217 – What to Know When Talking to Child Trafficking Victims

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Dr. Sandie Morgan and Dave Stachowiak are joined by Dr. Jodi Quas, a Professor of Psychological Science in the Interdisciplinary School of Social Ecology at the University of California, Irvine. She is recognized across the globe for her work on children’s eyewitness capabilities, abuse disclosure, and consequences of legal involvement on child victims, witnesses, and defendants. Together they discuss how to talk to children who have been human trafficked.

Key Points

  • The types of topics and the types of questions you ask of these suspected victims can affect what they tell. Therefore, it is important for first responders to know what kind of questions will not lead to evasive answers in order to provide the victim with further services and support.
  • When children have grown up in very high risk, adverse environments, they tend to be very vigilant. Therefore, it is important to recognize that because these children have experienced different types of trauma, it alters the way they interpret other people’s behavior.
  • One approach is to begin to fold some of this training on trafficking into larger trainings on child abuse to get this information out to broader groups of people.


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 217 – What Do We Need to Know When Talking to Child Trafficking Victims?

Production Credits [00:00:11] Produced by Innovative Learning, maximizing human potential.

Dave [00:00:32] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:38] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave [00:00:40] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. And Sandie, I’m excited today. We have someone with us who’s just really an expert who’s going to help us in, so many ways thinking about communication with kids. Right?

Sandie [00:00:56] Right. I’m excited, too.

Dave [00:00:59] I’m glad to. Welcome to the show today. Dr. Jodi Quas. She is a professor of psychological science in the Interdisciplinary School of Social Ecology at the University of California, Irvine. She is recognized across the globe for her work on children’s eyewitness capabilities, abuse disclosure, and consequences of legal involvement on child victims, witnesses, and defendants. She conducts workshops for law enforcement, legal professionals, educators and social service professionals in the U.S. and abroad. As a Fulbright specialist in 2018, she worked in Asuncion, Paraguay training academic and medical professionals, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and the public on the consequences of maltreatment of children, families, and communities and on improved methods of identifying and protecting victimized children. She was also a very highly rated Ensure Justice speaker. Dr. Quas, we are, so glad to welcome you to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast.

Jodi [00:01:58] Oh, thank you, so much. I’m thrilled to be here and to talk to you all about the work that I do and the impact that I and many others are hoping to have.

Sandie [00:02:06] Well, your work has been on my radar for a very long time, even before you were an Ensure Justice speaker because you’ve worked, so closely with our judges, law enforcement, academically, locally as well as nationally. And it was wonderful for me to learn more about your international impact as well because I think we have to start being more global in our perspectives on how we address children who have been trafficked.

Jodi [00:02:37] Absolutely. It’s also important to kind of get people communicating, you know, as you’re building these public-private partnerships, nobody can do it alone and nobody has all the expertise.

Sandie [00:02:49] That is such a good observation. Collaboration! And sometimes we’re kind of resistant to that. We think we have to know it all. And I just love it that I have friends who know what I don’t know. So, I’m really excited to have this conversation. We recently recorded a podcast with Heidi Olson, who is a pediatric SANE nurse, and she really drew some connections between children who are victims of sexual assault and children who are identified as also being human trafficked. And, so I’d kind of like to know from you, how are most victims identified?

Jodi [00:03:37] So, that’s a really great question. And I think, you know, to kind of step back and we as scientists, as, you know, frontline professionals in social service and law enforcement, we actually have an enormous amount of knowledge and expertise with regard to identifying child sex abuse victims, particularly children who’ve been sexually abused in contexts other than trafficking. We know that these children most often when they tell, they will tell a parent or another adult who can then initiate a report. And once children do, they are most often routed to child forensic interviewing specialists who know how to question them. They know how to work with reluctant children. They also have really wonderful training on best practice interviewing approaches to help children overcome reluctance, to help guide children’s responses in a way that leads to detailed disclosures, not suggestive responses. The challenge when you think about child victims of trafficking is that they really are identified via very different mechanisms or ways. Now, most of the work that I do is focused on child victims within the United States, primarily domestic trafficking victims, youth victims who have been moving from city to city, county to county, or even state to state for the purposes of trafficking. But with these victims, rather than these victims disclosing, what oftentimes happens with these victims is they’re identified indirectly, so they don’t tell someone. Instead, they’re oftentimes identified, either by police because they may be involved in some type of delinquent activity or they’re with individuals who are engaged in criminal or delinquent activity. So, first off, they’re not telling someone to kind of get themselves noticed. Someone else is identifying them only indirectly.

Sandie [00:05:51] So, then one of the things that we understand is a risk factor for this particular population is that they may not have a stable home environment. They may already be involved in some way with the system for child welfare. So, that means that some of the more traditional ways that we identified abuse aren’t actually available to them.

Jodi [00:06:18] No. And they’re not open to those traditional methods. You know, a high percentage have been in the child welfare system. And that’s, you know, in their minds, this system has really created barriers to family, to forming relationships. And so, they don’t trust adults, which will make them very reluctant to tell someone else.

Sandie [00:06:42] Well, we’ve heard the mantra, “tell your trusted adult”. And I was talking to an adult survivor and she said I didn’t have one. And that was turn on the lights for me.

Jodi [00:06:54] No, it’s a very different model, because when they’re identified indirectly, they’re also sometimes been labeled a delinquent or even a prostitute. Which really leads them down a very different path of treatment.

Sandie [00:07:11] So, what we’re talking about here is that it’s really hard to get them to disclose for lots of reasons. Can you kind of address that?

Jodi [00:07:21] So, I think when you think of the reasons why they’re reluctant to disclose, one is just their history. You know, if a lot of these youth came from child welfare when they disclosed in childhood of something bad happening within their family, they were removed from their family. And, so they were already kind of they’re learning very early on that disclosure doesn’t let you stay with the only parents you love. So, there’s a lack of trust early on that just begins them down kind of down this path. And then if they’re picked up for delinquency or crime, then they’re interrogated as a suspect. Again, it’s kind of feeding into this, “I shouldn’t trust adults.” And then if the only adult they do know is the trafficker who’s been providing some basic resources, you know, if they disclose, they may fear that they’re going to lose those resources.

Sandie [00:08:14] Wow. So, they don’t see us as rescuers, maybe they actually see us in a negative light. I would even go, so far as to say an enemy of what they know, and they want to try to preserve. So, what do we do about that?

Jodi [00:08:34] A couple of things. One is I think we need to step back and really rethink how we approach these victims. And there are counties, there are offices that are doing a really good job at this. But I think the first thing it takes, is it takes a fundamental shift in how we approach individuals when they’ve been identified as being suspected victims, that almost immediately they need to be rerouted to a special unit. Now, it may be a different kind of unit than for children, younger children, but they should not be put into the same types of interrogation practices that are typical of other child defendants.

Sandie [00:09:16] Well, we hear this, especially in the human trafficking task force model, it’s becoming more and more standard to have a soft interview room instead of an interrogation room. But just having a soft room doesn’t seem to be the only thing we need to change. And, so what can we do too. Because not everybody’s getting the training that you have. For my part, the principle of a victim-centered approach looks different everywhere I go.

Jodi [00:09:50] Yes, I think having a soft interview room is great. But you’re right, that’s not changing how questions are asked. One of the other shifts that we’re beginning to see and we’re doing a big project funded by the National Science Foundation on this is the types of topics and the types of questions you ask of these suspected victims can also affect what they tell. But certain types of questions are more likely to elicit really evasive responses from them and such questions may not be necessary. And, so let me give you an example. If you have suspected victims and you want to know about trafficking, you can ask questions about where they used to live the first day, they met the trafficker. Kind of what the traffickers like and what it looks like is those types of questions can actually be beneficial in getting a victim to talk, rather than questions about did he do something against your will? Tell me how he hurt you. But in traditional interviewing approaches, you might go directly towards the most concrete piece of evidence. When what that’s going to do it, that’s going to just immediately trigger these evasive answers.

Sandie [00:11:02] Well, and does it matter who does the first interview when a suspected case of human trafficking of a child happens?

Jodi [00:11:13] You know, it’s hard to say if it matters because that first interview is going to be conducted oftentimes on the fly. And so, if you think of a child who shows up, let’s say, at a health clinic because of, you know, a medical condition, it may be that that first interview is done by a nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant and that person, if that person knows, OK well, if I can ask these general questions that we know are not likely to lead to evasive answers that can maybe get a victim a little more comfortable. If those people are trained, they can collect enough information to then figure out how best to direct that victim for further kind of services, kind of further support. But really you can’t control the context within which you might find the victim. So, I think we need to really think about making sure a lot of these frontline workers are first responders, so to speak, really know the basics of how to ask these questions.

Sandie [00:12:14] So, how can we best provide that kind of training? Because every time I go out and work in that particular sector, I’m constantly challenged by two things. Number one, how do we get people into those training and cover their day to day jobs while they’re in training? And then secondly, when there’s a lot of transition in those departments, how do we know how to get people that are newly trained, and we lost the investment in the other person? Can you tell how frustrated I am?

Jodi [00:12:48] Yes, I do. Yes, as I do training all the time, yes, I do. One of the other things that we know is you can’t just train people once, training is constant. So, one of the things that really, we find that’s better is repeated training. And, so one approach to thinking about is you can get frontline workers together. Most social workers in both public but also private foundations do lunchtime meetings, they do continue education, they have hours that they need to complete. And I think one of the strategies is you fold these into those on a regular basis.

Sandie [00:13:28] Repetition, just like teaching in a classroom.

Jodi [00:13:31] Yes. The other thing that we’re really pushing hard to do that’s been something different for me is we’ve begun working with and connecting to some of the divisions related to homeland security. So, there is the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, FLETC, which is rolling out, which is that the big training center on the East Coast for all law enforcement. And they are currently rolling out a human trafficking training program. And their initial phase is really just focused on identifying the signs and really trying to create a mind shift. But we’ve been talking to them about is there a way of folding in training on actually talking to the victims? Because what happens is you might be able to identify some indicators, but what do you do with that information if you don’t know how to talk to a child? So, we’re working with them to try to fold some of this interview training into those types of models where you can reach much larger numbers of these potential frontline interviewers.

Sandie [00:14:35] So, when you’re talking about FLETC, does that include some of the ancillary people around them that might actually also engage with the child?

Jodi [00:14:45] You know, I’m not sure the breadth of who FLETC trains beyond law enforcement, but within law enforcement, they work with local police, they work with a kind of county-level sheriff’s offices, and the FBI. So, they do have access to these different levels of professionals, although they’re primarily within the law enforcement umbrella.

Sandie [00:15:07] OK, OK. That makes sense. And most law enforcement agencies have some sort of victim service element in their staffing. So, somebody besides someone with a badge-wearing and having a gun may also be available to talk to the child.

Jodi [00:15:26] I think that’s one channel, but I certainly don’t think that’s the only channel- like you can’t rely only on law enforcement, you can’t rely only on social services. What I also think is we need to really think about the health care field as another domain where there’s this initial encounter and yet we really haven’t even begun to think about whether that can be used as a resource to begin to build a relationship and to gain information from suspected victims.

Sandie [00:15:55] Well, and it seems like we have to be much more intentional about peer to peer training. So, for instance, nurses train nurses, physician assistants, school nurses train school nurses. It does seem like people pay more attention than when we try to do too much with a generalized training. What is your experience been in that?

Jodi [00:16:20] As you’re saying that I think that is something that would really be helpful, even if it’s not the training per se, it’s someone to help translate language and to make sure that it’s specific to the professionals with whom you’re interacting. You know, in psychology, we have a set of words we use to describe a certain set of phenomena, and that’s different from how police officers might talk, that’s different from how nurses or physician’s assistants might talk. And, so not only is the value of having somebody who understands your field, but it also can put things in the language that makes it really easy to incorporate into what you’re doing.

Sandie [00:17:00] So, what do you think the barriers are to be getting that kind of training more extended across California and beyond nationally?

Jodi [00:17:10] I’ll tell you what I think one of the big barriers is and I’ll tell you how at least we’re trying to come at it. So, one of the big challenges is that we know that it’s hard to interview trafficking victims, we know that they’re evasive. What we don’t know yet is really we have some, actually, we have some hints at what types of topics would be good to ask about, both in terms of helping identify the victims, but also than helping with the legal case itself. I think where we would benefit is from much greater collaboration and sharing, for example, of interviews and transcripts and really looking at them in groups and saying, hey here’s the patterns of questions that are better for these populations, here are the patterns of questions that are worse. So, really, I think a more comprehensive analysis of the interviews themselves, I think that’s one way of beginning to train people and to figure out what works. But once you have that information, again, to translate it across these different groups of professionals, I think it’s a partnership, it’s collaboration. And I will give you one example of that. Dr. Corey Rood, who I believe is on the Orange County Task Force. He’s a physician, he’s an M.D., he is on the front lines working in a kind of related fields. He also was on the other task force for human trafficking. And, so he and I have formed a partnership to begin to try to talk about interviewing and training different groups of professionals, using both his expertise of being really on the front lines and on the day to day work identifying victims from both a medical perspective, but also a disclosure perspective. And then my scientific background. So, I think those are the types of partnerships and collaborations that you can form to access different professionals to begin to make those translations and those jumps.

Sandie [00:19:03] So, one of the things that I learned from you the first time I heard you present was how the child sees the adult in the room. And I think that is a key thing for adults who find themselves in a place where they have to ask some questions. I think it’s really key for them to understand and have the ability to put themselves in that child’s shoes, so to speak. Can you speak to that?

Jodi [00:19:34] Yes, when children have grown up in very high risk, adverse environments, they tend to be very vigilant. So, they tend to be very skeptical of what other people mean. They tend to kind of react very quickly to potential signs of danger. And if you’re in a violent home, if you’re in a violent relationship, that makes sense- you want to be vigilant. But what happens is that when you take these children and you put them in other environments, like an interview environment and interviewers’ neutral demeanor, an interviewer who’s trying to be very calm and relaxing may actually be interpreted by a child as being hostile, they may not trust that person. They’re misinterpreting that neutral stance because they’re, so vigilant at the risk of potential anger and kind of emotional outburst from that other person. And you see that play out in lots of different settings, but you may see it in interview settings as well.

Sandie [00:20:35] So, I think it’s, so important for us because there are, so many people in not just government, but in nonprofit and community services, lots of volunteers who may be spending even more time with the child because they’re providing activities and things like that. And if they don’t understand that that contributes, then when the guy or the woman who’s coming in to do the official interview, it creates that tension for the child. And for me, I’m beginning to understand that this isn’t something just the person who’s doing the official interrogation or interview needs to understand, all the people around that child need to understand that bias they have for being vigilant and not take things personally. You know, I end up sitting in the coffee room because I was doing interviews or observations. And one of the things that bother me sometimes is people with wonderful, good hearts are reviewing what they just experienced over coffee and their sense of not feeling appreciated for their services. And that’s not just volunteers, that’s professionals, too. And they talk about self-care and burnout. So, I think what you’re talking about is almost the most important thing for somebody going into the room to understand.

Jodi [00:22:10] Oh, I completely agree. It really does extend, so much beyond this interview. I mean, once you’ve identified a victim, there’s a number of different professionals who are then attempting to deliver services and yet misinterpretations of a child, perhaps lack of appreciation. You know, the child may just not be trustworthy. The child may not trust that the adult is sincere, or the child may think an adult who’s trying to be supportive is actually angry. And, so when we talk about something like being trauma-informed, to me saying trauma-informed is somewhat vague because that can mean a whole host of things. But what you need to recognize is that because children have experienced different types of trauma, it alters the way they interpret other people’s behavior. And, so we can’t expect children to react to the same.

Sandie [00:23:03] So, my sense is you’re talking about how to ask questions that don’t lead to evasive answers. Then the child’s avoiding answering your questions may be more related to their trauma and their fear. There may be negativity bias.

Jodi [00:23:24] I think that’s going to be, they’re going to have a negative bias, we sometimes call it an anger bias or a hostile bias. They kind of interpret everything around them as being potentially anger or hostile related. And I think that that absolutely plays into how they interpret someone else’s question. But you also have in this trust, I mean, you have a complex set of motivations that are going to shape what a child says and what they don’t. You know what that child won’t say in an interview. And it does include this hostile bias, it includes fears, it includes mistrust, and it includes confusion. All of those make the interview and subsequent service delivery very challenging and very slow.

Sandie [00:24:09] So, then training, everybody can’t get Dr. Jodi Quas to come to their place and train all their staff, a multi-sector cross-sector, et cetera. So, how are we going to develop a system of training that would take what you’re teaching to the very smallest law enforcement agency in our state?

Jodi [00:24:35] You know, you’re right. I personally can’t. But we have been incredibly successful at training large numbers of frontline interviewers to question suspected child victims. You know, there are conferences devoted to it, they’re all-day workshops. We have really great data to direct these protocols. In fact, there’s a protocol called the NICHD Forensic Interviewing Protocol that’s used around the globe. So, we have models of how to get the word out, so to speak. Now, those models are based on really strong data that’s been given to scientists like me and others of actual interviews. But once we have those models, it is possible to embed these in conferences, in day workshops, in lunchtime talks. And sometimes you can do web-based training. I don’t know how well those work, but they’re certainly better than not doing anything at all, in terms of just getting information out. So, I think there are ways of doing that, but there has to be a concerted effort to devote, I think, time and kind of collaborative resources to making sure that we have the packet of information that we can get out and begin to distribute it more widely.

Sandie [00:25:54] And I think that that is a really key question for administrators, for people on task forces to really look at is who’s conducting the training on interviewing and how does that affect the trickle down to the people that may not get to go to the big trainings because they’re lower down the chain of command. And, so the concept of training peer to peer is one thing that’s out there in the task force world as a conversation to multiply that. But my biggest concern is making sure because now I’m involved in this public-private partnership. And I know that if I go to the FBI if I go to homeland security, I’m going to get people who had to be trained. But if I go to a nonprofit that’s contracted to provide services for our victims, they don’t have the same opportunities and access to many of those training. So, I’m looking at how do we begin to do that in the private sector at the same level that we do in the public sector?

Jodi [00:27:08] And I think one approach is to begin to fold some of this training of trafficking into larger training on child abuse and on, you know, forensic interviewing and on victim services for child abuse. If you fold it into child welfare, you folded into a kind of criminal investigations. I think there’s a way to do that and to get it out to broader people. But I do believe that that should be where efforts are beginning to go.

Sandie [00:27:38] Wow. OK. So, we’ve opened a lot of different conversations in this interview. Mostly I would just want to spend more time with you, ask more questions, and see how we can do a better job of engaging our kids so that they trust us and will disclose because we have resources when we know what’s actually going on. We are going to have to have you come back on another show because we made a commitment to make our podcast a 30-minute segment. People can listen to it while they’re driving to work. So, we’re going to have to do part two of Dr. Jodi Quas, are you okay with that?

Jodi [00:28:19] Oh, I am totally fine. Thank you, so much for talking with me. And good luck with everything. What you do is amazing, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it.

Sandie [00:28:27] Well, you’re going to get some off-line phone calls from me because this has really ignited an urgency for me to figure out how to bring the private sector up to speed in the same place as our public sector is. So, thank you, so much, Jodi.

Jodi [00:28:45] Oh, thank you. Have a great day.

Dave [00:28:47] Sandie, you said the importance of urgency and we always have that thought in the back of our head, of the importance of us urgently acting. But at the same time, Sandie, I know we talk about this a lot of not necessarily just jumping in before we know a bit more. And, so that’s why we’re inviting you to take the first step as well if you go online and download a copy of Sandie’s book, The Five Things You Must Know, A QuickStart Guide to Ending Human Trafficking. It’ll help you to get the five critical things that Sandie and her team at the Global Center for Women and Justice have identified that you should know before you jump in and take that urgency to join the fight against human trafficking. You can get access by going over to endinghumantrafficking.org. It’s also a great place to find all the resources we’ve mentioned in this episode. And while you’re online, we mentioned Ensure Justice early on in the conversation. The next conference is upcoming March 6th and 7th, 2020. Go over to EnsureJustice.com for more information on that. Sandie, thanks, so much. And thanks to Jodi again. Have a wonderful day, take care.

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