The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Gateways: Where Girls Get Themselves Back
Represent staff

It has taken the U.S. government a long time to stop judging and start helping teens who have sex for money. Under the federal Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015, victims of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) are no longer referred to as “prostitutes” or charged with a crime. Instead, they are referred to child welfare systems and provided with services to help them recover from the trauma of sexual exploitation. Even if a child under 18 doesn’t work for a pimp, legally she is still considered a trafficking victim.

Foster children are at an especially high risk for CSEC. If a teen runs away from an abusive placement, she may need to trade sex for money, food, or a place to sleep. (Boys are also trafficked, but the majority of victims are girls.) Many foster youth have been sexually abused, which can lead to both feelings of worthlessness and a view of yourself as only a sexual object. Foster teens have also observed that their value is measurable in dollars: Adults are paid a set amount every month to care for them. Given all this, healing from CSEC is a huge undertaking.

Gateways is a residential program north of New York City for girls 12 to 18 who’ve been victims of CSEC. Budy J. Garcia-Whitfield, LCSW, is director of diagnostics and campus intake for JCCA, which includes the Gateways program. Twelve girls at a time stay in the program, for six to nine months. Ms. Garcia-Whitfield spoke with Represent about how Gateways helps the girls.

How do girls come to Gateways?

Girls are referred from ACS (New York City’s Child Protective Services agency) or if they have a PINS (person in need of supervision) warrant. [Parents or legal guardians can take PINS warrants out on children they feel are out of control.]

Girls are usually interviewed for placement to assess if they are ready for treatment. Girls who turn out to have no CSEC history, who are very violent, or who have been trafficking other youth may be turned down. Girls who don’t want to do the program go back to their families or a foster care placement.

What is the program like?

The girls live together in cottages supervised by a social worker. For the first two weeks we observe the girls closely because there is a risk they will run back to their pimps. We’re monitoring their every move and assessing their behaviors to see if they’re AWOLing. We pay attention to different hairstyles; sometimes we can tell if they’re planning to go back to their pimps by their hair. We make sure that they’re not trafficking each other.

We move through phases: readiness to start working on their trauma; recognize trauma; rebuild self-esteem; reconnect to healthy community resources; and if possible, reconnect with family. All the girls get a charm bracelet upon entering and as they move through each phase of the program, they get a new charm.

The girls go to school and have group therapy after school three times a week. They have to complete workbooks on self-esteem, trauma, family background—a kind of journaling workbook. They all make vision boards that include things that give them hope: One girl who did not have immediate family to return to had pictures of women and hopeful words and pictures of her cousins. The staff pay attention to the girls’ goals and to their vision boards, and that can help make a girl feel more confident. It shows them that there’s more to them than their trauma.

The girls can earn money doing chores. They go on trips and get their hair and nails done. Pimps often get girls tattooed to show they are his property; the girls in Gateways can get their tattoos removed through a grant that ACS has provided.

How do girls process the experience of being trafficked?

When they arrive in our program, some girls do not acknowledge their experiences as being in the life. Sometimes they say they have a boyfriend and he gives them money.

Other girls who don’t want to be victims say they wanted to be prostitutes. They tend to act out and pick on the other girls and say they don’t want to be in the cottage. They glorify the life and look for any opportunity to AWOL or leave. The social worker will continue having conversations with them, helping them understand what their current situation is and why they’re in placement: “You continue to AWOL and yet you want to go back to your family, school, neighborhood. So how do we help you do that?” Social work 101: Meet the client where they are.

How does the program help the girls deal with trauma?

Behaviors of youth in the system are related to trauma. Kids who’ve been trafficked have also been sexually abused as kids sometimes.

image by YC-Art Dept

Trauma can manifest as PTSD, depression, or feeling sad. In moving from recognizing trauma to rebuilding self-esteem, they go from acknowledging that they were a victim to basically taking their power back. When you recognize that you were a victim, you start to experience anger and behavioral issues. They start talking about what happened to them in the family as well as the experience of being trafficked.

Music is an important part of the coping skills. Also taking walks, speaking to someone they trust, yoga, meditation. There’s a program called Endeavor, where girls work with traumatized horses and then talk with a psychologist afterward about the experience with the horse.

I think relationship-building and seeing positive role models helps the girls the most. That shows them that they can aspire to be better.

How does Gateways help girls reconnect with family?

Part of our job is explaining to parents that their child is not at fault, that they’ve been controlled by a pimp, this is why it happened. If you think about a drug addiction, part of the pattern is relapse. We have girls relapse, and we let them know that that’s normal.

Maybe 30% of girls don’t have family they can reconnect with. Some families think the girls are “fast” and wanting to be in the streets. The most successful cases are the parents who have been there from day one.

How do you help girls who don’t have a family to reconnect with?

If you don’t have family, you connect to staff. I give girls my work cell phone number when they leave the program. We talk about boundaries, but kids need support and someone to not turn their back.

About seven months ago, a girl who had left the program called me frustrated and she couldn’t explain why, but just hearing someone in her corner not judging her was important.

How do you know when the program is successful?

We’re succeeding when girls have decreased their AWOLing behaviors, they’ve begun working in the community, they visit their families without needing supervision. We can see improvement in the way they take care of themselves, the way they eat; they’re motivated, they’re hopeful. The most important thing is that they feel safe.

What should staff keep in mind about working with girls who’ve been sexually trafficked?

These girls are no different than your average child; they just have been through more. You have to see past the stigma of prostitution and see kids who’ve been through trauma.

Anger is a manifestation of depression. Anger could be “I feel sick toward myself that I had so many partners.” Or “I’m angry at my pimp.”

When a kid is upset and super-irate, I don’t take it personally. I say, “What can I do for you right now? I know why you’re angry, what can we do? Can we do conflict resolution?... I know you’re angry at your mom. How about if you cool off and the three of us can discuss this?” A lot of mediating. When a girl AWOLs, we say, “We’re worried about you. Were you eating? We’re worried about your safety.”

I think people need to know the kid who needs the most love asks for it in the most unloving ways: pushing people away, being angry, volatile, running away. If you’re running away, you’re missing a piece. So if a kid is constantly running away, we need to ask, “What is this child running away from?” They’re feeling unloved or feeling lost. They’re looking for something.

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