22 – Succeed Because of What You’ve Been Through, with Rhonda Sciortino

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Sandie and Dave interview Rhonda Sciortino, keynote speakers for the upcoming gala event on March 1st, 2012. Rhonda is the author of the book Succeed Because of What You’ve Been Through and she joined the podcast to discuss her experience in the foster care system and how she uses that knowledge and experience to help children and child care providers today.

Key Points

  • By living out your values and ethics, whether as a teacher, foster parents, or local business owner, you can make a difference in a child’s life.
  • Overcoming her childhood abuse, Rhonda has discovered that God gives every person unique talents and skills that can have a positive impact on others.
  • Community engagement and helping people does not require traveling around the world, but of pinpointing how your skills can help others in need.
  • Children who have experienced physical, mental, and sexual abuse must allowed to process that trauma in a safe environment in order to heal.


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 22, airing in February 2012. Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:28] And I’m Sandie Morgan.

Dave [00:00:29] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Sandie, the last episode, number 21, we had Esther from Las Vegas on with a great perspective on really the in the trenches work she’s doing to end human trafficking. And I’m so glad today that we have another guest with us who is also going to be part of the conference coming up here in March that the Global Center for Women and Justice is hosting. And I know she has a fantastic perspective as well and someone that is just a very inspiring person. I’m so glad that we have her with us today.

Sandie [00:01:08] And if you’re listening to this podcast and you want to see her, if you go to gcwj.vanguard.edu and click on the conference and the gala button, you will see a lovely picture of my wonderful friend Rhonda Sciortino, who is also our gala speaker the night before our conference begins on March 2nd. Our conference to Stand Together to End the Exploitation of Girls. And Rhonda brings from her expertise a wealth of knowledge, experience, and personal passion for kids in our child welfare system. So, the interesting connection between what Esther presented to us last week, our last podcast on the kids who are in the juvenile delinquency system, they’re in detention, they’re going to court. Rhonda comes from the other extreme of kids with problems that are in our child welfare system. And we’ve already identified that bridging that gap is really important. We want to intervene before the kids become victims.

Dave [00:02:21] And as you listen to Rhonda and Sandie discuss the conference today and some of the issues that both of them have expertise on and ending human trafficking and particularly the exploitation of girls, which is the focus of the conference, you’ll definitely want to check out the conference website and give your advance registration so you can join us in March, March 2nd and 3rd here in Costa Mesa, California. For those of you who are in colder climates, it’s nice and warm here in March. And of course, that website is gcwj.vanguard.edu. And of course, you can always call us with feedback 714-966-6361.

Sandie [00:03:03] So, Rhonda Sciortino, welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast.

Rhonda [00:03:09] Thank you so much for having me. I love what you do. I love what the center does. I love that Vanguard has the Global Center for Women and Justice. And it’s such an honor to be included here today.

Sandie [00:03:24] So let’s dig right into this. And I want our listeners to understand the frame of reference that you bring to this. How old were you when you first became a ward of the court?

Rhonda [00:03:37] I was six months old. I don’t have any memory of the day that my mother left, but she left me with a neighbor and asked the neighbor to babysit while she went shopping. But she didn’t go shopping. Her clothes were packed and the car was loaded and she actually moved out of state.

Sandie [00:03:56] And so for 16 years, you were in a place where you often felt very alone, you experienced abuse. At some point I think I remember you talking about being homeless. Can you give us just a really short version of what that means?

Rhonda [00:04:22] Yes, I was in those days, this was in the early 60s. If a social worker could connect you with a family member, they were done. So, they found my maternal grandparents and checked the box and basically walked away. And those folks were, you know, it wasn’t a great environment. Hence the reason that my mother had left as a teenager. My grandfather was mentally ill. My grandmother was an addict. And we lived in a house really more like a shack about the size of a garage that didn’t have working plumbing and certainly didn’t have heat or air conditioning or any of that. So it was an interesting thing to grow up in Southern California aware of affluence, but being so very disconnected from it. And so my grandfather was very, very abusive. My grandmother was as well. She was the one who threw a skillet of hot oil on me to discipline me when I was 4 years old and I would be put out of the house in the morning. My earliest recollections were being put out of the house in the morning and not allowed back in until much, much later. In the neighborhood we lived in was, oh, my goodness. It was a pretty scary area. There was a gang there. Actually, a lot of gang activity. There was, let’s say, I think three doors down was what we called the Hell’s Angels House. That was where the Hells Angels made their local headquarters. So, you know, it was a very scary environment. And when I hear about some of the girls who have been trafficked and brought into just the most heinous environment, and you just almost can’t think of anything worse, I think of how that could so easily have been me. And that is part of what drives me to try to do something. And when I met you, Sandie, I just you know, I’ve told you you lit my hair on fire about this issue because I’ve felt like I was an advocate, a child advocate, kind of a crusader about stopping child abuse for many, many years. I feel like I’ve spent my whole life one way or the other in the child welfare in and around the child welfare system. But I hadn’t really connected the dots until I met you that the only thing worse than child abuse is profiting from the abuse of children. And when you helped me understand that trafficking is a business and that the traffickers consider children re-usable assets. I just, you know, suddenly something fired off in my brain. The dots were connected. My hair lit on fire. And now I just am consumed with the feeling of wanting to do something about it. So now I’m kind of trying to back up and do what you teach in understanding the issues, gathering the information. So I love that you and your Global Center for Women and Justice are such a great resource for these issues and sharing the information and best practices and so on.

Sandie [00:08:07] Well, when we hosted the Human Trafficking Summit in the fall with judges and prosecutors and victim advocates on this issue at Vanguard, one of the gaps that they identified was a gap between communication and collaboration from the child welfare perspective and the juvenile justice perspective. And so because of your personal experience and history of significant advocacy, I feel like bringing Esther and Rhonda into the same room. And if you didn’t listen to the podcast last time, go back and listen to it. It’s like two worlds colliding and they have all of the same kids. We just have to figure out how to work together, how to collaborate, how to intervene before we take a child who’s already been abused and see that child become an exploited child that someone is selling as a business, as you so aptly put it. So, when I met you, I also, my hair was not on fire. I’m afraid of fire. But I was inspired because you wrote a book and the title of that book, just listening to the title, when I talk to people who have had personal experiences that they feel have held them back. They’re inspired just hearing the title. The title is Succeed Because of What You’ve Been Through. And when I hear you tell your story and this is where community collaboration is so important. And we talked about court appointed special advocate volunteers. We have all kinds of wonderful opportunities for community engagement. And in your life, Rhonda, tell me at least two examples of when someone in the community made a difference that changed your trajectory.

Rhonda [00:10:14] Oh, my goodness. I have a handful of those. Probably the first most meaningful is with two people who I can’t even name. There was a time when the social worker did show up and found, but I think it was a time when she came by and I had two black eyes and I was pulled from my grandparents home and placed in the home of a couple who were foster parents. I was there for a very, very short period of time, but it was long enough for me to take notice of the fact that they didn’t yell at each other. They didn’t hit one another. The one who was loudest and biggest didn’t necessarily win any conflict. They had plenty to eat and I ate them out of house and home. I do recall that. And they had a clean house and I’d never, ever seen a clean floor. I didn’t know such a thing existed. So in just being who these people were, they influenced me. Most important thing they did, Sandie, was that they took me to church. And that’s the very reason that I was pulled from their home. My grandfather filed a complaint. He actually parked, I think he had been following them because when I left, the child support left. And their welfare check.

Sandie [00:11:56] So you were a means of income for–.

Rhonda [00:11:58] I was a means of income for them, so they wanted me back into their home because money followed me. It wasn’t very much money, but we lived on a little bit over 300 dollars a month and it was a big deal when one hundred and I think it was almost 150 of it left. But they wanted me back. So my grandfather parked catty corner from the church. And I remember coming out of that church singing and moving my little picture of Jesus that I’d colored or whatever it was. And I made eye contact with that man. And I knew I was in trouble. And he filed a complaint the very next day. That was shortly after Madalyn Murray O’Hair got prayer taken out of the schools. And so it was a very sensitive issue. And so I was pulled from that home and I never saw those people again. But they planted a seed in me that took root because I now knew that there were people who lived very differently. And I liked that I could go to sleep there and I could relax. And it was the very first time of my life that I had not been hyper vigilant. And, you know, always kind of sleeping with one eye open, you know. So that was one. The second was a high school teacher when I was 14 years old, who took an interest in me. And I hadn’t realized until this woman made eye contact with me and spoke to me exactly the same way as she spoke to every other kid in the classroom. I hadn’t realized that other people did not make eye contact. I was filthy. We didn’t have working plumbing, which means we didn’t have a shower. There wasn’t even a shower in the house. The house was built in the late eighteen hundreds. And so I was dirty all the time. My clothes were dirty. My grandparents both smoked three packs of cigarettes a day. We didn’t always have food, but we always had cigarettes and booze. And so I smelled. And, you know, I was dirty and I was hard to look at. And here this teacher looked at me and then she did something that completely changed my life, which was to ask my opinion about something. And I realized that no one had ever asked my opinion, because when you’re unwanted, no one cares what your favorite dinner is or what your favorite class is or what you dislike about school or your favorite anything. So for this woman to just ask my opinion what she did that day 36 years ago that I can remember like it was this morning, was she gave me my dignity and she taught me by her living work ethic and the way that people appropriately conduct themselves. When she saw value in me, I began to see value in myself. And consequently, I was inspired to make better choices. So while my friends in the old neighborhood were joining gangs and making babies at 13, 14 years old and smoking dope and all that stuff, I was working at the high school where I attended as a result of this teacher’s help and I was becoming the fastest typist there at Upland High School, and I was learning shorthand and all the skills would enable me to get a job.

Sandie [00:15:45] Because of one teacher?

Rhonda [00:15:47] Because of one teacher. And so when I went out to get that job, I was hired. I was 15 years old. I couldn’t spell the word insurance, much less have any understanding of what it was whatsoever. So the third person and then I’ll stop. There have been more. But the third person who influenced my life was a one man insurance broker office. He wanted some part time help and he hired a 15 year old kid that knew nothing. But I was willing to work and I was willing to learn. And he hired me in and gave me my first job in insurance. And I’ve been in the insurance industry ever since. And I’m so grateful to him and to all the others who have at one sort of hand at a time, sort of lifted me up to a higher level.

Sandie [00:16:43] And your life story is a wonderful example of what we’re talking about here, about community engagement. People don’t need to quit their jobs and go to Las Vegas and work for Esther to help restore victims. They can work in their own communities and find a place where a child is in need of attention, of understanding that they have personal dignity, that they have an opinion, that they have an opportunity to learn skills that will make them employable. One person along the way changes everything.

Rhonda [00:17:21] Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And I, you know, my personal belief system tells me that there’s a God who positions us in places where we can use our own unique set of skills and talents and abilities, strengths or even our quirky little elements of our personality to influence the lives of others in a positive way. So you’re right. For many, many years in working with child welfare organizations, everybody in my life was a psychologist or an MSW. Having the master’s degree in social work, licensed marriage and family therapist and so on and so forth. So they all had all these great initials after their names. And I did not. And so I spent a lot of years thinking, you know, if only I had the right degree. If only I had had a more traditional educational experience. And so what I realize now, though, looking back, is that, OK, it wasn’t my role to be a social worker, to be a psychologist. But my role was that I was perfectly suited and matched to my role, which was understanding how to properly protect and defend the people who provide the direct care to kids.

Dave [00:18:57] You know, Rhonda, it’s such an important point what you’re saying and to piggyback on what Sandie just mentioned a moment ago of us really finding the gifts that God’s given us to use in the right way. And I think there is often this belief and even bias amongst those of us who want to go out and help that we have to go somewhere. Or we have to fly somewhere to help out people. And there’s so many needs right in front of us. And if we can tap into the gifts we’ve already been given and look for the opportunities right in front of us, there’s so much good we can do. And boy, you’re such a wonderful example in your life of some wonderful people have done that for you. And boy, Sandie, I think that there’s a lot I know I can do and we can do as an organization to be able to address those needs right in front of us.

Sandie [00:19:40] Well, here’s what Ronda did for me, Dave. After this summit and I’m listening to all these juvenile delinquency people talk about being they need to get connected to child welfare. Well, I said that to Rhonda. Now, Rhonda, tell us, who are all the people that you’ve recruited, literally dragging, to participate in our conference that represent the other side before these kids have been commercially sexually exploited? Who’s coming?

Rhonda [00:20:11] Oh, my gosh. Well, so many people. But the first person that comes to mind is Dr. Jeremy Kohomban. He’s the CEO of Children’s Village in New York. If they’re not the largest child welfare organization in the state in New York, they have to be one of the top two or three. What’s most impressive, though, about Jeremy is that I knew him 20 years ago when he was a young social worker with a pager. Yeah, I said pager. On his belt.

Sandie [00:20:38] You may need to define that for some of our listeners.

Dave [00:20:41] What is that?

Rhonda [00:20:42] You know, before cell phones, there were these little machines that we clipped to our belts and they would go off if someone called us. And Jeremy really just grabbed my heart. Here he was, young husband and father. He had his own life. He had, you know, lots of responsibility on his job. But he gave kids and their dysfunctional families his personal pager number and said, call me 24 hours a day. He would say to children, OK, if mommy takes you to the bar and locks you in the car outside of the bar so she can go in, get to a phone and call me and I’ll come get you.

Sandie [00:21:25] Mm hmm.

Rhonda [00:21:26] And, you know, I remember sitting in that first meeting with him and being so impressed that this guy didn’t just go from eight to five and then compartmentalize. And I’m not trying to disrespect people who do compartmentalize and put it away and go home to their families. I understand that there has to be balance. But this man touched my heart and he’s been touching my heart and the hearts of the kids within his programs, thousands of them for all these years. So he’s one that’s coming. Another one is Amelia Frank Meyer. She’s the CEO of Anu Family Services. Oh, and Amelia has come up with a replacement therapy for physical restraint. This is so critical because what happens with kids who have been sexually molested and kids who have been trafficked is that they go into the general population of kids in child welfare who have been abused and abandoned and neglected. But sexual molestation and sexual trafficking is just requires special expertise. So when a kid who’s gone through that is in the general population and they’re typically in a behavioral modification program, which means there are rules, and if they don’t follow the rules, then they’re demoted or points are taken away and they’re humiliated in front of their peers by those things. And so when they really act out, they get physically restrained and they get medicated. So there’s physical restraints and there’s pharmaceutical restraints. Well, what did the traffickers do? They arranged for these kids to be restrained in physical ways against their will.

Sandie [00:23:34] And with drugs.

Rhonda [00:23:35] And medicated. Right. To comply with what the trafficker and the customers want them to do or to make them feel better about, you know, how smarmy they feel after they’ve done the thing that they never wanted to do. And so we’re doing essentially the same thing to these kids. So Amelia has proven that we can stop doing that and instead address their grief and their loss and the reactions that they’re having to the grief and the loss, which are totally normal reaction. If you or I or any, you know, perfectly well-adjusted person experienced what these kids have experienced, we would act in similar ways, and I think me I’d probably act worse.

Sandie [00:24:27] Well, I can’t wait to have Amelia here. And the next one I know you’re going to say, I want to pre preface that with reminding people of what Esther said last week. Our last podcast about trauma bonding and the role of trauma in what’s happening psychologically. So tell us who’s going to talk about that.

Rhonda [00:24:49] Oh. Are you referring to Tina Figal?

Sandie [00:24:53] Yes. Yes, I’m so excited about having her.

Rhonda [00:24:56] Tina has a wonderful, very practical program for bonding with kids and for deepening relationships. And it’s backed by wonderful research that’s been done on the pathways between the heart and the brain and creating new neural pathways through verbal and facial and body communication with a kid. And it really comes down to that, here’s where I don’t have all those initials behind my name, but when it’s brought down to my level, a practical level, I can understand it. And that’s what Tina does. She brings the whole thing from theory and concept to something that anybody, whether it’s somebody who’s signed up to be a mentor or a court appointed special advocate or somebody who’s participating in the Safe Families Plus program, where it’s a family who’s taking in a kid who’s been rescued from trafficking and they don’t have all their rank, degrees, initials and all that stuff. But they care. And so Tina teaches ways that we can connect and bond and add value to that child’s life and get them to see the value in themselves.

Sandie [00:26:27] We are going to have a great opportunity to seriously study those issues so that we know what to say and what to do with these kinds of participants in our conference, Rhonda. And you have been so instrumental in bringing them to the table with us. You just mentioned Safe Families. Could you tell us just a little bit more about what that is?

Rhonda [00:26:47] Oh, yes. The Safe Families Program was actually started by a church in Illinois. And it’s nationwide now. And what they do is they’re kind of like a preventative approach to avoiding foster care. So, for example, the original Safe Families concept was if a family was at risk of having their children taken away, you know, maybe it’s because they’ve lost their jobs and now they’ve lost their home. They’re homeless. And they’re on the streets. Oftentimes kids are removed just because the family can’t care for them properly. And so this was an idea of a pastor and a group of people in a church to say, OK, if we have stable homes and families, could we take a child in for a period of time while the parents get on their feet and keep the kid in school and make sure the kid, you know, has good food and a place to sleep and is safe. And now, though, and that’s gone very well. I don’t know how many Safe Families there are in the United States off the top of my head, but there are many, many, many people who are doing this amazing work and keeping families together. In fact, many of the families have actually taken the single mom and her kids in and in so doing are teaching the whole family by the way they behave. They’re teaching them how to interact with one another and improving the quality of their lives. And in many cases, breaking the cycle of abuse and neglect and so on.

Sandie [00:28:36] So we go full circle, then back to Rhonda, when you were in a family that was safe and you could sleep at night and you could eat when you were hungry.

Rhonda [00:28:48] Exactly.

Sandie [00:28:49] And what a change it made for you. Our time is gone. I can’t believe this, but if you want to hear more of Rhonda’s amazing stories, you won’t want to miss our gala on March 1st. And you will want to come to the table with these great teachers who will help equip us as a community to engage in responsible and sustainable ways in ending the exploitation of our children right here in our own country and in our own backyard. If you have some questions, because we can have Rhonda back later for Rhonda, please call us. Dave that number is?

Dave [00:29:28] 714-966-6361. And of course, our feedback email is gcwj@vanguard.edu. And Sandie, I’ve really been inspired listening to Rhonda, listening to Esther on our last show. And we’re just scratching the surface on the types of things that are going to happen at the conference this year. And I really am excited to see just all these wonderful, caring minds and hearts come together and help us all to study the issues so we can all learn and grow from it in some really positive ones.

Sandie [00:30:06] And Rhonda, thank you for for giving us your time today. And I can’t wait to see you on March 1st.

Rhonda [00:30:13] Thank you for having me. I can’t wait to see a gathering of people who care about these issues on March 1st. So, it’s exciting. Thank you for doing that.

Dave [00:30:25] Well, Sandie, that’s going to do it just for our time today. And we’re so glad to have welcomed Rhonda Sciortino to join us today. And again, she’s going to be the headliner for the gala on March 1st. And then, of course, the conference itself is going to be on March 2nd and 3rd. To register, go to gcwj.vanguard.edu. And in the meantime, Sandie, I’ll see you in two weeks for our next show.

Sandie [00:30:50] All right.

Dave [00:30:51] Thanks, everybody, and have a great week out there.

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