28 – Stop Blaming the Victim

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Unfortunately, it’s very common for the victim to take a lot of the blame in human trafficking cases. Sandra Morgan, the Director of the Global Center for Women & Justice and Dave Stachowiak, one of the Center’s board members, interview Amelia Franck Meyer, CEO of Anu Family Services, to learn about her efforts to combat trafficking in Minnesota and Wisconsin through her passionate advocacy for children and families.

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Dave: You’re listening to the Human Trafficking Podcast; this is episode number 28 airing on May 10th, 2012. Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking Podcast, my name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie: And I am Sandie Morgan, director for the Global Center for Women and Justice at Vanguard University.

Dave: And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice and make a difference in ending human trafficking, and Sandie we are back today with another interview to help us to maybe gain even more knowledge so that we can study the issues, be a voice and ultimately be able to end human trafficking and contribute to that making a difference that we always talk about so I am so glad to be back with you and back with our guest today.

Sandie: Well I will tell you a little about our guest, first of all she was our research presenter at our March Ensure Justice Conference on standing together to end exploitation of girls and she received really high marks from everybody that attended the workshop, and in fact if you are interested in buying a copy of her workshop, you can do that at GCWJ.vangaurd.edu but let me introduce to you Amelia Frank Meyer, she has been the CEO of Anno Family Services since 2001, that’s a child welfare agency located in Wisconsin and Minnesota, and for those of you who listened to our last podcast, we were talking about not calling these kids terms that put them into juvenile delinquency but finding the opportunities 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 and 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 was the first state to pass the law that makes it impossible to prosecute any child under the age of 18 for prostitution no matter what. So we are very happy to have you here, welcome.

Amelia: Glad to be here.

Sandie: Well, when you did our workshop for us at the Ensure Justice Conference, the title of your workshop was called “Stop Blaming the Victim.” And we talked about the kinds of baggage that comes with terms like ‘teen prostitute’ and ‘child prostitute’ and what that does so that people say things that are really unreasonable, a clinician says ‘well, the first time she was forced, but after that it was her choice.’ Or ‘well, you know, she is dressed like that, what does she expect?’ so 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 even blame the victim because she doesn’t follow through on what we advised her to do. So 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: Well, I’m just struck with this group of girls how much it reminds me of Stockholm Syndrome and the work that has 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, and so 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, its voluntary or chosen, or ‘if she just wanted to leave, she could.’ And that clearly does not emphasizes the intent of trauma and fear and so there so many things we can relate to this kind of experience for girls in terms of kind nap systems, prisoners of war, the Elisabeth Smart, the Betty Hurst, the experience of folks who are kept not in their will eventually stop trying to leave because of fear and trauma, so this is something that we do as human beings when we are in life or death situations, which in many cases it is for these girls, they find ways to survive, and so using terms like that that imply some level of wisdom (inaudible) …. Well why didn’t they just leave? Because there is a very pervasive technique of fear and humiliation and degradation to make sure they feel like they cant leave, that they might die or someone close to them might die, or something terrible would happen to them. So this is the kind of brain washing or occulting that goes on. It helps to 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.

Sandie: So when we were ending our last podcast, we were citing some of these problems that these kids have that are brought out of being commercially sexually exploited, and beside the sexually transmitted diseases, PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder seems to be one of the common factors, and you just mentioned the trauma associated with rape, can you speak to that?

Amelia: Well a lot of the work that I do in child welfare centers around loss, grief and loss, and responding to trauma from that perspective, and that’s what I think about these girls in terms of the trauma aspect and what girls are left with it as a result of this, and you talked about some of the physical and health implications, and those are quite serious in many cases and have lifelong impacts, but the other pieces are the incredible grief that comes around the losses, and I will name just a few off the top of my head, really not having intensive experience in this area but knowing how closely is relates to the girls that I work with as well, the loss of innocence, the loss of being a kid, a loss of time that has gone by and what you have missed in your family life, in your own community and with your siblings, the loss of respect, the loss of dignity, the loss of human relationships that have been damaged through this time, and many situations are unrecoverable, so feeling like it is not only that experience at that moment that one has endured the fear, the pain, the humiliation, its not only that, but it is all of these things that were supposed to be there for a 12 year old, that was supposed to be in that space that were replaced by those things, was playing, connecting, 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 of those things that are supposed to be in that space that is taken, and the loss of those human connection, the loss of those experiences, the loss of that dignity, the loss of that respect is so profound, that in itself is incredible trauma, and when you think about what was put in place for those things that are supposed to be there for a normal, healthy, growing experience for a young girl and what they had to do instead, that trauma is so complex that it will have pervasive effects.

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

Amelia: Learning to bake with your mom, riding a bike, your pet, you name it, its that wondrous experience when it done in a healthy way, that wondrous experience of childhood, all of that wonder, all of that innocence just completely robbed. So when you talk about rape, it is raping of childhood.

Dave: and it’s interesting when we think about the list that you just mentioned, Amelia, Sandie I think back to the topic we talked about on the last podcast about the importance of the terminology that we utilize because many of the things we just listed here 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: Absolutely and what I have just been really taken back by, I guess, is since being at the conference with you, Sandie, I’ve come back home to my home community in the twin cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul and I have just started to learn what’s happening and what’s going on and what are the services and was really hoping to come back home and find that someone was taking care of this and that I could go back to my child welfare experience, instead I am just finding how much needs to be done there and how overlapping these areas are, that these are our girls and I am working with girls who have found themselves in a lot of traumatic situations and in a lot of cases dealing with their losses and they are so vulnerable to this kind of experience and so vulnerable because of this basic human need to belong, you know it’s the same kind of thing that attracts our young men into gangs and there’s this missing component when you have trauma with a lack of healthy human connections with adults when you are a child is, you know, the vulnerability that it creates for our youth is very frightening to me, and what’s really taking me aback in learning about these services is that people do not discuss these girls, and I have talked to folks at many very 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 akin to starving children stealing a loaf of bread and incarcerating them instead of trying to alleviate their hunger. I think people would just be outraged at that. I think society would be outraged if they had starving children we stole food for survival and in fact were incarcerated and labeled and re-victimized because of that act of survival.

Sandie: So, we need to re frame how we see these children. They are looking, instead of bread because they are hungry, they are looking for belonging. They are hungry for the feeling of belonging.

Amelia: That’s right, and a child in need of protection is, in most cases, and I know for girls its different in some cases, in most cases they do not have a healthy adult who is protecting their safety and well-being. They cannot do that for themselves. They are children. So they will find places to garner that protection, and this is one of the things that happen.

Sandie: So how do we change that whole experience for the children in need of protection?

Amelia: Well I just think, you know, I talk about children and so, not as girls, and not as trafficked girls, just really thinking of them as children rather then, you know I think when we started talking about ‘teen prostitute’ or ‘girl prostitute’ that’s a whole different thing that gets conjured up. They are children in need of protection and hearing stories about well, she was 15 so she was released to, if her uncle was a pimp or what have you, would you release a 3 year old in that same situation without really evaluating that adult’s need and ability to keep that child safe, because in fact these girls in a lot of cases, those who have experienced trauma or who have been victims of trauma, on the outside may be 15, but in fact there are significant numbers of girls who are 5 and 6 and 7 who are (inaudible.)

Sandie: So then, because of the trauma, because you are breaking up, I am going to repeat what I think you just said… because of the trauma, a girl who is 15 who has experienced this probably from a very young age has then the emotional intelligence and intellectual capacity of a much younger child, right?
Amelia: Yes, and I wouldn’t even really say emotional intelligence, but really they have not developed on the same kind of linear path as a child who has had different experiences. They are underdeveloped in a lot of ways.

Sandie: So, the trauma interrupted their development.

Amelia: That’s right, it arrested it and they are stuck at the ages where that trauma happened.

Sandie: Okay, so I look at this girl, I think I am talking to a 15-year-old but if I could see inside her mind, I am really talking to an 11-year-old.

Amelia: That’s right.

Sandie: Wow.

Amelia: Or a 6-year-old, and its not all parts of her, some parts are 15, but parts that were impacted by the trauma, including some of her thought processes, her decision-making abilities, the emotional capacities.

Sandie: So, what can we do when we encounter this 15-year-old beside put her in a safe place, which for the most part has been identified as juvenile detention that meet her emotional needs? Loaded question, sorry.

Amelia: I view a lot of these children through the lens of loss, right? So there is healing that needs to happen, so 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 so, we need treatment and healing, so I think a lot about, you go to juvenile detention and you take your key and open it up and there are carpets and pink bedspreads and stuffed animals and you know, we start grieving these intense losses and start to work on those thinking patterns that those victims help to create to identify with their abuser for survival so we start undoing some of that kind of thinking and grieving some of these losses, and treating these children like we understand what has happened which is, they have been, I don’t care what they say, I don’t care if they say it was willingly, they are children, they cant make a willing choice in that way, we know that about other laws of statutory kinds of things, that children under 18 cannot make 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 are victims of trauma, so really understanding that these children need healing, they need space to breathe, they need our assistance in helping them to unravel 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 and they can bring with them, and what does this mean in terms of moving forward, and that takes very special people to do that work who are deeply committed to understanding that the behaviors you will see form them are results of trauma.

Sandie: So, how so we create that kind of environment for a child, is it even possible for us to do that, and how much time is it going to take?

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

Sandie: So, starting with a lockdown facility.

Amelia: That is different from any you have ever seen.

Sandie: Okay, okay. 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: I am not really sure, and I think it might be an experiment.

Sandie: I know people are working on trying to make something like that happen but at this point it is very much a hope.

Amelia: Right, and it might be different for every girl. I don’t know that that’s prescribed and I don’t know that its been tried but I sure think we ought to start trying, and so more akin to a pure healing facility rather than a juvenile lockdown, a secure healing facility.

Sandie: Okay.

Dave: Sandie, I think that this speaks to one of the challenges too when we think about, of course this, whenever we talk about laws being broken regardless of who is doing them, the legal system is involved, and there are standards that need to be addressed and the reality is, one of the things Amelia just said, every person is different, every situation is unique and so it really is going to require us to look a this through a lens of really looking at each person as a person versus just looking at a person as a number or just a criminal report.

Sandie: And Amelia, you talked about the special kind of person it takes to be there for this victim in the recovery process, and so what I am beginning to see and I have heard from what you do from Tina Figel to Karen Bergstrom at Olivecrest 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: And that’s a big piece of what my involvement is, at A New Family Services, we are really focused on building healthy, permanent connections with kids, and are having great success with that. So these kinds of kids are particularly in need of folks who understand trauma and grief and loss, which is what our foster parents are intensively trained in. So 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 will create safe environments, and I have met amazing people capable of creating sanctuary space for that kind of healing in their own home.

Sandie: I think one of the things 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, and it may not be to become the CEO to build that safe environment, that lock down facility that is going to require all kinds of staff and security measures, but it may be becoming a parent to one child.

Amelia: Absolutely, or a mentor. And maybe not even in your own home if you aren’t able, but a stable, constant mentor that we just know from research and our own good common sense that kids fare better when they are connected to loving, stable adults, we know this. There is a lot more information about this on my website at www.anufs.org, we talk about our grief and loss model there with Dr. Carla Henry, we talk about some of the great outcomes we have seen when you can create that space for kids to do their grieving.
Sandie: And this, we will put that website on our show notes, too.

Dave: Absolutely.

Sandie: Cause we want people to see that model and even if you aren’t in that area, to begin to ask those questions and create space for that conversation in your own community and bring experts like Amelia to help with the training for that like we did for Ensure Justice this year. The last question is, before they become commercial 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. So, how can we be, 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: Absolutely. Well, I think we have a larger societal obligation to kids, when we see something that isn’t right and to do our best to keep our eyes open and valuing children, you know and looking them in the eye and saying “hello” when you pass them on the street and really voting and advocating and living in a way that respects children and values the for what they are instead of seeing them as problems. So I think in general its important to do, and I believe like what you said, so much of this comes from other trauma or early trauma and so many of the kids we see, boys and girls in foster care have come from environments of trauma and many of whom had been abused and neglected, often sexually abused which just opens the door as a gateway to more commercial kinds of abuse, and so 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 and I’ll just close with a really quick story, a friend of mine went to see a Cirque Du Soleil and there were a bunch of youth groups there and she took her kids there and then shows up the stripper on the 50 foot stripper pole and did a 15 minute dance scantily dressed on the pole and she just wanted to stand up and scream ‘there are children here’ and it was built as a children’s show and lots of people were there with children and no one seemed to flinch. No one seemed to think there was anything wrong with it, and everything in here says ‘what are we doing.’ So I just invite folks to open their eyes a little more to what our kids are seeing and what our kids are experiencing too and there are all sorts of ways to protect and engage children.

Sandie: Wow, sounds like a big job and we are glad that you are on it, Amelia.

Amelia: Thank you, Sandie; I appreciated my time and ability to talk a little bit about this.

Dave: Well we are so glad you are on it. And you know what is great, Sandie, is that we are all in this together and I know you have a great story which we wont have time for today on how we all can take one hand on one piece of this issue and if we can really look for the way that we can help in this issue then we will be a voice in the positive outcome versus the voice or the silence of complacency which is what Amelia has challenged us to do. To really find a way, whether it’s in a small way or a large way to really be that voice for change and that voice for healing and that voice for helping children and particularly who are caught up in these situations.

Sandie: And recovering the lost memories, the lost experiences and it makes me think 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 of those wonderful memories. We are going to start looking for more of those kinds of opportunities for you to get involved in, we will 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: And if you have 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 and 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.

Sandie: 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: My pleasure.

Dave: And we will look forward to seeing all of you, not seeing you but you will be hearing from us in 2 weeks for our next episode, Sandie as always thanks again for your time. Thank you to Amelia for taking time out of our schedule to share her expertise today and we look forward to talking with you again here on the podcast in 2 weeks. Take care, everybody.

Sandie: Bye.

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