297 – Stop Blaming The Victim, with Dr. Amelia Franck Meyer

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Dr. Sandie Morgan looks back at Episode 28 “Stop Blaming the Victim” with, Dave Stachowiak and Amelia Franck Meyer. The three discuss the prevalence of victim blaming against commercially sexually exploited children, how it affects the children, and how to help them.

Dr. Amelia Franck Meyer

When we first interviewed Dr. Amelia Franck Meyer, she was the CEO of Anu Family Services, a child welfare agency located in 90 different counties in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Now, Amelia Franck Meyer serves as Anu’s Senior Strategic Advisor and is the founder and CEO of Alia. Alia provides innovations for people and systems impacted by childhood trauma and is a strategic partner of Anu Family Services. Amelia is leading a movement to create a child welfare system where both caregivers and children can thrive. She has worked throughout the United States and internationally, promoting her ideas to change the way children welfare systems work. Amelia Franck Meyer also brought together professionals at the University of Minnesota, where she received her master’s degree in social work, to create Youth Connections Scale and Wellbeing Indicator Tool for Youth, two tools largely used in the child welfare sphere.

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.


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Sandra Morgan 0:00
You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode 297.

Welcome back! My name is Sandie Morgan. Producing this podcast, dedicated to studying the issues, being a voice, and making a difference takes a team. We’re saying another goodbye, this time to Idalis Moscoso, who has served as blog editor, organizer, wonderful website content provider. She’s going off to Italy for grad school and we wish her well. And, we’re welcoming on board Nadia Sosa. When I asked Nadia recently what her favorite episode has been during her onboarding, she quickly responded, “number 28!” I immediately knew what she was talking about and I want everyone to revisit it with us. You’ll be listening now to Dr. Amelia Franck, in Episode 28, “Stop Blaming the Victim.” The bonus is that you will also get to hear Dave again throughout this interview. Okay now, let’s get to the episode. Here’s me introducing our guest.

Let me introduce Amelia Franck 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 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 practice 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. We are very happy to have you here. Welcome.

Amelia Franck Meyer 2:42
Thank you. My pleasure to be here.

Sandra Morgan 2:44
Well, 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” and what that does so that 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, if she’s 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. What we want to hear from you today is why we shouldn’t blame the victim. What is her experience? What can we do to better understand the victim?

Amelia Franck Meyer 3:48
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, that if she just wanted to leave she could. Clearly, this does not really 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, Elizabeth Smart, Patty Hurst, the experience of folks who are kept not in their will, 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 implie some level of trade, profound impact that is common here, you’ll hear the same kinds of things, “Why didn’t they just leave?” Because there is a very pervasive technique of fear and 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 something terrible would happen to them. This is a kind of brainwashing or occulting that goes on, to help 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.

Sandra Morgan 5:59
So 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. And you just mentioned the trauma associated with this, with rape. Can you speak to that?

Amelia Franck Meyer 6:32
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. 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 the other pieces are the incredible grief that comes around the losses, and I’ll just name a few off the top of my head, really 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 and 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. So feeling like it is not only the experience at that moment, 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, 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 at the summer. All the stuff that was supposed to be in that space is taken. And that, 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 got put in place of 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.

Sandra Morgan 9:06
Wow, when you start making a list of the loss of those kinds of childhood memories around family vacations and going swimming, I think of a little girl’s first school dance. She’s supposed to learn how to wait to be asked to dance. Wow.

Amelia Franck Meyer 9:28
Learning to bake with your mom, riding a bike, your pet. I mean, you name it. It’s that that wondrous experience, when it’s done in a healthy way, that wondrous experience of childhood. All that wonder, all that innocence, just completely robbed. So when you talk about rape, it is the raping of childhood.

Dave 9:51
And 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 on 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. Many of these things, like the loss of respect, you know, would just be very different if our society had different language to process, how we have dialogue about this.

Amelia Franck Meyer 10:31
Absolutely. What I’ve just been really taken aback by I guess, is, since being at the conference with you, Sandie, and presenting, I’ve come back home to my, my home community in the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, and I’ve just started to learn what’s happening and 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 that these are our girls. I’m working with girls who have found themselves in traumatic situations and 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 be long. It’s the same kind of thing that attracts our young men into gangs, and 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 in 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 mean, I think society would be outraged that you have starving children who steal food for survival and in fact, we’re incarcerated and labeled and re-victimized because of that act of survival.

Sandra Morgan 12:30
So we need to, to re-frame 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 Franck Meyer 12:45
That’s right. A child in need of protection, is one who, in most cases, and I know there are some differences for some girls, but in most cases, do not have a healthy adult who is protecting their safety and well being. They cannot do that for themselves, they are children. They will find places to garner that protection. This is one of the things that happens.

Sandra Morgan 13:11
So how are we going to change that experience for children in need of protection?

Amelia Franck Meyer 13:16
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, you know, I hear stories about, “Well, she was 15. So she was released to live with 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, those who have experienced trauma or been victims of trauma, on the outside might be 15. But really, they have not developed on the same kind of linear path as a child who has had different experiences. They’re underdeveloped in a lot of ways, and they’re stuck at many of those ages where that trauma happened.

Sandra Morgan 14:14
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 Franck Meyer 14:24
That’s right, or a six year old. It’s not all parts of her, some parts are 15. But parts that were impacted by the trauma, including some of her thought processes, decision making ability from the emotional capacities are younger.

Sandra Morgan 14:41
So what can we do when we encounter this 15 year old besides put her in a safe place, which has for the most part been identified as juvenile detention? Does that meet her emotional needs? Loaded question. Sorry.

Amelia Franck Meyer 15:01
I view a lot of these children through the lens of loss, right? So 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 ambulance should show up to come get us. We have been really harmed. We need treatment and healing.” I think a lot about how you go to juvenile detention, and 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 what the thinking patterns that victims helped to create, to identify with their abuser, for survival. 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 can’t make a willing choice in that way. We know that about other laws of statutory kinds of things that children under 18 cannot make these decisions for themselves, I don’t care what comes out of their mouth, they don’t have the capacity yet to do it and they’re victims of trauma. Really understanding that these children need healing, they need 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 and 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 17:01
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 Franck Meyer 17:11
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 and 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 for children in need of protection, changes the whole game. Finding secure, safe ways to keep these children safe from the threats that present themselves, while we do some of this healing work, it’s 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 18:27
So starting with a lockdown facility, basically,

Amelia Franck Meyer 18:32
One that’s very different than any that you’ve ever seen.

Sandra Morgan 18:35
Okay. Okay, so how long do you think that, say a 14 year old who had gone through this, would need in that kind of facility?

Amelia Franck Meyer 18:45
I’m not really sure and I think it might be an experiment, because I don’t know.

Sandra Morgan 18:50
I know people are working on trying to make something like that happen but at this point, it’s very much a hope.

Amelia Franck Meyer 18:58
Right. 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. I sure think we ought to start trying more akin to cure healing facility rather than a juvenile lockdown.

Dave 19:16
I think that this speaks to one of the challenges too, whenever we talk about laws being broken, regardless who’s doing them the legal system’s involved and there are certain standards that need to be addressed. The reality is one of the things Amelia just said, you know, 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 really looking at each person as a person versus just looking at the person as a number or just a criminal report.

Sandra Morgan 19:55
And Amelia, you talked about this 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 Franck Meyer 20:23
That’s a big piece of what my involvement is. At Anu Family Services, we’re really focused on building healthy connections, healthy, permanent connections for kids, and are having great success at that. 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. I think, you know, 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 sanctuary space for that kind of healing in their own home.

Sandra Morgan 21:16
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 the 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 Franck Meyer 21:46
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 good common sense that kids fare better when they’re connected to loving, stable adults. We know this. There’s a lot more information on that on my website at www.anufs.org. We talked about our grief and loss model there with Dr. Darla Henry and we talked about some of the great outcomes we’ve seen when you can create that space for kids to do their grieving.

Sandra Morgan 22:25
We’ll put that website on our show notes too. Because we want people to see that model and even if you’re not in that area, begin to ask those questions and create space for that conversation in your community and 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. So they still have all the same grief and loss issues, it sounds like . How do we do a better job of identifying those kids and doing special foster placement?

Amelia Franck Meyer 23:20
We have a larger societal obligation to kids to say something when we see something that isn’t right, and to do our best to keep our eyes open and protecting and valuing children and looking them in the eye and saying hello, when you pass them on the street and really 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 that so much of this comes from other trauma, early trauma and so many of the kids we see, boys and girls in foster care have come from environments of trauma, many of whom have been abused and neglected, often sexually abused, which opens the doors to this more commercial kinds 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 and 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 and nobody seemed to flinch. Nobody seemed to think there was anything wrong with that and everything in her said, “What are we doing?” 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. There are all sorts of ways to protect and engage children.

Sandra Morgan 25:06
Wow. Sounds like a big job and we are glad that you are on it, Amelia.

Amelia Franck Meyer 25:11
Thank you. I’ve appreciated my time and ability to talk a little bit with you about this.

Sandra Morgan 25:19
Thank you so much for listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. I hope you enjoyed this rebroadcast and took away from the points made by Dr. Amelia Franck, I look forward to seeing you again in two weeks.

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