248 – Preventing and Addressing Child Trafficking – Sex and Labor

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Dr. Sandie Morgan and Melissa Gomez, Project Director of PACT, discuss many of the different facets of child trafficking. Melissa Gomez explains the goals and purpose of the organization PACT and their role in the fight against human trafficking. They explain the different aspects of labor trafficking and go over the red flags and signs of human trafficking.

Melissa Gomez

Melissa Gomez has contributed 20 years of service to the anti-trafficking movement. Her international and local leadership has been instrumental in establishing multi-disciplinary coalitions and in coordinating comprehensive care to survivors of both labor and sex trafficking in Europe and the Central Valley, California.  As the Chair of the Central Valley Freedom Coalition and Program Manager of Fresno’s Central Valley Against Human Trafficking, she contracted with partnering agencies to provide services throughout six central valley counties.  Additionally, she acted as regional liaison to facilitate 24-7 trauma response in partnership with Polaris’ National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Melissa is dedicated to the advancement and integration of diverse voices to pioneer systemic change and co-create pathways of empowerment. Ms. Gomez is currently the acting Director of the Preventing and Addressing Child Trafficking Project for the Child and Family Policy Institute of California, in conjunction with the California Department of Social Services facilitating a statewide model of cross-coordination to strengthen child trafficking programs within child welfare agencies in California. The project serves to improve outcomes and services to children and youth who are impacted by sex and/or labor trafficking. Melissa resides in Marina on the Central Coast of California and is the proud mother of two amazing and creative boys.

Key Points

  • Preventing and Addressing Child Trafficking (PACT), preventing and addressing child trafficking, was established in 2014, in relation to the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act.
  • PACT’s main goal is to address systemic issues concerning child welfare, the most effective strategy to fighting against these issues being collaboration.
  • PACT connects people, which connects resources to places they need to be to fight this battle.
  • There are forms of legal child labor; such as, a child 14 years old or older getting compensation for their work and working in an environment that is not harmful to their development. Any type of child labor that falls out of that definition is child exploitation and illegal.
  • Labor trafficking is still widely underreported and misunderstood.
  • According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, in 38% of cases involving trafficked minors, the minor was trafficked by a family member or foster family.
  • It’s very important for everyone in the community to know the signs of human trafficking and look for them.


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast, this is episode number 248, Preventing and Addressing Child Trafficking – Sex and Labor.


Production Credits [00:00:11] Produced by Innovate Learning, Maximizing Human Potential.


Dave [00:00:31] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.


Sandie [00:00:37] And my name is Sandie Morgan.


Dave [00:00:39] 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, today we have a guest with us that’s going to help us on this really important topic and helping us to understand more about addressing child trafficking. I’m so glad for us to be able to welcome Melissa Gomez to the show today. She has contributed twenty years of service to the anti-trafficking movement. Melissa is dedicated to the advancement and integration of diverse voices to pioneer systemic change and co-create pathways of empowerment. She’s currently the acting director of the Preventing and Addressing Child Trafficking Project for the Child and Family Policy Institute of California in conjunction with the California Department of Social Services, facilitating a statewide model of cross coordination to strengthen child trafficking programs within child welfare agencies in California. The project serves to improve outcomes and services to children and youth who are impacted by sex and or labor trafficking. Melissa resides in Marina on the central coast of California and is the proud mother of two amazing and creative boys. Melissa, we’re so glad to welcome you to the show.


Melissa [00:01:52] Well, thank you so much. I am so excited to be here and to talk about this important issue. And yeah, thanks for inviting me.


Sandie [00:01:59] Melissa, you and I have known each other for several years. And so, I kind of like our listeners to get a thumbnail sketch of the 20 years in your bio and why you are so passionate about what you’re doing.


Melissa [00:02:15] Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, Sandie, I actually started this work, as was just mentioned over 20 years ago. I originally was doing some work overseas in Mexico with a nonprofit, Youth With a Mission, where I was a translator with the project there and had heard an international speaker come in to talk about sex trafficking in India. And I think that was my first kind of exposure with the issue as a you know, as a college student and as a young person, I really captured my heart. I wanted to get involved and wanted to find out more and make it make a difference in this work. And so, I ended up getting involved with Youth With a Mission and traveled internationally. I spent some time in the Philippines where I initially encountered many young people that had been trafficked and had experienced sexual exploitation. And it was really their stories that kind of geared me towards this work. And then eventually I spent time in San Francisco for two years in the Tenderloin district where we led outreach work. At that time, it was just when the Trafficking Prevention Act had passed. And so, we still didn’t even have a language to really talk about what this looks like. Right. And I remember having conversations and stories with individuals that were experiencing sex trafficking at that time about their encounters with law enforcement, how they had been sexually assaulted, and how they were able to come forward and talk about their stories because they were afraid of being arrested. So then, later on, I ended up moving into Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where I worked for five years and lived in the red-light district right across the street from the oldest church in the city. It was called the Oude Church. And surrounding the Oude Church are windows where individuals are working every day and being sold and commodified on a daily basis. Amsterdam is known for sex tourism. And so, through that experience, I really had the opportunity again to kind of engage and to learn from the stories of survivors that I encountered.


Sandie [00:04:26] Wow, so now you find yourself as the acting director of this state-wide initiative, and this is so significant because when I think about the opportunity here, I looked it up because in my old notes, I had California as the seventh-largest economy in the world. But this week we are number five. And when you’re thinking about the exploitation of children in not only sex trafficking but also labor trafficking, this gives us an opportunity to make a change that’s transferable beyond our borders. Because of the business world and if you listen to our last episode with Ben Skinner, you know that the power of the corporate world is global. It’s not limited by geography. So, let’s talk about what is PACT.


Melissa [00:05:37] Yes, absolutely. Thank you. So, PACT, preventing and addressing child trafficking, is a project that was established back in 2014, and it came out of the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014 when the federal government really said we need to begin to address some of these issues from a systems level, child welfare perspective, and states. Right. And at the same time, California legislation passed Senate bill eight fifty-five, which caused the state of California to develop this program called the Commercially Sexually Exploited Children Opt-In program. Prior to this, child welfare really wasn’t taking a lead on this issue. And oftentimes children, unfortunately, were criminalized. And we even used to use the term child prostitute. Right. Which is a term now that we understand to be incredibly problematic because a child can never be a prostitute. And so, during that time, the state of California, there’s this funding comes down to the state, but every county has the ability to really leverage that funding and take the guidance from the state and to develop their own protocols and their own procedures around what that looks like. And so, PACT was developed at that same time that we suddenly saw child welfare taking this new leadership role around serving children and youth that were experiencing sexual exploitation. And so, some of the work that we did particularly was about building peer relationships with county coordinators in each of the counties that participated in the PACT project. So, we have leadership cohorts in now four different regions. Forty-six counties are now participating in this. And what we found is that oftentimes within child welfare, there is the siloing that happens. There is this sense of feeling alone in the work that they’re doing and the youth that they are encountering and the youth that they are providing services and supports to them. And so, they don’t have the opportunity to really connect with one another and to grow and to learn together. So that became a collaborative platform to really inspire and to challenge those leaders in each of the counties to coordinate with one another and to share resources and leverage the support that they had. We also did a lot of work around establishing initial strategies and teaming down, coming down from the state. There was a requirement that counties needed to establish formal use with partners like law enforcement, with the County Office of Education, with other folks that would really come to the table and recognize that when we are looking at human trafficking, we have to partner across sectors, and we have to work together to solve this issue. And so that collaborative platform has really inspired a lot of change across the state and been able to really break down these silos and build relationships with one another. And so, I you know, when I came into the project about two years ago, one of the things that I was specifically asked to kind of address was translating the work that had been done around CISAC to then how do we actually address this in other sectors? How do we serve and support youth that have experience trafficking in other industries? And so that’s kind of at the point that I came I came into the project and we began to do more work, particularly around labor trafficking.


Sandie [00:09:14] So I’ve been talking about labor trafficking for a very long time. Our very first case in Orange County was a child labor trafficking victim. Many of you have listened to the podcast interview with Shyima Hall, who was trafficked here as a child made from Egypt and worked 24/7, slept in the garage in a gated Irvine community, and we didn’t really know what to do. But now we understand and thanks to your office, we actually have a mini desk guide to help us identify the types of child labor trafficking present right here in California. And so, I want to talk about some definitions. First of all, is child labor legal?


Melissa [00:10:09] Yes. So, you know, when we talk about child labor trafficking, it is really important to talk about it in terms of the spectrum of child labor rate. And first of all, also, we need to address that. There are these myths that many of us hold around what labor trafficking looks like in the United States. When we do trainings throughout the state, we’re constantly having to remind people that this isn’t something that just happens in other countries. This is something that’s happening in the United States. And it might look a little different. And oftentimes it’s very invisible to those of us that are living here in California. But there is legal child labor, right. That’s defined by federal and state employment law. And typically, you’re going to see youth that are 14 to 16 years of age that have a work permit, that are working, you know, and being able to bring in money for their families, that are able to learn some really incredible skills for their future employment. I started working at the age of 14 and had some great experience in a restaurant. And I think that’s important for us to remember when we’re talking about commercial sexual exploitation. There’s never a legal form of commercial sexual exploitation of a child that’s under the age of 18. Right. But then we also have child labor that is not legal and that’s where minors are working under the legal working age. They’re engaging in illegal work or work that’s harmful to their health, to their development, to their education. And you can oftentimes see this, for instance, in agriculture, children that might be working in the field and they are being exposed to harmful pesticides or chemicals or they are in construction and having to carry these heavy loads that are not appropriate for their age development where there that actually has a physical impact on their bodies. As you mentioned, domestic servitude. Right. One of the very first cases in Fresno County and prior to my work with Pat, I worked for many years providing comprehensive services to survivors of both sex and labor trafficking in six counties in the Central Valley. And one of the first survivors that we also identified in the Central Valley was a survivor of domestic servitude that was brought to the US at the age of nine, and it was under a false adoption. And she spent also, as you were mentioning, the other case, she was working twenty-four, seven, and she was actually able to attend school, but she didn’t have that normal childhood. When she came home from school, she was required to watch other children. She worked in the trafficker’s business. I think it was over 12 years that she was involved in this work. And then we also have this spectrum of labor exploitation. And so that’s working legally. But these children and youth are denied basic legal, right. So, they might have a worker’s permit. They might be working in a restaurant, but they’re not getting fair compensation. They’re not getting grapes. They’re not getting overtime. But they have the ability to leave the work if they want to. They might not leave because maybe they feel like this is the only way they’re making money, but they can leave. And it really crosses into labor trafficking where there is this base of force, fraud or coercion. And all of us who really have that grounding in what commercial sexual exploitation looks like, we probably know what some of those elements might be. Traffickers are going to create that psychological coercion, that sense that they are not able to leave this work without experiencing threats to a loved one or to someone that they care about. Maybe they’re experiencing physical abuse. And actually, the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking has data that shows in all of their cases, one out of three female survivors of labor trafficking experienced sexual abuse as a part of the coercion within their labor trafficking experience. And so, they’re really oftentimes is this overlap with other crimes as well and other forms of abuse that are happening to that child to keep them in that situation.


Sandie [00:14:20] I think it’s really important for us to distinguish the elements of the crime that have to be investigated and proven in the process when it is labor trafficking, like you already pointed out, if it’s sex trafficking of a minor, we just eliminate needing to investigate those elements. But we still need to understand them in order to provide the best care in a victim-centered approach. I remember one child victim, a teenager, and when she was interviewed, the coercion in her experience was the threat of deportation of her uncle. And this in the immigrant community, you can look and say, well, this child is safe, she has citizenship, she’s going to school. But you have to look at the whole family and the systems around that in your desktop report you actually have.. and I really want any teacher, any child, social worker, any youth worker, any student to download this, because it’s such a good glimpse of what’s happening here in California. But as we wanted to establish at the beginning, you can use this at a much broader level. So, on page five, we actually see numbers. Numbers are not real people, we know that, but they do show us that we are identifying child victims of labor trafficking. Tell us about those numbers. How did you get them?


Melissa [00:16:05] So I think you might be referring to the data that we pulled from the National Human Trafficking Hotline. I just want to confirm that.


Sandie [00:16:12] Yes. Yes.


Melissa [00:16:13] OK. So, as you mentioned, I think it’s really important that when we’re looking at numbers, we recognize the limitations. And also, we recognize that labor trafficking, in particular, is an issue that really is underreported and really misunderstood, I think, by the general population. Most people have an understanding at this point of what sex trafficking looks like. But if you look at campaigns, if you look at images in the media, if you look at the stories, even the media reports that are coming out, oftentimes they won’t actually mention forced labor or labor trafficking. They’ll talk about maybe the experience, but they won’t actually label it that way. So, the public awareness and even of victims themselves in terms of reporting this is still very low. So, I just want to say that in terms of kind of couching this data and that understanding, but the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which really is one of our largest sources of data at this point for understanding what this looks like, has a data set from 2007 to 2019, and that includes 17,271 minor victims and survivors that were identified through the hotline. So, folks that called in and actually self-disclosed their experience. And we see that about 80 percent of those cases were sex trafficking and 9.8, almost 10 percent were labor trafficking, and then around 5 percent were both. And then there was about 5 percent where they just weren’t able to identify whether or not it was sex or labor trafficking. But some of the other kind of key components that you can pull out of that data set is that nearly about 38 percent of those cases of child survivors specifically were cases where the individual was trafficked by a family member or a foster family. And so, I think that that piece of data is incredibly important for us to recognize the vulnerabilities of our foster youth and also just the vulnerabilities of a child that’s being trafficked by someone that they know and have that close relationship with an adult that’s supposed to care and love for them, you know, love them. That ends up, you know, abusing them. Unfortunately, we also see a little bit of a difference, a big difference in terms of gender or sex trafficking versus labor trafficking. So, we see in labor trafficking that nearly 50 percent of the cases are males, and that is much higher than the small percentage of cases that were being that are being reported to the national hotline of male survivors of sex trafficking, although we know that we need to do a better job of identifying male survivors of sex trafficking, right?


Sandie [00:18:51] That’s right. So let me ask you about specific industries where we see child labor in a more prevalence than just labor trafficking.


Melissa [00:19:03] So the top three industries, the national hotline has reported that we see labor trafficking with children is in peddling and begging, begging. So, you see kids selling candy bars, right. Or begging on the street or busking, playing music, that sort of thing. You’re going to see domestic work and then traveling sales crews actually is up there. You and that’s where you see you that are traveling oftentimes around the country selling either cleaning supplies, door to door, selling magazines, those sorts of things. And we’ve actually had a few cases like that in the Central Valley when I did direct work with survivors of traveling sales crews. But really, I think what’s important to highlight is labor trafficking is contextualized to the vulnerabilities of specific economies and states and counties and communities. Right. So, if you’re living in a particularly rural community, you’re going to see more cases in agriculture. If you’re living in a community where there’s a high tourist industry, you’re going to see more cases in hospitality. The other thing is that the hotline also identified several industries where there was a strong crossover between sex and labor trafficking and those three industries where you saw folks at bars or clubs where they were both working maybe in the sex industry or being exploited for commercial sex, but also working maybe in the bar and then in the illicit massage industry, health and beauty. And then the third area where we see a strong area of crossover, which kind of leads into some other data. I think Sandie that you wanted to mention is this area of forced criminality or children that are being forced and coerced to participate in illegal activities on behalf of their trafficker.


Sandie [00:20:53] Wow. OK, so I want to help people learn how to identify child victims because it is more challenging because of proving force, broader coercion. So, let’s look at some of the red flags and then let’s use the HTIAM-14. Everybody writes that down. If we have to start somewhere and we need to have screening tools. So, teachers, social workers, this is a good place to begin to develop the perspective, the filter, so that you can identify child labor victims. So, tell us about what we’re looking for.


Melissa [00:21:41] Yeah. So, some of the red flags are going to be someone that’s controlling the child’s money, their communication, as you mentioned, someone that has that lack of status through immigration. That’s a really high vulnerability that we see this with both domestic youth and U.S. citizen youth. And so, if their passport documentation is being controlled, that can look a little different for younger children, because it would make sense, obviously, for an adult to have control of some of that documentation. But particularly if it’s an older youth, you’re going to see that oftentimes control of movement and where that youth is not maybe they’re able to go to church or they’re able to go to school, but they’re not able to freely move. And they always have to come back, and they’re monitored by that trafficker in a lot of cases with child labor trafficking, particularly with younger kids. Oftentimes there’s this unclear caregiver relationship. So, as I mentioned in the case where there was a faux adoption, a falsified adoption case, but oftentimes you might see like an older child, an older youth dropping off a child at school. And there’s kind of this confusion around who is actually the parent or the caregiver in many cases of labor trafficking. You see what’s called debt bondage. So, this like increasing debt. So, for instance, the traveling sales crews, you see that the individual has to pay off this debt. So, they’re expected to work. They’re expected to meet this quota. They’re given this false promise of, you know, you’re going to make all this money. You’re going to be able to, you know, travel the US and be able to meet friends and have this community of people that you’re working with. And then what ends up happening is they don’t meet their quota and they have to pay for their travel, and they have to pay for their hotel stay that their trafficker forces them to stay at this specific place. And that debt just starts increasing and they feel this absolute need and obligation to have to pay off this debt. So that can be a big sign. Missing school and truancy. So, a child may be attending school, but they may be showing up at school late. They may be exhausted at school. And when you ask them questions about why they’re so tired, they had to work, or they had to do something for their family. There’s oftentimes this fear and, you know, it’s very difficult sometimes to identify this, but we do see the scripted communication. So, in the one case I mentioned before, social services had multiple encounters with this young person that was being trafficked for many, many years and ended up not being identified till she was an adult because there was scripted communication. Happening and she was constantly being groomed, you’re going to see signs of abuse, whether that’s physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual. And oftentimes physical impacts like malnourishment fatigue, potentially workplace injuries. You oftentimes will see people working and living in the same place and there may be restricted living spaces. So, like I think you mentioned the gated community, right? There could be security cameras, tinted windows, bars, that sort of thing. But that’s not always the case. And so, it’s important that we recognize sometimes chains are psychological, not just physical. So those are some of the signs. And then in terms of the human trafficking interview and assessment measure, I think it’s really important to have open ended conversations with youth. This particular assessment was actually designed for a research study that was done in partnership with Covenant House, and that is a national group that has shelters all over the United States. And so, it actually drew on interviews with almost a thousand homeless youth across 13 cities. And so, the assessment was developed to really identify labor trafficking and sex trafficking within these youth. And some of the questions that they ask, you know, really hit on that force, fraud, and coercion. So, have you ever worked in a place that made you feel scared or unsafe to be able to talk to youth about their experience? Have you ever been tricked or forced into doing any kind of work that you didn’t want to do? Have you ever worked for someone who didn’t let you contact your friends or family or your outside world even when you weren’t working? So, to get at some of these pieces that look at that that force, fraud, and coercion and those are just a couple examples. But please check it out. Sandie mentioned there really are not a lot of comprehensive screening tools that are validated that has been developed yet to address labor trafficking. And so, I do think we have to start somewhere and there’s still a lot more work to be done.


Sandie [00:26:23] So I would encourage teachers, social workers, health care providers to take a look at this screening tool, not necessarily because you’re going to formally do screening, but as a guide for conversations. And in the past, we talked about communicating with adolescents and their brain morphology, developmental stages. And so sometimes one of the limitations of a screening tool like this is it’s may be so direct that a student won’t be forthcoming and learning to use a little different language that might neutralize and anonymize the information to carry on that dialog. And because you’re not doing a formal screening, you can begin to develop that relational communication by saying, do you know someone who’s been working in a place where they don’t feel safe? And that gives a little more room for conversation and creating a way forward for a student to self-disclose? We’re beginning to see how we can use a lot of what we learned in communicating with commercially sexually exploited children in this same arena. And to that, I, I want to as we wind up here, talk about the element of trauma. There is some kind of discrimination between in our brains that somehow the child who is sexually exploited is more traumatized than the child who is labor exploited. Can you speak to that, Melissa, for a minute?


Melissa [00:28:10] Yeah. And I think, you know, this has been something that has just hurt me, like over the years in this movement, because I have spoken to so many survivors of labor trafficking whose experience was incredibly traumatic. And as I’ve mentioned, oftentimes, this intersects with really severe forms of sexual abuse, physical abuse, beatings that the child experienced often at the hands of someone that really was supposed to love and protect them. And unfortunately, we do. We have this sensationalized, I think, view where I have I have actually a really good friend and colleague and male survivor of sex trafficking that he causes trauma porn. You know that we have this need in our society to hear the most horrific pieces of a survivor’s experience and really commodify their story. And unfortunately, with labor trafficking, first of all, we don’t have as many stories or examples, right. Of ethical stories that we’ve heard of folks that have experienced this. But also, we really have minimized their experience over the years. And as I mentioned before. Or we oftentimes don’t see in campaigns or in the media or in the news stories that talk about what it looks like to have someone really, you know, again, working around the clock, absolute exhaustion at times, having their childhoods stripped from them and that trauma that impacts them over time. Many of the survivors that I’ve worked with of labor trafficking have long-term health impacts from the experience of their trafficking. And I work with actually, I have the privilege of working with a team of Survivor consultants across the state that have both experienced sex and labor trafficking. They talk very freely about how similar their experiences of trauma are. And while they’re in the industry that they were in is different. And some of the things that the services that they received may have been different in their journeys, the trauma that they experienced was very similar. So, it’s important for us to recognize that.


Sandie [00:30:27] So as we move forward here in California, we have this growing collaborative through PACT. We’re going to be able to gather more data specific to California and our experiences and how it’s processed in our social services, in our schools, in our health care system to identify kids. I want people listening to go back and hear interviews we’ve done with child labor trafficking victims like Shyima Hall, we’ll put a link in the show notes and Bella Hounakey, who was trafficked from Togo when she was nine years old. And their description of the trauma will help us develop our empathy muscles for labor trafficking victims as well. Melissa, it has been so fun to catch up with you again. I’m excited about the future of growing awareness and a collaboration to fight child labor trafficking right here.


Melissa [00:31:31] Thank you, Sandie, so much. I appreciate you taking the time to have me today.


Dave [00:31:36] Thank you both. Melissa, thank you so much for your work and your partnership, and we are inviting everyone listening to take the first step. If you haven’t already, please hop online and download a copy of Sandie book, The Five Things You Must Know: A QuickStart Guide to Ending Human Trafficking. It’s a guide that will teach you the five critical things that Sandie in her work here at the Global Center for Women and Justice has identified that you should know before you join the fight against human trafficking. You can get access by going over to Endinghumantrafficking.org. That’s also the very best place to go for all the links and resources that we mentioned in today’s conversation. It’s also a source of details on the antihuman trafficking certificate program here at Vanguard University. If you would like to discover more about the program. We invite you to go over to Endinghumantrafficking.org. All the details are listed there. We will be back for our next conversation here on the show in two weeks. Sandie, as always, a pleasure. Thanks for your time.


Sandie [00:32:38] Thank you Dave.


Dave [00:32:39] See you all in two weeks.

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