311 – Youth Labor Trafficking and Forced Criminality

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Dr. Sandra Morgan is joined by Kaitlyn Zedalis as the two discuss the role of forced criminality in labor trafficking.

Kaitlyn Zedalis

Kaitlyn Zedalis is the associate director of research, learning, and advocacy for the Covenant House Action and Research Tank (CHART) at Covenant House New Jersey, where she oversees agency initiatives related to research, program evaluation, and advocacy. Kaitlyn has assisted organizations across North America on the topics of human trafficking, screening and assessment, trauma informed care, and best practices for serving victims of human trafficking. She has a master’s degree in social work from Stockton University, where she currently serves as an adjunct professor, and is a licensed social worker and licensed clinical alcohol and drug counselor.

Key Points

  • The Covenant House Action and Research Tank, or CHART, is an initiative of Covenant House New Jersey that conducts research, develops evidence based strategies, and seeks solutions for complex problems such as homelessness and human trafficking.
  • Labor trafficking by forced criminality is when the labor a person is required to perform is a crime, heavily intertwining criminalization and victimization.
  • Covenant House New Jersey’s research found that a supportive adult relationship in an individual’s life serves as a protective factor from trafficking.
  • In many cases, a victim is forced or coerced to remain in an unsafe situation for fear of getting in trouble with the law, as they see themselves as engaging in criminal behavior rather than a victim.



Sandra Morgan 0:00
It’s time to register for the annual Ensure Justice Conference at Vanguard University’s Global Center for Women and Justice. The conference is always the first Friday and Saturday of March, that way you can make it a recurring event in your calendar .2024, it’s March 1st and 2nd, we’re just a couple of months away. Our theme is Keeping Our Children Safe Online. We will explore the issues: What is happening online? What are the risks for our children at this stage of their development? What can we do as parents, caregivers, teachers, community members? Our speakers include many of our podcast expert guests, and we are partnering with our Orange County Department of Education. Check out our website for more info and don’t miss the early bird rates. Go on over to gcwj.org/ensurejustice right now. There is a virtual option for our global listeners, as well as special rates for college students. Join us to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference at Ensure Justice, March 1st and 2nd, 2024.

You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode #311: Youth Labor Trafficking and Forced Criminality. My name is Sandie Morgan and this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Our guest today is Kaitlyn Zedalis, and she is the associate director of research, learning, and advocacy for the Covenant House Action and Research Tank (CHART) at Covenant House New Jersey, where she oversees agency initiatives related to research, program evaluation, and advocacy. Kaitlyn has assisted organizations across North America on the topics of human trafficking, screening and assessment, trauma informed care, and best practices for serving victims of human trafficking. She has a master’s degree in social work from Stockton University, where she currently serves as an adjunct professor, and is a licensed social worker and licensed clinical alcohol and drug counselor. Kaitlyn, welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast.

Kaitlyn Zedalis 3:15
Hi, thank you so much for having me.

Sandra Morgan 3:17
I’m so excited about our conversation today, our theme around labor trafficking by forced criminality. I follow the research out of Covenant House closely so tell us just briefly, for our listeners who don’t know Covenant House, tell us about Covenant House and CHART.

Kaitlyn Zedalis 3:41
So Covenant House New Jersey was established in 1989. We’re a subsidiary of Covenant House International, which is the nation’s largest nonprofit organization serving youth facing homelessness. Covenant House New Jersey operates shelters with onsite supportive services, including legal, mental health, and case management services in Newark and Atlantic City. We offer additional programs throughout the continuum of care. Since October 2020, Covenant House New Jersey has also served as the single point of entry for individuals who have experienced human trafficking to access services in New Jersey, and in 2017 Covenant House New Jersey’s research on human trafficking among youth experiencing homelessness, led to the creation of the first scientifically validated brief screening tool for human trafficking, called QYIT or Quick Youth Indicators for Trafficking, which has been published in peer reviewed journals. The Covenant House Action and Research Tank or CHART, is an initiative of Covenant House New Jersey that conducts research, developed evidence based strategies, and seeks solutions for complex problems such as homelessness and human trafficking. Our approach rests on three core pillars: training and advocacy, research and services. We provide training and technical assistance and advocate with outside entities to improve services for victims and youth, we conduct research that is geared toward developing best practices that serve as a model for service providers, and developing innovative practices that we integrate into our own services.

Sandra Morgan 5:18
Okay, wow, that is a lot and it is really important, to my perspective, that research based advocacy is a pillar in what Covenant House does, in my experience, and it’s why our tagline for the podcast is study the issues, be a voice, make a difference. Lots of times people are horrified when they find out children are being labor trafficked, but they start talking before they’ve done their research, and sometimes the things they say, may not actually be beneficial, it may not help us move this forward, so that research is critical. I’m also a big proponent of participatory action research, our listeners have heard me talk about that in the past. We’re going to put links in the show notes to the 2017 study that you mentioned as well. But can you talk about your research design and what you mean by action tank?

Kaitlyn Zedalis 6:30
Yeah, so really, our goal is to contribute effective evidence based and client centered program approaches to local and national dialogue. So when we say action tank, what we really mean is seeking change through the simultaneous process of taking action while doing research. So this is really different from the traditional research model where a researcher sort of swoops, in conducts the research, and then leaves. We really focus our research on developing evidence based, client centered approaches that can serve as a model for other service providers. We use that information to drive, improve, and disrupt traditional models of care. So this really targets the research we select, and we don’t do the research and then not utilize the information we gather. We use the information we learn to improve our services, to help improve the services of other providers, and to advocate for policies that serve in the best interest of survivors of human trafficking and young people experiencing homelessness.

Sandra Morgan 7:35
You and I could spend a lot of time right there, but we have a mission. Today we’re going to talk about labor trafficking by forced criminality. Can you give me an example of what that looks like for our youth?

Kaitlyn Zedalis 7:49
Yeah, so labor trafficking by forced criminality is really any labor trafficking where the labor a person is required to perform is a crime. So with that, the criminalization and victimization are really intertwined. So the most common crime is drug distribution, but we’ve also seen other crimes like shoplifting, theft, assault, and battery. Some of the cases that we highlighted in the research, one of them was the case of Aiden, who was 12 years old, took a job delivering food products, and later learned he was actually delivering drugs. He only received a portion of the money he earned and the trafficker told him if he didn’t do what he was told, or told anybody, he would be hurt. Or the case of Emily, who was 17 and was homeless with an older romantic partner, and the romantic partner began arranging for her to have sex with men for money, shoplift, and steal, and would beat her if she refused. So it’s really anytime that what the person is being forced, frauded, or coerced into doing is a crime.

Sandra Morgan 8:55
And I think when we see these youth in our juvenile courts, or even when some of them age out, and now they’re in an adult court, we aren’t seeing them through the lens of coercion, that this was not actually a choice that they made to be part of a criminal activity. So when I’m thinking about this, I want to think about the characteristics of the victims, the survivors, as we think through your findings, and for some of my listeners that are in academic settings, we will put the methodology links in the show notes, but you can tell by Caitlin’s conversation, they’ve been very thorough in how they do this. Let’s talk about the survivors and what made them more vulnerable, their characteristics.

Kaitlyn Zedalis 9:59
Yeah, so I do think as we’re talking about some of the results in the findings, it is just helpful to frame that, you know, basically what we did was a case series analysis. We looked at 18 cases of labor trafficking by forced criminality among young people experiencing homelessness at Covenant House, New Jersey. So one of the first things to highlight that we found is that 64% of the labor trafficking survivors among our young people experiencing homelessness were forced criminality survivors, so it was the most common type of labor trafficking among the young people we serve. We found that it was more common among males than females, so 67% male versus 33% female. The demographics of the victims were very similar to the demographics of our young people at Covenant House New Jersey, overall, 44% of the victims were African American, 28% Caucasian, 6% were multiracial, and 22% identified their race as other. 10 out of 18 were a minor at the time of their trafficking experiences, and when I say a minor, we were overwhelmed by the young ages at which the trafficking experiences had occurred. So four of those 10 were under the age of 12, at the time of their trafficking, and five were between the ages of 12 and 15.

Sandra Morgan 11:26
Wow, and this makes me think back to a podcast interview a few weeks ago with Jerome Elam who was a CSEC victim, but also experienced forced criminality, and so his experiences in the juvenile justice system, identified his delinquency over his victimization. That started for him very young as well. We could do another conversation about the characteristics of the survivors, but digging a little deeper, can we talk about childhood experiences that they may have had in common?

Kaitlyn Zedalis 12:15
Yeah, so other research had already shown a relationship between traumatic experiences and trafficking experiences, though there is less research available on traumatic experiences among victims of labor trafficking. But often, victims have multiple long running victimizations that they’ve experienced over the course of their life. So the average ACE score, among the forced criminality victims was 6.66. That average ACE score was very similar to our average ACE score among all of our youth who experienced trafficking, but it is higher than our average ACE score among our young people experiencing homelessness overall, which was 4.69. We also found that 90% of the victims had at least one absent parent during their childhood, including 30% with a deceased parent. And more than half were in foster care at some point in their life. This is higher than the rate of foster care experiences among all trafficked youth, we looked at in our analysis, which was at 46.5%. Again, this is in line with other research that showed a relationship between a history of foster care experiences and human trafficking.

Sandra Morgan 13:34
So the history of foster services was not as significant as I expected it to be because it feels like in this sector, we talk about the foster system as being more of a main place that victims are recruited out of, and I’ve heard, particularly in CSEC conversations, numbers in the 90th percentile. So seeing this around 53%, made me wonder if we aren’t asking all the right questions about that. I’m really surprised about the number of absent parents who are deceased, and so much of the common understanding, there’s this almost blaming the parents for not being more active in their child’s lives, and there may be other areas that we can be identifying for strengthening when we’re looking at prevention strategies. That’s my take on reading and being really inspired by your research. So correct me, jump in any way you want to Kaitlyn.

Kaitlyn Zedalis 15:02
Yeah, I think we thought those findings were really related to some findings in Covenant House New Jersey’s previous research on trafficking experiences among young people experiencing homelessness, where having a supportive adult relationship was found to be a protective factor for trafficking experiences. What we really found was that these findings supported that research as well, that caring adult relationships do really play a key role in the prevention of trafficking, and so I think ensuring in children who are engaged with the foster care system, trying to find ways to make sure that there are caring adult relationships in their life. I think it really highlights the importance of finding ways to get young people who are vulnerable because of foster care experiences, or deceased or absent parents, you know, really supporting those young people and wrapping around them from a young age is important.

Sandra Morgan 16:09
I really appreciate that and one of the questions that I want to pursue after listening to this, I want to talk to some folks in our foster system here, because that number being so close to 50%, I’m looking at the other side of that coin in thinking, “So about 50% of those in foster care, are in situations that have demonstrated that one caring adult that’s been protective for them.” I’m just starting to wonder how do I find out more about that as well. Let’s go on though, because I get bogged down in these little details, and you have so much data, I love all the data. Let’s talk about the types of exploitation that you identified.

Kaitlyn Zedalis 17:08
What we found is that in 12 out of the 18 cases, it was labor trafficking only, and six out of the 18 cases, it was labor and sex trafficking that the person had experienced. Four of those six cases, it was a situation where there was labor and sex trafficking happening simultaneously, and two of those six had unrelated sex and labor trafficking experiences, so two separate episodes of trafficking. The most common underlying crime, as I mentioned, was drug distribution. This has been shown in other research of labor trafficking among youth experiencing homelessness. One of the things that came through was that there really wasn’t a pattern in terms of the relationship to the trafficker. This is important to highlight because this really creates challenges for law enforcement in being able to know what or who to look for, among those who are experiencing forced criminality. I do want to point out, though, that there almost always was some sort of co-occurring relationship with the trafficker. There were some cases where it was gang related trafficking, some cases where it was a family friend, familial trafficking was something that we saw, romantic partners, a landlord, a person who offered housing when someone was homeless. There was very commonly another relationship with the trafficker, and that relationship can often play a role in why the victim will remain in a trafficking situation and doesn’t report the crime. That secondary relationship can really create some additional challenges.

Sandra Morgan 18:48
Are some of those youth actually dependent on those relationships for their housing?

Kaitlyn Zedalis 18:56
Yeah, so there were definitely cases where the trafficker was providing that person shelter in the case, and in the familial trafficking cases, especially when the victim was very young at the time of the trafficking experience, they were dependent on the trafficker for their basic needs.

Sandra Morgan 19:14
And the other question here, when we’re talking about the most common underlying crime was connected with drugs, there’s kind of this perception that, “Well, the kids are taking drugs, and so they’re doing this to get their own drugs.” What did you see in that area?

Kaitlyn Zedalis 19:32
We didn’t have enough reliable data in this area to make any conclusive findings, in terms of substance use challenges among the young people who we looked at. You know, there’s also just challenges in this situation where young people often don’t feel comfortable reporting their substance use history. So unfortunately, it’s not something we had a lot of data in, but based on the narratives that we were reading, we didn’t get the impression that substance use was the most common form of coercion really being used to keep young people in their trafficking situation.

Sandra Morgan 20:14
Okay, thank you for commenting on that. I appreciate that. So then how did they control the victims?

Kaitlyn Zedalis 20:23
We saw a lot that was around threats of harm and physical abuse. We also saw situations where they felt like they had to stay because they were seeing other people hurt if they tried to leave, or threats to harm family members, and we saw a few situations where there was the withholding of identification documents. I think the other thing that’s kind of key to highlighting forced criminality, is that there’s always this underlying fear of getting in trouble. This fear that if they were to go to law enforcement for help, since the criminalization and the victimization are so intertwined, the victim often doesn’t see themselves as a victim, and doesn’t think what’s happening to them is a crime because they see themselves as engaging in a criminal behavior. So that makes it even harder for a victim to go to law enforcement for help.

Sandra Morgan 21:19
And I really identify with that after a lot of conversations with survivors over the year, when we asked them, “Why didn’t you ask for help?” It’s like, “I thought I was the problem, I thought I was going get in trouble.” So that’s really helpful to see that, it’ll change how we have these conversations. Moving along in the findings, because I can never believe how fast our time goes, but were there some surprises?

Kaitlyn Zedalis 21:50
Yeah, so one of the surprising findings, and the reason we were able to come across this, is because of this action research model, we’re able to look at client’s entire records of their time with us. We have access to information that, in a more traditional research model, isn’t necessarily something that we would make a research question. One of these surprising findings was that 47% of the forced criminality victims identified as having at least one child by age 22. Just to really highlight how sort of staggering that number is, it’s compared to 18% of other youth who experienced any type of trafficking, and 14% of all the young people we serve. In most cases, they became a parent after the trafficking experience, and we know that because of the age at which the trafficking occurred. So this is something that, as far as we can tell, doesn’t occur in the literature anywhere else right now, so there’s really more research that’s needed. There’s some other research that’s been done, that’s shown in our research that we conducted at Covenant House New Jersey in 2017, parenting classes were identified among young people experiencing homelessness, who had also had a trafficking experience as a common need. There’s been other research that’s shown a relationship between high ACE scores and male involvement in teen pregnancy, between parenting young mothers and legal problems, between conduct disorder and adolescent pregnancy. So there’s enough research out there that suggests that this is more than an incidental relationship and that there may be similar root causes, but there really is a need for more research in this area, and we’re glad that because of our methodology, we were able to find something that maybe wouldn’t have otherwise been found.

Sandra Morgan 23:48
I love the fact that we’re casting vision for future research, because I know lots of students listen to this, and they don’t know what direction to start studying. So hopefully, someone’s going to pay attention to that. Okay, a few more of the findings. I didn’t quite understand the use of the word temporality of victimization and arrest. Can you expand on that and what you found?

Kaitlyn Zedalis 24:16
Yeah, so in the other research that had been conducted in 2017, and this is part of what helped frame this research project, was that we found that there was a relationship between history of arrest and trafficking experiences, but all we knew was that there was a relationship between them. So we didn’t know if the trafficking was coming before or after the arrest, and we felt that that was important to know, because it could really offer some opportunities for prevention, if we could learn more about that. There was information about the timing of the arrest in relation to the trafficking experience for 12 youth who had experienced arrest and forced criminality. None of those 12 were identified by law enforcement. So none of them were identified during their trafficking experience, and none were identified as a victim by law enforcement after their trafficking experience. Only three of those 12 were even possibly charged for the underlying forced crime, we don’t know for sure, but based on the timing, it’s possible. But nine had experienced force criminality before their arrest, and at least eight of those nine, as I said, it was unrelated to the forced crime. There was one who had a juvenile charge that was likely related to the forced criminality, but because of sealed records, we couldn’t know for sure. All nine were between the ages of seven and 15 at the time of their trafficking, including four who were under the age of 10. So really, what we learned is that the forced criminality was occurring before this person was interacting with law enforcement. They weren’t being identified by law enforcement as a victim during their trafficking experience, or after their trafficking experience. They were just remaining kind of undiscovered by law enforcement.

Sandra Morgan 26:20
Wow lots more to unpack there, but let’s go into how homelessness was an entry way to criminalization.

Kaitlyn Zedalis 26:30
So the average age that the victims of forced criminality first left home was about 14 and a half, and 67% had had periods of unsheltered homelessness. What we found is that of the victims who experienced forced criminality before their arrest, their initial arrests, were predominantly for low level crimes of poverty. So things like loitering, fare evasion, theft, trespassing, disorderly conduct, simple assault, driving offenses. It was very often low level crimes of poverty that we’re resulting in their first interaction with the legal system. However, these charges lead to an accumulation of later charges and warrants with increasingly severe consequences and unresolved warrants that resulted in increasing consequences. So they were kept being criminalized and the poverty was really their entry into the criminal justice system, while they were remaining undetected as a victim.

Sandra Morgan 27:33
Wow. Okay, so all of this is a lot to process, but if you can give us a capsule of how to look at this for how we might practice now, some recommendations, because we want to use this action research as a way of improving, in real time, what we’re doing right now.

Kaitlyn Zedalis 28:02
So I think one thing that we found is that when victims had access to free, high quality legal representation, which they received at Covenant House, New Jersey, their charges were largely dismissed. All of them had their charges dropped or significantly reduced. So this is really evidence of the importance of high quality legal representation for those who are charged with low level crimes of poverty. It’s also important, I think, that we really think of increasing the awareness of labor trafficking by forced criminality. The crime is often undetected, victims don’t see themselves as victims and often don’t report their experiences, especially to law enforcement. This is definitely a type of trafficking that doesn’t get as much public or media attention, though we were very excited forced criminality was mentioned in the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report this year, which we thought was great, so it is moving in that direction, but just continuing to increase awareness of forced criminality. I also think that screening is a really important tool in the work against forced criminality, if we can identify victims and connect them to services before they enter the criminal justice system, we can really make it a big impact there. As well as, the other thing we think about is how can we increase our identification of unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness? I mentioned the average first age they left home was around 14 and a half, so how can we identify young people who are experiencing homelessness? We know that students experiencing homelessness in schools, identification among that population is often low. By identifying those who are experiencing homelessness, we can really try to prevent some of these experiences and connect young people to the services they need. The other thing I just want to highlight is there’s really a need for additional research in this area. As far as we can tell, this is one of the only research articles about labor trafficking by forced criminality, that’s been done domestically, and it is such an important area to get more research on.

Sandra Morgan 30:22
I totally agree. I love that, and I’m going put a link to the screening tool that you mentioned previously, here, the QYIT tool. So those of you listening, there is something to start with now. Then as we wrap up, how can we be more positioned with our policy recommendations?

Kaitlyn Zedalis 30:46
So I think making sure that victims have access to victim of crime compensation is important. Forced criminality and poverty are really linked, so if we can connect victims to funds, we can maybe prevent some of that criminalization process that can be happening. We want to make sure that there’s not barriers to accessing victims of crime compensation, like open warrants, creating barriers, or sometimes even requiring disclosure to law enforcement as a barrier to accessing victim of crime compensation. I think ensuring access to those funds in a way that really simplifies the process is important. We also really highlight the importance of safe harbor laws for labor trafficking. There’s been good work done in this area for Safe Harbor laws for sex trafficking, but making sure that someone can’t be prosecuted for a crime that they’re forced to commit in a trafficking situation, and I think the other one is creating diversion programs for low level crimes of poverty. We know there are other things going on underneath those crimes of poverty, and so creating diversion programs and getting people to the services that they need, rather than prosecuting them is important.

Sandra Morgan 31:00
And that is so relevant to how our juvenile justice system is designed to be rehabilitative, not punitive. Finding ways to build that and strengthen that in our communities and our separate systems is going to help with the entire landscape for our youth who are so vulnerable to this. Kaitlyn, I just want to keep talking but our time is up, and I am so grateful for your work. This won’t be our last conversation. I’m going to follow you. Any links that you have, we’re going to share in our show notes, and I just cannot thank you enough for the work that you’re doing.

Kaitlyn Zedalis 32:57
Thank you so much, Sandie, and thank you again for having me.

Sandra Morgan 33:01
Thank you so much, Kaitlyn. Now, we’re inviting you to take the next step to go over to endinghumantrafficking.org. That’s where you can find resources that we’ve mentioned in this conversation, and so much more. The anti-human trafficking certificate program is here, and if you haven’t visited the site before, that’s a great first step. Become a subscriber and you’ll receive an email with the show notes when a new episode drops. Of course, I’ll be back in two weeks for our next conversation.

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