279 – Who Are the Kids Being Trafficked, with Kendra Tankersley-Davis

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Sandie is joined by Kendra Tankersley-Davis to discuss the characteristics and signs of youth who are identified as being commercially sexually exploited. Sandie and Kendra provide statistics on what CSEC looks like in Orange County, risk factors for caregivers to look out for, and tips for individuals interested in becoming a foster/resource parent.

Kendra Tankersley-Davis

Kendra has worked with at-risk children and families, who are involved in the child welfare, probation, or mental health systems due to complex trauma, for over sixteen years. She has worked in Human Trafficking supporting survivors in transitioning out of the life, educating communities, teaching preventative methods, and providing advocacy for over fifteen years. Kendra has a Bachelors Degree in Criminal Justice and a Master’s Degree in Family and Human Development; she is currently The Vice President of External Affairs at Crittenton Services for Children and Families.

Key Points

  • For youth who experience trauma, often their development can stop or be hindered at that age of experience.
  • 80% of the CSEC (commercially sexually exploited children) who were identified in Orange County were from Orange County
  • The biggest risk factor for exploitation is prior abuse and neglect.
  • Training to recognize the signs of possible exploitation and/or abuse for anyone interacting with youth is important to take action and prevent further harm.


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 279, Who Are the Kids Being Trafficked, with Kendra Tankersley-Davis.

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 are turning our attention of our conversation towards kids. The most important people, perhaps in this conversation. One of the reasons we continue to come back to the topic of children in our conversation about ending human trafficking. Today, an expert with us who’s going to help us to really understand this population better and some of the implications that we can all learn from. I’m so pleased to welcome Kendra Tankersley-Davis. She is an adjunct professor for the Global Center for Women and Justice here at Vanguard University. Kendra has worked with at-risk children and families who are involved in the child welfare probation or mental health systems due to complex trauma. And she’s been doing the work for over 16 years. She has worked in human trafficking, supporting survivors and transitioning out of the life, educating communities, teaching preventative methods, and providing advocacy for over 15 years. Kendra has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a master’s degree in Family and Human Development. She’s currently the Vice President of External Affairs at Crittenton Services for Children and Families. Kendra, what a pleasure to have you with us.

Kendra [00:01:53] Thank you so much. I’m very excited to be here. I listen to the podcast pretty much weekly, so I’m excited to be a guest. Thank you so much.

Sandie [00:02:02] I’m really happy to have you, Kendra. And we just got to have a whole week together last month with our faculty student trip to Navajo Nation, and I learned so many things about you that I’d like to be able to talk to you for a couple of hours instead of only a 30-minute podcast. But I think your bio really brings to light the different streams that come together in your work. Your bachelors is criminal justice and your master’s is family and human development, and that is the perfect combination to address the issues of our kids. And I use the term kids here because I’m really thinking more about adolescence. They think they’re adults, actually. But it’s a big challenge to address the issues around our kids that are making the transition to adulthood.

Kendra [00:03:10] It is. And even those in the TAY population, so 18 to 24 or 25, they’re still considered today. They’re still kids, too, because their development stops and typically at the age of their trauma. So they struggle with being adults. So I kind of encompass kids as all of them in my work because that’s what I’ve seen. That’s what my experience has been.

Sandie [00:03:36] So I think for me, I think of that adolescent transition to adulthood and TAY’s are transitional age youth.

Kendra [00:03:47] Yes.

Sandie [00:03:47] And we do sometimes have higher expectations of someone who looks like they’re in an adult body, but we don’t accommodate for their development stages. And last summer, you were part of our Smart Mama’s: Safe Kids event, which I want to tell our listeners. We’re going to be launching the video version of that this summer. So we want to have something useful for parents, for community leaders, for afterschool clubs to begin to help identify some of the prevention strategies that are helpful to keep our kids safe. So at that event, though, you said and this is like a quote, 80% of your callouts for CSEC–you’re going to have to define that for our listeners– here in Orange County were Orange County kids. Can you unpack that and tell us who those kids are?

Kendra [00:04:58] Sure. So, first of all, start with defining CSEC. And I apologize. When you work in the field of social services, you use so many acronyms. The commercial sexual exploitation of children. So that’s anyone under the age of 18 who has been trafficked. So it’s important to understand that and what it means. One of the myths that we find, especially in Orange County because it is considered a more affluent area, is that it doesn’t happen here. And if it does happen here, it’s those kids from somewhere else. And so I always tell people, I just don’t know who those kids are because they’re not those kids. They’re all our kids. And we all have a responsibility to these children. But when you have 80% of the children who were identified as being trafficked are from Orange County, they live in Orange County, their residence is Orange County. We have to accept and acknowledge that and be accountable for that because that helps you identify what do we need to do next to protect our children. But as far as the demographics go within trafficking as a whole, you have a disproportionate amount of black and brown children. However, I sat in a meeting a week and a half ago and it was a woman from Homeland Security who works in their trafficking area, and she was talking about a case that they were working. And it wasn’t the poverty stricken child. It wasn’t the black or brown child. It was a Caucasian child from an affluent family who was an educated parents and she had been trafficked for over two years and her parents didn’t know and she was 15. So it’s wide. It can happen to anyone. It happens to the child who is vulnerable and the vulnerability can look different in each child. So we have to understand within our community of Orange County, it could be any child there, but certainly the child dealing with poverty, abuse, substance use, neglect, they’re certainly at a higher risk of being trafficked.

Sandie [00:07:10] So at that same event, your colleague from Child Welfare, Nicole Strattman, gave us numbers from Orange County and she reported that the biggest risk factor for exploitation is prior abuse and neglect and that in Orange County. And, you know, I know our listeners are from literally around the world, but I love using Orange County as a case study because it is affluent and we don’t expect to see it here. But she reported that since 2014 in Orange County, 92% of children who were identified as victims of commercial sexual exploitation had prior child welfare history, and that 100% of the children picked up by law enforcement had prior child welfare history. And then she went on to report that 37% were already involved in our juvenile court system. 80-95% have a history of being sexually abused, and that is a problem that is hidden. So for nearly three quarters of our exploited youth, abuse has been ongoing for two or more years before being seen by child welfare. So that’s why this is such a hidden problem. How are we going to identify those children, those youth, those adolescents?

Kendra [00:08:57] Part of the way that we can identify is we have to continue educating our community. And our community is everyone, our educators, our pastors, priest, rabbis. Anyone in the faith-based community. Our community workers. The person who picks up your recycling and your garbage, here’s why. One of the things that we know is when children are abused, they’re taught secrecy. They’re taught to keep it quiet. And that typically starts at a very young age. And children are taught, I think, in general, to keep things quiet. You’ll hear a lot what happens in this home stays in this home, whether it’s the family having financial problems or someone is ill or dealing with mental illness or abuse is taking place. So when you learn to keep secrets and you’re raised within that type of a family culture, it’s very easy to hide what’s happening to you. However, the body tells signs. Kids will show you in ways that are unusual sometimes, in ways that may look different, that something is not right. And we have to be cued into that. When a child is having a behavioral problem, it’s not because they woke up today and said, you know, I’m just going to tear the place up today. I’m just going to be defiant at school. A behavioral problem to me is communication that something is going on. Look past the behavior. Take that minute to look past it and start asking questions that don’t appear to be questions. And we have to train people how to do that. We have to train people to see what is happening. And let me give you an example of that. For years, I was a volunteer at our kids ministry at my church. And one Sunday morning, a little girl, she probably was six, came in. She hadn’t been there before, but I watched her. She was very sexualized in her behavior. She was trying to touch the other children. She would slide, raise her dress and slide across the stage. It was almost as if she was trying to generate sort of a sexual feeling. She just was very sexualized. Because this is the job I do, I knew what was happening, where some of my other counterparts who don’t work in this field, so they’re like, Wow, she’s really misbehaving. No, she’s communicating. So I was able to go ahead and make a child abuse report because I knew something’s not right here. And we need to have more people trained on that because if you see it and you take action, which may be calling law enforcement, calling the child abuse hotline, more children will be identified early on, which is more of a preventative method of them getting caught up into trafficking. So we have to educate more.

Sandie [00:11:47] Okay. So I just heard you say so many things that I want people to understand. So you saw behavior that was atypical for this child and you began to be concerned and then you made a phone call. So I have talked to people and people call me because they don’t want to make that call. What is our problem? Why don’t we want to make that call? It’s so easy to find the child abuse hotline in your neighborhood.

Kendra [00:12:22] Because if I make that call, am I getting involved? Am I, are they going to talk to me? Are they going to question me? What if I’m wrong? What if I’m wrong and nothing’s happening and the child really is just misbehaving. And this is how I answer that question, because I do hear that a lot. I’d rather you be wrong than a child continue being hurt. I’ll take the hit. I’ll take the risk of being wrong. I rather beg for forgiveness later if I have misjudged the situation, then not taken action. And people can make the phone call and you don’t have to identify yourself. You don’t have to say, Look, this is who I am. And also, when you make the call, they’re not going to tell the caregiver. It’s safe to make the call. There’s not going to be a retaliation towards you. It will be kept private. But I always say, beg for forgiveness later if you’re wrong, but I’m going to fight to protect that child right now.

Sandie [00:13:20] Okay. That’s a strong word. But let’s get over ourselves and think about the future of a child. And the earlier we intervene, the easier it’s going to be for that child in the long run. Once they reach this age of entering adolescence, really, there is a developmental stage where they feel more empowered, like they have more personal agency. That often results in running away from a situation. And so now they are labeled as a runner. And maybe we need to find out what they’re running away from. And what does that look like in finding places for these kids?

Kendra [00:14:09] It is an extremely difficult task and it’s recently become even harder. So once a child hits adolescence and this is very sad to me, most resource parents, which is the current name for foster families or foster parents, they do not want adolescents. They find that it is going to be more difficult to care for them. They require more. And if a child has an extensive history of running away, that makes placement even harder. So then they end up in treatment facilities, group homes, what they used to call group homes, and now are called short term residential treatment placements. And recently there were some new laws that were put in place that put a lot of confinement restrictions and financial confinements on short-term residential treatment programs. So they’re they’re closing left and right, left and right. Crittenton had one for decades, and we actually closed ours about a year ago. Here’s the problem with that. They’re needed because now everyone is scrambling where to put these adolescents who have these challenges, who have this pain, which has caused behavioral issues. Where do they go? So they’re just lingering now all over the place. And a lot of times people are saying kids shouldn’t grow up in group homes are treatment facilities. They shouldn’t. That’s an absolute correction. But they do have great benefits and they can have great work towards healing. I actually last week met with a young lady who was at Crittenton’s group home in 1995-96, and she said she arrived there when she was 17. She was removed from her parents at 13 and went to a number of foster homes that weren’t good for her. But it was at Crittenton where she learned skills, how to be a young adult, how to function. She finished high school early. She started college classes in this group home because you have people who do care and who show up. A lot of placements won’t take, you know, like transitional housing because they do have it for 16 to 18 years old. It’s just difficult because they’re not ready to live independently and they don’t have that skill set yet. And a lot of times they’ve not dealt with their past abuse or trauma. So you’re going to have behavioral issues which starts the cycle of them being put out or exited from the program. Then where do they go? Which leads to significantly increased substance use, significantly increased homelessness and significantly increased trafficking. So we have to change how we view this. We need to be open to children being placed in homes. We need resource parents who are open to say, look, you give me the support and the services I needed, I’ll do it, I’ll take it, I’ll do it. We’ll work together as a team to support this child in working towards their healing because it’s through their healing that we’re going to see their success.

Sandie [00:17:06] Let’s stop right there and unpack what it means to be a resource parent and be part of a team. Because I think that if I sign up to be a resource parent, foster parent, I now have not just one more body in my home. I have all the baggage that took that child out of another home because it wasn’t safe. And I don’t think I can manage that much.

Kendra [00:17:42] You’d be surprised at what you can manage. And I always say this. There is nothing like a caregiver who can love a child through anything that makes the difference. And so if you’re considering or anyone is considering being a foster parent, I need them to not consider it for a paycheck, because I have seen that. And that is more damaging than you could ever imagine to that child. To be a foster parent, you will need a level of patience, kindness and compassion, empathy in care, and strength. But you have to know you’re not doing it alone. There’s a lot of supportive services that are in place, like, for instance, with Crittenton. We do have foster parents. We have an agency that certifies foster parents, and we place children within their homes. But we’re not just going to say, here’s the kid, I’ll see you later. We show up at your house every week just to show whatever support you need. It’s not intrusive. We’re not spying on you. We know this job is hard. There’s also services like wraparound services, and that’s a team-based approach. So you can have a team of people, a parent partner who is a parent, who has raised a child in the system, whether it’s mental health, juvenile justice or child welfare. So they understand what you’re going through. They’re your support. You have a therapist and you have a case manager who’s going to oversee the case. The job of those teams, of social workers, of case managers is to support you in doing your work, in loving on and supporting that child and making it as easy as you can. Whatever resource you need, your team will support you in getting it and linking you to it. If you were trying to figure out what that child likes to do, because I’m a very, very big supporter of finding positive extracurricular activities for kids, they’ll help you find it. And often sometimes they can help you pay for it. So you’re not alone. You’re not left alone. And we can also help you identify people within your own personal circle who can help and be support. Maybe it’s a respite parent where you need a break and that child can go to this person’s home that they know, please don’t send them to strangers. That just breaks me. But let’s identify someone that can become part of your family circle. So if you need a break, the child can go there. And it’s not like you don’t want me. It’s like, Oh, I’m going to go visit Aunt So-and-so or this friend and you get a break. So there’s a big supportive team that can help you in this work.

Sandie [00:20:15] And that’s called a respite parent.

Kendra [00:20:18] So in the foster care system, there’s respite parents, which means they’re temporary. So if a child is placed in a resource slash foster home and the family is going on vacation, you can say I need to respite this child. So they will send the child to someone else for the duration of the time that you’re gone. And then when you come back, the child goes back to you. So they’re like temporary. My problem with that is when it’s someone the child doesn’t know. If you’re telling this child you welcomed in your home, you’re part of my family because I had this happen on a case. You’re so much part of our family. We love you. And the parents were engaged and they were getting married. So when they decided to get married, the whole family went. But guess who didn’t? The foster child. She had to go to a respite and the respite was someone she didn’t know. And usually it is. So I say, how does she feel? Does she feel part of your family? Have you validated her? No. She understands that that point that I’m not part of your family and you’re lying to me because if I was, I’d be going with the family. So there are situations where a respite might be needed. Let’s identify someone in your life that knows you and knows the child. So when the child does need to go there, they don’t feel outcasted. They feel like I’m going to a family’s home, a member home, and I’m okay with that. So that’s why I said build a respite, a respite first.

Sandie [00:21:48] Okay. So I can hear the passion in your voice and wow. Okay. So the big question now is how do we prevent this from ever happening in the first place?

Kendra [00:22:06] We as a community have to rise up and we have to do de-stigmatize some things. We have to do the opposite. We have to make secrets not okay. We have to put shame on keeping secrets so people feel safe in sharing. We need to support parents and caregivers in their own healing and let them know it’s okay to heal from their own trauma so we can break generational curses. We need to teach parents and caregivers that if your child tells you something, believe them. Again, beg for forgiveness later if you’re wrong, because you believing that child means you’re standing up and protecting that child. And they need to feel that, because if we’re not doing that, guess who is? The trafficker. He’s going to stand up and protect them. And I’m going to tell you, I believe you. And they’re going to find in that person what they’re looking for in the people who care for them. We have to be aware and we have to be a community of involved people. We can’t just shut our doors anymore and say, Oh, we’re just focused on ourselves or our own business. And we also need to help people take small steps towards connecting. What happened to families having dinner together? That’s my number one homework when I do direct care is family has to have dinner together. Whoever the family is, I don’t care who the family is, consider. I think another thing, too, which is something recent, is we need to redefine what family is. I had a young adult tell me, I wish you’d stop saying family because I don’t have one. We can build our own family. She changed my whole dynamic of how I think about family because I felt her pain. She didn’t have one. Many of them don’t have one or the family is so bad. It’s not a structure. What does family mean? We can create our own family. We can build our own families. And how do we do that? We have to become a society of compassion and care and not judgment and defiance from each other. And we need to be accountable. We need to hold our entertainment industry accountable. If a song is glorifying trafficking, we need to not support it. If it’s glorifying demeaning people, we need to not support it. Those, if movies doing it, we need to not support it. Because I think those things also help to support the structure of abuse is okay and is glorified. So if they’re singing about it or showing it the way that I’m great, it’s the number one song or the number one movie. So I think those are some small steps that we can do. Get involved. We all are busy, but we all have a minute. We all have an hour in a month to get involved in a Boys and Girls Club. Crittenton Services, we have all kinds of volunteers that come through and they’re very meaningful to the children we serve. Take an hour to give that hour a month. There’s just so many small steps we can take that can cause a big impact. I think they’re needed because when we’re looking at trafficking, I spend so much time looking at it. If we cut off the supply, that’s going to impact the whole business as a whole. We’ve got to cut off the supply, meaning we don’t have children available because they’re strong, healthy, respected, feel heard, viable and cared for. They’re not going to fall for the solicitation that a trafficker may bring to get them to become part of that life.

Sandie [00:25:39] One of the things that you said that really reminded me of Nicole Strattman’s report that she provided that day is she said, self-disclosure is very rare. So your focus on overcoming this culture of secrecy, I’ve began to hone in on that. And actually in podcast number 278, Dr. Jodi Quas breaks down the conversations that we have with these kids because self-disclosure, telling the secrets, that is so not happening, how do we foster it happening? So I really recommend that listeners go back and listen to 278. But the bottom line, the bottom line in all these conversations is relationship.

Kendra [00:26:43] Yes.

Sandie [00:26:43] It’s building trust, even if if we don’t have our best case scenario of a home home to send a child to, having a placement in a group home among people who are experts at what they do and are kind and compassionate in their work, that’s going to be life changing. Even if I’m just the cookie mom at Crittenton, I can be part of that big picture. I think we don’t see ourselves and I’m talking to all of our listeners. We don’t see ourselves as part of the solution. We make it too big a jump from my current life to, Oh, I would have to completely remodel my house to take a child.

Kendra [00:27:38] Not at all. Do you have the spare room? That’s all I need. Do you have a spare room? If there is a safety concern of some kind, let me help you move through that. Let me help you fix that. What that child needs, they don’t need the fancy hats. They don’t need that. They need a person who they know cares. And that will take time. Which is why I say patience is really important, because children who’ve been in this system, children who’ve been abused, any system and they’ve been abused, they don’t trust people because guess what? They shouldn’t. You have to earn their trust. I remember when I first became a mom, my mother said to me, Do not think your daughter is just going to trust you. You have to earn it. And I thought, Oh, that’s good. And she’s right. We have to earn their trust. And it’s not easy. But you earn it step by step. When they walk in the door, do you ask, how was school today? When they wake up, do you say, have the most amazing day ever? Do you identify what’s good about them? Internally, you’re smart. You’re kind. You have a good heart. Do you show up at their games? Do you make their favorite meal? Do you cook together? It’s a very small step, and after a while that child goes, This is different. Wait, this is different. And they start to trust you. And it is when they know they can trust you that they will disclose to you. But a lot of times they don’t give people in their lives who are willing to do the work to earn their trust and respect. Once you get it, trust me, they tell you. I know many things I don’t want to know, but I needed to know so that I can know how to support them.

Sandie [00:29:24] That’s so good. And building that trust, it’s just a reflection of how that started and should have happened for a child with attachment. When the baby cries, you respond, you show up. And the baby that no one shows up for has all those attachment issues because they didn’t learn to trust the caregivers in their lives. Kendra, we’re going to keep you for our bonus question for a few minutes at the end of this podcast. At our last Ensure Justice, our Grace Court Judge, the Honorable Joann Motoike identified two gaps for our CSEC victims, one was placement. We’ve really tackled that well today, but the other was substance use. So we’re going to keep you around for those who want to become Patreon supporters and we’re going to ask you about substance use. Thank you so much for being with us today.

Kendra [00:30:34] Thank you so much. It is such an honor and a pleasure for me to be here and for anyone who’s interested in being a resource parent, please feel free to go to CrittentonSoCal.org. We have information there on how you can achieve that. And please know if you’re thinking about it, you won’t be alone. And there is a little girl, a little boy. There’s a child out there in the world who needs you. Little could be up to 18. Just want to say that, but they need you.

Sandie [00:31:00] All right. Thanks, Kendra.

Dave [00:31:03] Thank you, Kendra and Sandie, for this conversation. And we’d like to invite you to take the first step or maybe the next step. If you go online, you can download a copy of Sandie’s Guide, The Five Things You Must Know: A Quick Start Guide for Ending Human Trafficking. It’ll teach you the five critical things Sandie has identified in her work that you should know before you join the fight against trafficking. You can get access to it by going over to endinghumantrafficking.org. And as you heard Sandie mentioned a moment ago, we’re going to have Kendra back here in just a bit for another bonus question. That is one of the benefits of supporting the Ending Human Trafficking podcast as a patron and by becoming a patron you can get access to exclusive content and join a community of advocates who are fighting human trafficking. Just go over to endinghumantrafficking.org, click on the link for Patreon and you can get access to new content such as a bonus questions, exclusive resources and more. Simple to get started, just go over to endinghumantrafficking.org and you can start at $5 a month. For those who are already patrons, thank you so much for your support. Stay tuned for more and we’re just so excited to have you supporting us this year and continuing to support the work here at the Global Center for Women and Justice at Vanguard University. We will be back in two weeks for our next conversation. And Sandie, you have a great day and I’ll see you in two weeks.

Sandie [00:32:33] Thanks.

Dave [00:32:34] Thanks, everybody.

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