The Role of Caseworkers in Fighting Youth Sex Trafficking

Child welfare caseworkers are an invaluable resource in helping communities respond to the sex trafficking of children. Children involved with child welfare are at a greater risk for being targeted by traffickers because of their potentially unstable living situations, physical distance from friends and family, traumatic experiences and emotional vulnerability.

Therefore, it is imperative that child welfare caseworkers are on the frontlines of identifying, responding to and preventing child sex trafficking. Not only can they connect with potential victims before it’s too late, but they can also ensure that survivors remain safe and receive the support services they need.

We recently connected with Marika Quinn who is a caseworker for the Arapahoe County Child Protection Services’ Sexual Abuse and Recovery Team. She has an incredible heart for the young people who have been victims of human trafficking and an amazing ability to connect with them and lead them to safety and change when they are ready.

How do you identify and build rapport with youth who are victims of trafficking?
I consider my approach very carefully. Trafficking victims are unlikely to disclose their situation right away, and confronting them with suspicions could seriously disrupt my efforts to build trust. I never tell them that what they are doing is wrong. There is a strong trauma bonding that occurs between victims and their traffickers and so oftentimes, the victims may not see what I’m trying to do as helping them.

One way I build trust is giving them my cell phone number and encouraging them to text me whenever they need to talk. Especially with young girls, they are just looking for someone to connect with. I establish myself as a positive connection and show them that I’m not going anywhere.

How do you know when your efforts are working?
Victims frequently return to their traffickers throughout the intervention process. As a caseworker, we need to be patient and understand that they cannot be forced to do anything before they are ready. Once they finally stop running away from help, we ensure that appropriate support systems are in place so that they can continue on their path to recovery.

What support services do you provide victims to help them transition out of trafficking?
It is essential to help them learn how to manage the emotions, behaviors and other challenging life situations they will face after leaving their trafficker. We have a great partnership with the team at Embark Counseling who provides mental health support specifically designed for victims of trafficking. Gaining the confidence to live independently on their own is a big challenge, so we also connect them with programs to help them finish their GED and show them how to apply for jobs. Throughout the process, we are constantly demonstrating our support and providing them with examples of positive, healthy relationships.

Reducing the Trauma of Child Sex Trafficking Victims – Q&A with Denise Abdoo

Children and youth who are victims of sex trafficking often experience high levels of trauma, which can have profound negative impacts on their physical, emotional and psychological well-being for decades. When working with these individuals, it is essential for child welfare professionals to recognize this past trauma and create supportive recovery environments.

As a joint program with the Child Protection Team and the Pediatric Emergency Department at Children’s Hospital Colorado, there is now a dedicated team of pediatric and adolescent focused registered nurses who provide comprehensive care to victims of sexual assault and trafficking. The Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) nurses provide acute sexual assault care with a trained eye toward the sensitivities of working with adolescents and young adults. They support our young patients through sensitive and timely examinations, connecting patients with legal and mental health resources, infectious disease treatment and more.

We recently connected with Denise Abdoo, PhD, CPNP, SANE-A, SANE-P, who leads the SANE team and asked her to share more about how they work to protect child and youth victims of sex trafficking.

Tell us more about the SANE team.

Currently, there are 13 registered nurses on the SANE team. We require a minimum of two years nursing experience along with additional education and training to be prepared to perform forensic examinations. Additionally, the SANE nurses provide expert witness testimony in court. Our team works closely with local law enforcement agencies and the Colorado Department of Human Services regarding trafficking activities within the community.

How do you know if someone is being trafficked?

When a patient is brought to the hospital or comes in for treatment, they don’t usually tell us they are being sexually exploited. We are trained to ask specific questions and look for signs of trafficking. Sexually exploited youth include male and female patients, from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Many of the sexually exploited youth are identified as high-risk youth, including victims of prior abuse, homeless children, runaways, those who were forced out of the home, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer (LGBTQ) community, those with a history of substance abuse, prior legal involvement, and those within the foster care or welfare systems.

What can we do if we suspect child sex trafficking in our community?

Recognize it. And then report your concerns to the appropriate authorities. If you are a parent, family member or friend who is concerned that a child is being trafficked – or if you have a suspicion that someone you know is trafficking – you should reach out to your county’s human services department first. You can also call Colorado’s statewide child abuse hotline, 1-800-CO-4-KIDS, and they will connect you to the appropriate resources.

Empowering Survivors to Move Forward with Hope and Dignity

Brittany* was 15 when she was referred to Extended Hands of Hope by a caseworker from Jefferson County’s Department of Human Services. She had been in and out of jail since the age of nine, had a history of running away, and was grades behind in both math and reading. On top of this, her severe depression was fueled by drug and alcohol addiction.

It took Brittany about two months before she allowed the Extended Hands of Hope team to help her. She struggled with the structure and process of the program, refusing therapy and every service offered by her caseworker. Her trauma was so deep that she even rejected personal hygiene and would gnaw on her own hair because of nervousness.

Eventually, Brittany began substance abuse treatment, counseling and therapy. She took a shower for the first time in months, and attended Extended Hands of Hope’s licensed, on-site school, Forward Learning Academy. She successfully made it through every phase of the program, and by the time she finished, she was re-enrolled in school, applying for jobs and reunited with her mom. Brittany also continued therapy after she left and regularly attended substance abuse support groups.

Had Brittany not come to a trauma-informed facility like Extended Hands of Hope, she would have been presumed defiant by the courts and ended up in jail, back under control of a pimp, or dead. Extended Hands of Hope protects young girls like Brittany who have been recovered from sex trafficking and exploitation and provides them with safe homes and a strong support team to help them heal and develop long-term survivorship skills. By fostering a trusting and supportive environment, these young girls are able to move forward into a new beginning.

Join us October 4 for a panel discussion with Extended Hands of Hope and other experts to learn more about what is being done in Colorado to protect our vulnerable youth. Register here.

*Brittany is a fictional name used to protect the identity of the survivor. 

CDHS Awards Child Welfare Training System Contract to Kempe

The Colorado Department of Human Services(CDHS) has awarded a $4.7 million annual contract to the Kempe Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse and Neglect to continue running the state’s Child Welfare Training System (CWTS). Since 2013, the Kempe Center has worked alongside CDHS to revolutionize this training system through leadership and learning to positively impact Colorado’s children and families.

The Kempe Foundation has worked with legislators to ensure funding for this critical program is included in the state’s budget.

Read more on the CDHS website. See our latest update on the Child Welfare Training System.

Child Sex Trafficking in Colorado

At Kempe, we believe our children’s future and the world’s future are one. We act on this belief by working to eliminate traumatic experiences that adversely impact a child’s development while strengthening positive ones. Child abuse and neglect are obvious threats to healthy development, and can lead to many life-long adverse effects for a child. In the coming months, we will explore a few other threats to healthy development, bringing together community partners to help shine a light on these connections, and even more how we can partner as a community to end the cycle of abuse and positively impact child development.

Our first focus in this effort to “unite communities” is on child sex trafficking. Sex trafficking of minors has been reported in all 50 states, including Colorado. Between 2008 and 2013, Colorado’s human trafficking hotline (CoNEHT) provided services to more than 437 suspected and confirmed labor and sex trafficking victims throughout Colorado. In our metro area, cases have been confirmed in Denver, Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield and Jefferson counties. Child sex trafficking is child abuse. It can happen in any community, to children of any age, gender, race, and socioeconomic background. It is often a hidden crime, and many children or youth who are being trafficking may not even view themselves as victims.

While we may think of trafficking as portrayed in movies with child victims kidnapped and enslaved, it is more commonly a subtle grooming process where vulnerable youth are identified and recruited over time.

Much like victims of child abuse, many of the root causes of human trafficking are the same. Youth with a history of homelessness, identify as LGBTQ, have involvement in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, experience poverty and economic inequality, struggle with substance abuse themselves or in the home, and experience some level of social inequality are all at greater risk. Even more, youth who are a part of the foster care system are some of the most vulnerable.

Human trafficking isn’t a new issue in our state, but we have made strides to combat it in recent years. In 2012, Governor Hickenlooper established the Colorado Human Trafficking Council. One of the first items the council focused on was including child sex trafficking in the legal definition of child abuse and neglect. Supported by the Kempe Foundation, that legislation passed in 2016 and was an important step in allowing child welfare agencies in all Colorado counties to provide services to victims and focus on prevention efforts.

Today, there are several active collaborations in our state working on victim assistance and response, law enforcement action, survivor assistance, public awareness and prevention.

In the coming weeks, the Kempe Foundation will highlight efforts by professionals in the field like Denise Abdoo, PhD, CPNP, MSN from the Kempe Center who coordinates the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Program Team at Children’s Hospital. We will also highlight efforts from Jefferson and Arapahoe counties to combat child sex trafficking regionally. Finally, we are partnering with fellow nonprofit Extended Hands of Hope to highlight their work to provide safe housing and supportive services to sex trafficking survivors.

We encourage you to learn more about human trafficking and its impact on our Colorado communities by attending these local trainings and events:

Saturday, September 8 – EatUp! Denver

EatUp! Denver is Extended Hands of Hope’s largest annual fundraiser in support of their commitment to equipping young girls who have been trafficked and exploited with the necessary resources to move forward. Learn more and register here.

Thursday, October 4 – Uniting Communities for Kids: Sex trafficking and child maltreatment

7:30-9:00 a.m.
Wellshire Events Center – 3333 S Colorado Blvd. Denver, CO
Tickets $45 | Register Here

Join us for breakfast and hear from our panel of experts on what efforts are being made to prevent sex trafficking in Colorado as well as the treatment programs provided to the victims that are rescued.

Kempe is partnering with Extended Hands of Hope, a nonprofit offering safe housing and supportive services to sex trafficking survivors, to bring this important information to the forefront of the conversation on child maltreatment. Find out what more can be done and how you can help.