28 – Stop Blaming the Victim, with Amelia Franck Meyer

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Dave Stachowiak and Dr. Sandie Morgan are joined by Amelia Franck Meyer as the three discuss the prevalence of victim blaming against commercially sexually exploited children, how it affects the children, and how to help them.

Amelia Franck Meyer

Amelia Franck Meyer has been the CEO of Anu Family Services since 2001, a child welfare agency located in Wisconsin and Minnesota. She is an advanced practiced social worker, a licensed independent social worker, she has a master’s degree in social work from University of Minnesota, a master’s degree in sociology from Illinois, and a graduate certificate from the University of Minnesota. Amelia Franck Meyer was a workshop presenter at the Ensure Justice Conference on “Standing Together to End Exploitation of Girls.”

Key Points

  • Terms like “teen prostitute” and “child prostitute” are incorrect and dangerous as they suggest youth were voluntarily involved.
  • Blaming victims instead of seeing them as children who are in need of protection adds to the harm these youth have already experienced.
  • A lot of the youth being found in these circumstances are children who were already in the Foster care system. Because these children felt that they had no protection in the system, from the lack of adult connection, they took it upon themselves to find protection.
  • When commercially sexually exploited youth are found, they have already had their innocence taken from them, however, they also lost the time they should have had doing things with their families and friends.



Dave 00:00
You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 28, airing on May 10, 2012. Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandra Morgan 00:28
And I’m Sandie Morgan, Director of the Global Center for Women and Justice at Vanguard University.

Dave 00:34
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, we are back today with a another interview to help us to gain even more knowledge so we can study the issues, be a voice and ultimately be able to end human trafficking and contribute to making a difference that we always talk about. So, I’m so glad to be back with you and with our guest today.

Sandra Morgan 01:09
Well, I’ll tell you a little bit about our guest. First of all, she was one of our workshop presenters at the March Ensure Justice Conference on “Standing Together to End Exploitation of Girls.” She received really high marks from everybody that attended her workshop.

Dave 01:29

Sandra Morgan 01:29
In fact, if you are interested in ordering a copy of her workshop, you will be able to do that at gcwj@vanguard.edu. But let me introduce Amelia Frank Meyer. She has been the CEO of Anu Family Services since 2001. That’s a child welfare agency located in Wisconsin and Minnesota. For those of you who listened to the last podcast, we were talking about not calling these kids terms that put them into juvenile delinquency, but finding and making opportunities by giving them designations that place them squarely in a child welfare context. That’s exactly what Amelia does. She is an advanced practiced social worker, a licensed independent social worker, she has a master’s degree in social work from University of Minnesota, a master’s degree in sociology from Illinois, and a graduate certificate from the University of Minnesota. Dave is always excited, Amelia, to meet fellow friends from Illinois and he was excited when he found out that Illinois is the first state to pass a law that makes it impossible to prosecute any child under the age of 18 for prostitution, no matter what. We are very happy to have you here. Welcome.

Amelia Frank Meyer 03:00
Thank you. My pleasure to be here.

Sandra Morgan 03:02
When you did your workshop for us at the Ensure Justice Conference, the title of your workshop was “Stop Blaming the Victim.” We talked about the kinds of baggage that come with terms like” teen prostitute” and “child prostitute”. What that does is people say things that are really just unreasonable. A clinician that says, “Well, the first time she was forced, but after that it’s her choice.” Or, “Well, you know, if she’s dressed like that, what does she expect?” We have lots of evidence that people do blame the victim and we have people who are trying to be part of the solution that blame the victim because she doesn’t follow through on what we we advised her to do. What we want to hear from you today is we want to know why we shouldn’t blame the victim. What is her experience? What can we do to better understand the victim?

Amelia Frank Meyer 04:13
Well, I’m just struck with this group of girls how much it reminds me of the Stockholm Syndrome and the work that’s been done around that where victims actually identify with their abusers as a protective mechanism. It’s a normal, healthy brain response to captive trauma. When I hear words like “teen prostitute” I get a little cringed hearing those, because there is an implied meaning that it’s a trade, that it’s voluntary or chosen, or “if she just wanted to leave, she could.” This clearly does not emphasize the impact of trauma and fear. There’s so many things we can relate to this kind of experience for girls in terms of kidnap victims, prisoners of war, I mean, Elizabeth smart, Patty Hurst. Experiences of folks who are kept, not in their will. They eventually stop trying to leave because of fear and trauma. This is something that we do as human beings. When we’re in these life or death situations, which in many cases, this is for these girls, we find ways to survive. Using terms like that, that imply some level of [inaudible], you’ll hear the same kinds of things with battered women. “Why didn’t they just leave?” Because there is a very pervasive technique of fear, humiliation, and degradation that is used to make sure that they feel like they can’t leave, that they might die, or someone close to them might die. Or, you know, something terrible has happened to them. This is a kind of brainwashing or occulting that goes on, to help alter the thinking and the ability and will of folks so that they stay in these environments, out of fear. They stay in these environments as a matter of survival.

Sandra Morgan 06:43
When we were ending our last podcast, we were citing some of the problems that these kids have, that are brought out of being commercially sexually exploited. Besides the sexually transmitted diseases, PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) seems to be one of the common factors. You just mentioned the trauma associated with rape. Can you speak to that?

Amelia Frank Meyer 07:16
Well, a lot of the work that I do in child welfare centers around grief and loss, and responding to trauma from that perspective. That is what I think about when I think about these girls, in terms of the trauma aspect, and what girls are left with as a result of this. You talked about some of the physical and health implications, and those are quite serious in many, many cases and have lifelong impacts. But, the other piece is the incredible grief that comes with the losses. I’ll just name a few off the top of my head, not having intensive experience in this area, but knowing how closely it relates to the girls that I work with as well. The loss of innocence, the loss of being a kid, the loss of time that has gone by and what you have missed in your family life, in your own community, with your siblings, the loss of respect, the loss of dignity, the loss of human relationships that have been damaged through this time. These are things that in many situations are unrecoverable. Feeling like it is not only the experience at that momen that one has endured, the fear, the pain, the humiliation, it’s not only that, but it is all the things that were supposed to be there for a 12 year old, that were supposed to be in that space, that were replaced by those things. Playing, connecting, you know, learning how to interact with boys in a healthy and innocent way. Family connections, having your parents feel proud of you, academic achievement, the experience of going to the pool with your friends in the summer. All the stuff that was supposed to be in that space is taken. The loss of those human connections, the loss of that experience, the loss of that dignity, the loss of that respect is so profound, that in itself is incredible trauma. Then, when you think about what was put in place of those things that are supposed to be there for a normal, healthy growing experience for a young girl. What they had to do instead, that trauma is so complex, that it will have pervasive effects.

Sandra Morgan 10:10
Wow, when you start making a list of the loss, the loss of of those kinds of childhood memories around family vacations and going swimming. I think of a little girl’s first school dance, and she’s supposed to learn how to wait to be asked to dance. Wow.

Amelia Frank Meyer 10:35
Learning to bake with your mom, riding a bike, your pet. I mean, you name it. It’s that wondrous experience, when it’s done in a healthy way, that wondrous experience of childhood. All that wonder, all the innocence, just completely robbed. So, when you talk about rape, it is the raping of childhood.

Dave 11:03
It’s interesting too, when we think about the list that you just mentioned, Amelia, Sandie, I think back to the topic we talked about inn our last podcast, about the importance of the terminology that we utilize. Many of the things that Amelia has just listed here would be, could be, substantially different if we use different terminology in how we describe the situations that these young children have been in. Because many of these things, like the loss of respect, would just be very different if our society had different language to process how we have dialogue about this.

Amelia Frank Meyer 11:46
Absolutely. What I’ve just been really taken back by I guess, is, since being at the conference with you, Sandie, and presenting, I’ve come back home to my home community in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. I’ve just started to learn what’s happening, what’s going on, and what are the services? I was really hoping to come back home and find that somebody was taking care of this, and I could go back to my child welfare experience. Instead, I’m just finding how much needs to be done there and how overlapping these areas are. These are our girls. I’m working with girls who have found themselves in traumatic situations, in a lot of cases dealing with their losses. They’re so vulnerable to this kind of experience and so vulnerable to this, because of this basic human need to belong. It’s the same kind of thing that attracts our young men into gangs. There’s that missing component when you have trauma, with a lack of healthy human connections with adults, when you’re a child. The vulnerability that that creates for our youth is very frightening to me. What’s really been taking me aback in learning about these services, is that people do not discuss these girls. I have talked to folks that are on many different levels of the system, but we don’t talk about them as children in need of protection. They are children in need of protection. This is, to me, akin to starving children stealing a loaf of bread and incarcerating them, instead of trying to alleviate their hunger. I mean, I think people would just be outraged at that. I think society would be outraged that we have starving children, who stole food for survival, and in fact, were incarcerated, labeled and re-victimized because of that act of survival.

Sandra Morgan 14:02
We need to reframe how we see these children. They’re looking instead of for bread, because they’re hungry, they’re looking for belonging. They are hungry for the feeling of belonging.

Amelia Frank Meyer 14:18
That’s right. A child in need a protection, is one who, in most cases, and I know there’s some differences for some girls, but in most cases, do not have a healthy adult who is protecting their safety and wellbeing. They cannot do that for themselves, they are children. So, they will find places to garner that protection. This is just one of the things that happens.

Sandra Morgan 14:46
How are we going to change that experience for children in need of protection?

Amelia Frank Meyer 14:52
Well, I talk about children, not as girls [inaudible].

Sandra Morgan 15:09
Repeat that statement because you you broke up just a little bit. Our connection is having a few problems. Just repeat that statement one more time.

Amelia Frank Meyer 15:16
I’m just really thinking of them as children. Rather than, I think when we start talking about a “teen prostitute” or “girl prostitute”, that’s a whole different thing that gets conjured up. They are children in need of protection. I’m really thinking about how I hear stories; she was 15 so she was released to her uncle who was really her pimp or what have you. Would we release a three year old in that same situation without really evaluating that adults need and ability to keep that child safe? Because, in fact, these girls, in many cases, who have experienced trauma, have been victims of trauma, on the outside might be 15. But, in fact, there are some that are five, six, and seven that aren’t heard. I know lots of 15 year olds who aren’t able to keep themselves safe.

Sandra Morgan 16:20
So because of the trauma then, because you’re breaking up, I’m gonna repeat what I think you just said. Because of the trauma, a girl that’s 15 that has experienced this probably from a very young age, has then, the emotional intelligence and intellectual capacity of a much younger child, right?

Amelia Frank Meyer 16:44
Yes, and I wouldn’t even say emotional intelligence, but really, they have not developed on the same kind of linear path as a child has had different experiences. They’re underdeveloped in a lot of ways.

Sandra Morgan 16:57
So the trauma interrupted their development?

Amelia Frank Meyer 17:00
That’s right. It arrested it and they’re stuck at many of those ages where that trauma happened.

Sandra Morgan 17:06
Okay, so then I look at this girl. I think I’m talking to a 15 year old, but if I could see inside her mind, I’m really talking to an 11 year old.

Amelia Frank Meyer 17:17
That’s right.

Sandra Morgan 17:18

Amelia Frank Meyer 17:19
Or, a six year old. And it’s not all parts of her. Some parts are 15. But, parts that were impacted by the trauma, including, you know, some of her thought processes, decision making, ability from the emotional capacities.

Sandra Morgan 17:36
So what can we do when we encounter this 15 year old? Besides put her in a safe place, which, has been for the most part, identified as juvenile detention. Does that meet her emotional needs? Loaded question, sorry!

Amelia Frank Meyer 17:53
I’m sorry. I view a lot of these children through the lens of loss, right. There is healing that needs to happen. In talking to one rescued victim, she said, “I don’t think police should show up, I think an ambulance should show up to come get us. We have been really harmed and we need treatment and healing.” I think a lot about how you go to juvenile detention, you turn the key and you open it up. There’s carpet, clean bedspreads, and stuffed animals. We start working on grieving these intense losses and start to work on those thinking patterns that victims helped to create, to identify with their abuser, for survival. We start undoing some of that thinking, grieving some of these losses, and treating these children like we understand what has happened. Which, I don’t care what they say, I don’t care if they say it was willingly, they are children. They can’t make a willing choice in that way. We know that about other laws of statutory kinds of things. Children under 18 cannot make these decisions for themselves. I don’t care what comes out of their mouths, they don’t have the capacity yet to do it and they’re victims of trauma. Really understanding that, you know, these children need healing, they need a safe space to grieve, they need our assistance in helping them to unravel and sort out what the heck has happened to them. How it happened, what it meant, what parts they want to heal and leave behind, what parts of them are resilient and will be stronger that they can bring with them. What does this mean in terms of going forward? It takes very special people to do that work, who are deeply committed to understanding that the behaviors you will see from them, are the result of trauma.

Sandra Morgan 17:53
So how do we create that kind of environment for a child? Is it even possible for us to do that? How much time is it going to take?

Amelia Frank Meyer 20:17
Well, I’ve been working on that idea Sandie. I’m not one to tell you things are impossible. You’ve come to the wrong person. I’m more about; how and when is it possible? I think there is a significant mind shift that needs to happen because there are laws in place to protect children in these ways. There are funding streams in place to protect children. But, if you start seeing them as criminals, and juvenile justice problems, who chose this, it’s a lot different. Shifting that thinking and understanding that these are victims of trauma, who are children in need of protection, changes the whole game. I think finding secure, safe ways to keep these children safe from the threats that present themselves, while we do some of this healing work, is very possible. I’m not sure exactly what that looks like but I will tell you, I’ve talked with a lot of colleagues about that. In terms of; do these youth need a safe and secure, locked facility in which they can do healing, until they understand some of what’s happened to them and are more open to some of the healing, then have less restrictive environments where they could be a part of grieving their losses and experiencing a safe place to do that.

Sandra Morgan 21:39
So, starting with a lockdown facility, basically.

Amelia Frank Meyer 21:45
But that’s very different than any that you’ve ever seen.

Sandra Morgan 21:49
Okay, okay. And then, how long do you think that, say, a 14 year old who had gone through this, would need in that kind of facility?

Amelia Frank Meyer 21:59
I’m not really sure. I think it might be an experiment, because I don’t know.

Sandra Morgan 22:06
I know, people are working on trying to make something like that happen, but at this point, it’s very much a hope.

Amelia Frank Meyer 22:17
Right, and it might be different for every girl. I don’t know that that’s prescribed and I don’t know that it’s been tried. But, I sure think we ought to start trying, more akin to cure healing facility, rather than a juvenile lockdown.

Sandra Morgan 22:34

Dave 22:35
I think that this speaks to one of the challenges too. Whenever we talk about laws being broken, regardless who’s doing that, the legal system is involved and there are certain standards that need to be addressed. The reality is one of the things Amelia just said; every person is different, every situation is unique. It really is going to require all of us to be able to look at this through a lens of looking at each person as a person, versus just looking at the person as a number or just a criminal report.

Sandra Morgan 23:18
And Emilia, you talked about the special kind of person it takes to be there for this victim in the recovery process. What I’m beginning to see, and I’ve heard from what you do, from Tina Feigl, from Karen Bergstrom at Olive Crest, that there is a movement to prepare foster parents for these kids. How do you see that as a placement alternative that will make a huge difference?

Amelia Frank Meyer 23:50
That’s a big piece of what my involvement is, that at Anu Family Services, we’re really focused on building healthy connections, healthy, permanent connections for kids, and having great success at that. These kinds of kids are particularly in need of folks who understand trauma, grief and loss, which is what our foster parents are intensively trained in. I think with another layer of understanding the circumstances that these children have gone through, so some additional training, but really a strong basis in trauma and grief and loss will be critical to understanding the healing that needs to happen here and how to guide that healing while creating safe environments. I’ve met amazing people, capable of creating a sanctuary space for that kind of healing in their own home.

Sandra Morgan 24:48
I think one of the things that I want people to take away from listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast, on a regular basis, is that there is something we each can do. It may not be to become this CEO to build that safe environment, that lockdown facility that’s going to require all kinds of staff and security measures, but it may be becoming a parent to one child.

Amelia Frank Meyer 25:19
Absolutely, or a mentor. Maybe not even in your home, if you’re not able, but a stable, constant mentor. We just know from research and our own common sense that kids fare better when they’re connected to loving, stable adults. We know this and there’s a lot more information on that on my website at www.anufs.org. We talk about our grief and loss model there with Dr. Darla Henry, and we talk about some of the great outcomes we’ve seen when you can create that space for kids to do their grieving.

Sandra Morgan 25:59
And we’ll put that website on our show notes too.

Dave 26:03

Sandra Morgan 26:04
Yeah, because we want people to see that model. Even if you’re not in that area, begin to to ask those questions and create space for that conversation in your community. Bring experts, like Amelia, to help with the training for that, like we did at Ensure Justice this year. The last question is: Before they become commercially sexually exploited children, they often were already in the system. They often, had already been in some kind of foster care, some kind of group home. They had already been pulled from a toxic environment in their own community. They still have all the same grief and loss issues, it sounds like. So how do we do a better job of identifying those kids and doing special foster placement?

Amelia Frank Meyer 26:52
Absolutely. Well, I think we have a larger societal obligation to kids. Say something when we see something that isn’t right, do our best to keep our eyes open, protecting and valuing children, looking them in the eye, saying “Hello” when you pass them on the street, voting, advocating and living in a way that respects children and values them for what they are, instead of seeing them as problems. I think just in general, that’s important to do. I believe that you are correct, so much of this comes from other trauma, early trauma. So many of the kids we see, boys and girls in foster care, have come from environments of trauma. Many of them have been abused and neglected, often sexually abused. This just opens the door to this more commercial kind of abuse. We mentioned some of the things to do, in terms of being a mentor, becoming a foster parent, or really taking an active interest in finding ways to respect and value children, because we don’t, in a lot of ways in our society and really opening our eyes. I’ll just close with a really quick story. A friend of mine said she went to see a Cirque De Soleil. There were a bunch of youth groups there and she took her kids there. Then, shows up the stripper on the 50 foot stripper pole and did a 15 minute dance, scantily dressed on the pole. She just wanted to stand up and scream “There are children here!” It was billed as a children’s show, lots of people were there with children. Nobody seemed to flinch. Nobody seemed to think there was anything wrong with it. Everything in her said ‘what are we doing?’ So I just invite folks to open their eyes a little bit more and take a look around at what our kids are seeing, what our kids are experiencing too and find all sorts of ways to protect and engage children.

Sandra Morgan 28:56
Wow, it sounds like a big job. We are glad that you are on it, Amelia.

Amelia Frank Meyer 29:02
Well, thank you, Sandie and Dave. I’ve appreciated my time and ability to talk a little bit with you about this.

Dave 29:10
Well we’re so glad you are on it. You know what’s great, Sandy, is that we’re all on this together. I know you have a great story, which we won’t have time for today, on how we all can take one handle, one piece of this issue. If we can really look for the way that we can help end this issue, we will be a voice in the positive outcome, versus the voice or silence of complacency that Amelia has challenged us to do today. To really find a way, whether it’s in a small way or a large way, to really be that voice for change, that voice for healing, that voice for helping children, particularly, that are caught up in these situations.

Sandra Morgan 29:56
And recovering the lost memories, the lost experiences. It makes me think of of groups like Royal Family Kids, that take kids who are from abusive environments and give them a one week, amazing summer camp experience, creating all those wonderful memories. We’re gonna start looking for more of those kinds of opportunities for you to get involved in. We’ll start posting those on our website and we will give you Amelia’s contact information. If you have questions for us, email us at gcwj@vanguard.edu.

Dave 30:36
And if you’ve had any questions that came up today, or you want to talk further with us, feel free to reach out to us by contacting our listener hotline. That’s 714-966-6361. We are here as a resource to you to help you to study the issues, be a voice, and ultimately be able to make a difference in ending human trafficking,

Sandra Morgan 31:05
And protect our children. I love that, Amelia. Thank you so much for being our guest today. Thank you, Dave. Have a great day.

Amelia Frank Meyer 31:12
My pleasure.

Dave 31:13
We’ll look forward to seeing all of you, not seeing you, I guess but hearing you. You’ll be hearing from us in two weeks again for our next episode. Sandie as always, thanks again for your time and thank you to Amelia for taking time out of her schedule to share her expertise today. We look forward to talking with you again here on the podcast in two weeks. Take care everybody.

Sandra Morgan 31:37

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