronica has had her clothing and money stolen from her placement with little recourse by the staff. She has yet to get her clothes from her mother’s house and had to wear the same outfit repeatedly.

For each point that she raised, I did my best to address them and validate her suffering. Regardless of my inability to change these system-wide challenges to serving sexually exploited youth, I had the power in that moment to reflect Veronica’s reality back to her and register the trust she had shown in me by sharing her experience. Veronica bashfully shares her goals with me to graduate high school, and acknowledges that her current behaviors are impeding that. I observe her enter the contemplation phase as she begins to brainstorm what her life would look like if she returned to school.

As for her juvenile justice case, even though the charges were directly related to her exploitation for which she has an open dependency case, she remained in juvenile hall for weeks and was eventually put on probation. Her team continues to get larger, with a social services team and a probation team, yet she seems to feel lost among the numerous service providers. Using a harm reduction approach with the team, my task is to keep our focus on Veronica’s strengths and her progress, however minimal it may be.

Veronica’s path is not linear, and it will not improve overnight. With each step toward growth, she suffers a stumble. At times I find myself exasperated by her lack of progress but I then recall that my exasperation is only a tiny window into the helplessness she must feel from living the cycle herself. With the change to the legislation, Veronica can get support from professionals who understand the trauma and vulnerability underneath the tough exterior. With a team using a harm reduction approach, Veronica has a change to have her victories celebrated and her agency acknowledged. When Veronica begins to enter the action stage of change, she will have a team that rallies behind her instead of telling her it’s too late.

When I met Veronica, she already had a voice in her head saying that she wasn’t doing it right, that she was ruining her life, that she was broken. My stern warnings of the past may have come from love, but only added to the barrage of disparaging voices in her head. With new approaches establishing effective ways to keep youth engaged with professionals instead of pushing them away, we create a path out of sexual exploitation.