Friday, August 30, 2013

A Recap: The 3rd Annual Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force Conference

Last week, 200 social service providers, law enforcement, healthcare professionals and committed community members convened at the 3rd annual Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force Conference to tackle the hard issue of human trafficking. The two-day conference aimed to build a comprehensive and targeted response to both sex and labor trafficking by: 1) hosting plenary sessions that delved deeper into the nuances of pimp culture and labor trafficking as it appears across the nation; 2) providing relevant case studies to assess points of access and discuss successful convictions of traffickers; 3) examining the child welfare response to child trafficking; 4) offering law enforcement and healthcare focused workshops; and 5) honing in on effective outreach, interventions and organizational responses to human trafficking.

Speakers included Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, DCFS Human Trafficking Coordinator Stacy Sloan, Tiffany Williams from the Institute for Policy Studies and other local and national leaders in the field. The conference also included a survivor session with DC-based Chicago-born survivor and founder of Courtney’s House, Tina Frundt. Her session served to look closely at the mindsets of pimps and those they choose to control and sell, ultimately bringing real lived experience to the table as the ideal learning scenario for future prevention and intervention.

As a partner of the core team and a facilitator of the Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force, we hope to use these lessons learned to better inform our steering committee and subcommittee work. With newly formed labor trafficking and LGBTQ subcommittees charged with better identifying and serving underserved communities, there is much work to be done.

We also want to thank the speakers, attendees and volunteers for truly making the conference a success! Until next year!

Summar Ghias,
Program Specialist, IOFA

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Proposed Federal Legislation would extend programs for homeless youth to LGBT Individuals

In the early 1970s, Americans became preoccupied with the plights of homeless and runaway youth. Congress, in response, held hearings on the issue starting in January 1972, which culminated two years later in a major piece of legislation. 1974’s Runaway Youth Act has since gone through many periodic reauthorizations and renamings before arriving at the most recent incarnation, the 2008 Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA, known officially as the Reconnecting Homeless Youth Act).

Since its inception, the RHYA has served as a major source of funding for public and private nonprofit organizations that serve youth who have become disconnected from their homes and families. Among its many provisions, the law establishes three main federal programs:

1. National Communication System: The RHYA has provided the financial backing for the National Runaway Safeline (1-800-RUNAWAY), a 24-hour crisis hotline. The hotline addresses a wide spectrum of youth, from people on the streets to those in precarious living situations, by directing callers to local service providers providing guidance to youth who may just need someone to talk to.

2. Basic Center Grant Program: Under the RHYA, the Department of Health and Human Services is authorized to provide grants to local nonprofit organizations and public entities as an alternative to involving youth in the child welfare or juvenile justice systems. A minimum of $200,000 is allotted annually to each state to be distributed in grants. Grant recipients must provide short term shelter and counseling services, and they may also offer substance abuse education and STI testing to runaway and homeless youth.

3. Transitional Living Grant Program: For the many youth who experience abuse, neglect, or severe conflict at home, emergency shelters operating under the Basic Center Grant Program do not provide necessary, long-term assistance. To address these youth, the RHYA calls for grants allocated to transitional living programs, that can provide homeless and runaway youth with shelter for up to 18 months while aiding them in becoming self sufficient.

There are at least 1.6 million runaway and homeless youth in the U.S. alone

To date, the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act has been largely successful in assisting at-risk or in-need youth from life on the streets, and the risks of trafficking that accompany homelessness. The National Runaway Safeline alone fields over 100,000 calls a year, while countless youth have benefited from the Basic Center and Transitional Living Programs. However, as the RHYA returns to the floor of Congress for reauthorization at the end of September, many are looking to fill one egregious gap in the legislation: a lack of protections for LGBT homeless and runaway youth.

Since the RHYA was initially passed in 1974, the LGBT community has gone through substantial changes. A far cry from the days of “We’re Here, We’re Queer” chants, LGBT causes have attracted more mainstream attention and popular support. Research also shows that people have been steadily identifying at younger and younger ages; whereas people used to come out well into adulthood, the average age at which people first self-identify as lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, or queer is now 16. As a result, more youth are faced with negative family reactions and bullying at school, leading to a large population of LGBT youth who are kicked out or decide to leave pernicious home environments. Currently, the best estimates state that between 20 and 40 % of all homeless youth identify as LGBT, depending on the area.

Unfortunately, the RHYA has failed to keep up with the times, and despite several reauthorizations, it still lacks any provisions for dealing with the substantial LGBT homeless and runaway youth population. Two Wisconsin Congresspeople, Representatives Gwen Moore and Mark Pocan, however, have recently sought to amend the RHYA.

Representatives Gwen Moore (WI-4) and Mark Pocan (WI-2) proposed the new, inclusive legislation

The legislative duo, introduced a new bill on August 1, known as the Runaway and Homeless Youth Inclusion Act (RHYIA), that would add specific provisions for LGBT youth to the extant RHYA. Highlights of Reps. Moore and Pocan’s proposed legislation include:

· Language specific to LGBT youth added to the bill: The RHYIA would state that grant programs should include outreach programs to “cultural minorities and persons who are in a minority category related to sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.” (emphasis added)

· Mandates that service providers offer “culturally competent” services and that such services be made available for all youth: Frequent complaints from LGBT homeless youth mention that service providers lack knowledge of LGBT issues, preventing these youth from accessing needed services and leading many to return to the streets

· Programs specific to LGBT homeless and runaway youth, such as family intervention and reunification services or resources for family members struggling to accept a youth’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression

· A nondiscrimination section stating that no youth can be denied services on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity or expression, among other factors

In the coming months, as Congress sets out to debate the RHYIA, IOFA is also working on addressing under-served communities, including LGBT youth. The nascent LGBTQ subcommittee of the Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force will convene community members, service agencies, and young people to develop better means of serving LGBT trafficking victims. A newly forming Labor Trafficking subcommittee will also bring attention to a side of human trafficking that is often overlooked.

Matt Kellner, Project Development Intern

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

FBI sex trafficking bust: adult prostitution arrests

A recent IOFA blog post focused on the FBI sting that led to the recovery of 105 sexually exploited teenagers. Now we are highlighting those the press may have forgotten.

Operation Cross Country aims to identify and recover child victims of sexual exploitation. Nonetheless, the sting last month undoubtedly encountered many adults involved in prostitution – both willing sex workers as well as coerced trafficking victims – in the process of searching for trafficked children.

What happens to the adults who were found in the same circumstances as the 105 recovered child victims?

FBI Assistant Director Ron Hosko
They’re likely arrested on criminal charges.

In Chicagoland:
Operation Cross Country recovered 2 Commercially Sexually Exploited minors.
Operation Cross Country arrested 96 adults engaged in prostitution.[i]

While many of the detained adults are ostensibly not acting under force or coercion, there may be sex trafficking victims among those arrested.

It comes as no surprise that the sting resulted in the detainment of adults involved in prostitution, even while it was meant to be a crackdown specifically on the commercial sexual exploitation of children. The FBI press release explains: “Initial arrests are often violations of local and state laws relating to prostitution or solicitation. Information gleaned from those arrested frequently uncovers organized efforts to prostitute women and children across many states.”

Are those detained on charges of prostitution being screened as potential human trafficking victims, thus serving the ultimate goal of these stings? Will a sex trafficking conviction emerge for any of the detained adults in the coming months? Or will each one of them end in prostitution charges?

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA 2000) gives legal protection to minors induced to perform commercial sex acts under the premise that those below the age of consent for sex are below the age to give consent for paid sex.[ii] The result of the legislation is that these minors are considered “victims of sex trafficking” rather than “juvenile prostitutes”.

Yet, in these weeks following the child trafficking bust, it is imperative that we remember that adults are not immune to being trafficked, either. TVPA (2000) also protects adult victims of sex trafficking, i.e., those aged 18 or over who are forced, deceived, or coerced into providing commercial sex acts. Traffickers target both children and adults, preying on vulnerabilities extending beyond age, such as immigration status, language barriers, those fleeing other unfavorable situations, and social isolation or marginalization.

IOFA and the rest of the Cook County Human Trafficking Task Force advocate for a victim-centered approach to all potential trafficking victims. The Task Force has worked to train law enforcement, legal service providers, and social service providers on identification and treatment protocols to ensure that each potential victim’s rights are fully realized. To that end, the Task Force is further developing best practice trainings and enhancing current human trafficking curriculum. We envision a coordinated criminal justice response in which we can trust that trafficking victims, both minors and adults, are not slipping through the cracks upon contact with law enforcement or other first responders.

While each one of the 105 recovered child victims of sex trafficking from July’s sting deserves to be celebrated, we ought not to forget the potential adult trafficking victims who were encountered in the bust and the difficult road they may have ahead.
-Alexa Schnieders
Program Development Intern


[i] Sanchez, R. “Suburban cops make prostitution arrests in nationwide sex trafficking sweep”. 30 July 2013. The Daily Herald. Accessed online 07 August, 2013.

[ii] "Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act." United States Department of Labor. Web. 07 Aug. 2013. <>.

Other sources consulted:

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Welcome to IOFA, Madeline!

I first learned about human trafficking while working as a Youth Development Counselor at a group home in New York City. There I worked with teenage girls in the foster care system who had suffered extreme abuses at the hands of loved ones. Several young women were survivors of child sex trafficking, but none of them were in the clear; they were still dealing with the physical and emotional scars left by their traffickers, and there were pimps waiting by our doorstep at night, hoping to pull them back into “the life.”

Seeing these realities led me to study the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) and New York’s Safe Harbour Act during my MSW studies at McGill University. After gaining a detailed understanding of CSEC and the law, I continued to advocate for human trafficking victims as a fellow at the Polaris Project in Washington, DC.  I remained active in the fight against human trafficking as a fellow at the New York State Council on Children and Families. At the Council I gained critical insight into New York’s policy making process.

Now, I am very pleased to join IOFA’s team as Project Director of ChildRight: New York. The project strategically strengthens the child welfare response to human trafficking throughout New York by:

• providing training and technical assistance to direct service providers and professionals likely to encounter trafficked youth;

• gathering data on the CSEC population in New York;

• creating a validated screening tool to identify child victims of human trafficking; and

• developing a blueprint for a statewide operational framework to continue the implementation of the Safe Harbour Act.

It is our goal to use this opportunity to make a measurable impact in the implementation of the Safe Harbour Act so that New York can better identify and serve CSEC victims, and ultimately prevent the victimization of vulnerable youth.

I look forward to learning from New York’s many experts as we work together to meet the challenge of improving the state’s response to the commercial sexual exploitation of children.

Madeline Hannan, MSW
Project Director, ChildRight: New York

Monday, August 5, 2013

Update from Addis Ababa: Experiences of youth aging out of institutionalized care

August 2, 2013 
It’s hard to believe that I’ve spent over a month in Addis, and that I’ll be leaving in just three short weeks.  I am now able to get around the city confidently and comfortably, I have favorite restaurants and caf├ęs, and I’ve made many friends that I’ll be sad to leave.  Moreover, my work has finally changed from meetings with organizational staff to interviewing young people who grew up in care:  hearing their stories and experiences of transition.  This is the work that I am most interested in, and it will be the basis for IOFA’s decisions moving forward on the Transitions Initiative in Ethiopia.  We want to know what the personal experience of transitioning from care institutions to independence.

Mikiyas and three research participants from Kidane Mehret
So far, Mikiyas Feyissa (IOFA’s Ethiopian representative and translator) and I have conducted four interview sessions, each with adults from different organizations.  We heard from 5 youth from CIAI who spent much of their time on the streets until CIAI’s shelter took them in.  We met with 10 individuals who grew up in L’Esperance:  an Adventist orphanage on the outskirts of Addis.  We talked to 5 adults who grew up in Abebech Gobena (Addis Ababa’s most famous orphanage) and who are now employed by that institution.  We also met 4 girls from Kidane Mehret orphanage, who have just started transitioning to independent life.  Additionally, I have been able to have great, informal conversations with two young men who grew up in care and who are now living independently.

Each individual and group has a unique story, but there are common themes that we hear over and over again.  One challenge that every youth seems to face when they leave care is the extreme culture shock of joining the outside community.  Most orphaned children grow up isolated in institutions with very little community interaction.  Basic social skills that most children pick up through observing adults are completely foreign to orphaned youth.  Tamerat, who now works as a psychologist in a Catholic orphanage, told me that he didn’t know how to buy food or clothes because everything had always been provided in the orphanage.

“[Orphaned youth] have no budgeting skills and don’t know how to save money.  They also don’t have any role models for working and responsibility.  Other children see their parents go to work every day, [orphaned youth] don’t have that experience.  They don’t know how to manage their time to make sure everything is done.”

Every group has commented on how difficult it is to converse and interact with other people outside of the institution.  The youth feel that the community will ostracize them, which leads them to be very reserved; most Ethiopians generally do not trust reserved people, so they treat the youth as though they were of bad character.  This confirms the youth’s fears and leads to further psychological distress.  The youth also have no sense of “good” and “bad” behavior in other people; they are often easily trusting of strangers.  Because their only interactions with adults have been in the orphanage, the youth often do not possess the healthy dose of suspicion that most of us employ when meeting new people, looking for a job, and searching for housing.

 Research participants answer yes/no questions by forming a Y/N shapes with their bodies
“Children who grew up in this orphanage have similar thinking and conduct. We respect people and we do not pretend like people do in the society. If we trust others; we give ourselves.  On the other hand members of the society do not give themselves, they rather are selfish.”

We are also hearing that although institutions often assist the youth in pursuing some sort of education or vocational training, the support stops as soon as they graduate.  In Ethiopia, the biggest challenge for young people is finding employment.  While young people with family support often have the option of staying with their parents while looking for a good job, orphaned youth must enter the job market immediately so that they can support themselves.  Families also function as a job search and referral system in a place where social connections are the key to getting a good job.  This lack of material and social support leads orphaned youth to take jobs that they are over-qualified for, jobs with low wages and little opportunity of advancement.

“We suffer long periods of time without any finances…Students who graduated with fewer qualifications and lower grades secure better employment.  We graduate with honors and do not get a job at all.  You can only explain this by people having contacts: relatives, families, etc., and we do not have that.”

For many of the participants in these interviews, telling their stories can be cathartic.  The four girls that Mikiyas and I interviewed at Kidane Mehret orphanage were disappointed that we would not be meeting again.  This was the first time anyone had asked them about their experience or showed an interest in how the transition was affecting them emotionally.  The group from L’Esperance meets weekly for fellowship.  They said that they discuss the challenges they face and lean on each other for support.

I am glad that IOFA’s interview process gives some of these youth the opportunity to process and reflect on their experience, as well as assurance that people do care about them and want to make the experience better for youth aging out of care.

Sarah Lyn Jones
Transitions Initiative Intern