It’s Past Time To Shift Our Strategies

Jennifer Swain, Executive Director, youthSpark

In 2001, youthSpark began from a “reactive” position (as the Juvenile Justice Fund) responding to the needs of minor victims criminalized with prostitution charges in Georgia by providing holistic support, residential treatment, and meaningful opportunities. For the past 21 years, we have worked to shift our position and develop “proactive” responses to youth victimization and exploitation based on our research and on-the-ground experiences providing direct services to court-involved youth.

We must address basic needs and lived realities first. Youth who have experienced trauma—and who are predominately Black, Brown, LGBTQ+, and from low-wealth communities—are at the center of our work. We call on the U.S. anti-trafficking movement to put them at the center of their work too. The mainstream movement has pursued policies, practices, and legal paradigms that fail to address the basic needs and lived realities of those experiencing ‘force, fraud, and coercion.’ While not widely known or understood, it is past time for us to shift the conversation to focus on lasting, systemic change. We need to think more broadly about how our social systems created structured insecurity and unevenly distribute vulnerabilities. Even when the laws are changed to say something different about victims, perpetrators, or “human trafficking,” those legal reforms do not prevent violences like the criminalization of poverty or gay and transgender youth, structural racism, and underfunded social welfare systems. Systemic change requires transparent collaboration and root cause interventions. Let’s get to work.

The most vulnerable in our communities are left behind. In the metro-Atlanta area, one out of every two homeless youth has experienced ‘force, fraud, or coercion’ (Atlanta Youth Count, 2018). Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are more vulnerable to trafficking than their straight peers. Trans youth have a greater risk of experiencing human trafficking than their cisgender counterparts. Youth experiencing homelessness for more than one year have a greater risk of experiencing human trafficking than their counterparts who have been homeless for less time. Youth with high levels of childhood trauma have a greater risk of experiencing human trafficking than their peers. These are the marginalized youth who urgently need our support. Their experiences inform where we should put our energy and resources, and we need to ensure that support comes from a place of transformative justice. 

Experiences of violence or trauma are a precursor to systems involvement (Skinner-Osei et al, 2019), and systems involvement is a precursor to experience force, fraud, or coercion (O’Brien et al, 2017). More than two-thirds of homeless youth (63%) in Atlanta were previously involved in childhood foster care, the juvenile legal system, or both. The majority of these youth (59%) also report adverse childhood trauma, reporting at least three adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as parental incarceration, domestic violence, parental mental illness or substance misuse, or childhood sexual or physical abuse. Having just one ACE puts young people at heightened risk for chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance misuse (CDC, 2020). Without meaningful intervention, these accumulating adverse childhood experiences impact lifelong health, well-being, and opportunity. Unfortunately, the systems that are supposed to help often fail to effectively do so and end up making things worse. Existing systems are well-intentioned, but we cannot ignore the outcomes. It’s past time for us to shift strategies and intervene to prevent future exploitation. 

Let’s prioritize policies and practices that tell the truth about exploited youth’s lived experiences rather than pass hollow, political legislation. The anti-trafficking movement has pushed common legal strategies for addressing gender-based violence—harsh perpetrator punishment and definitional changes—that seem to misunderstand how power functions in interpersonal violence, exploitation, and in the lives of those experiencing violence. Anti-trafficking laws pursue strategies that rely on the belief that if we change what the law says about victims (e.g., creating laws that say victims should not be treated as criminals) or exploitation (e.g., creating laws that expand definitions of trafficking), then victims’ lives will improve. This approach often relies on a punishment model, such as incarceration, that most survivors do not want (Hussemann et al, 2018). 

Survivors are more likely to endorse prevention models and perceive justice as the ability to move on and find autonomy and empowerment by achieving personal goals. We should listen to them and address the intersecting inequalities produced from racism, sexism, heteronormativity, and transphobia that lead to their victimization in the first place. Georgia has enough human trafficking laws on the books (O.C.G.A. 16-5-46, HB200 & SB435, SB69, SR7, among others). It’s past time that we stop creating new laws and ensure existing ones are properly implemented at the local level, where most gaps remain. 

This is survival work. In Fulton County, where our organization is based, Black and queer youth from over-policed and under-resourced communities are disproportionately represented in the juvenile legal system. In just the past three years, youthSpark has served more than 600 such youth between the ages of 12-19. Most of our clients are Black or multi-racial (95%), and 11% are LGBTQ+. More than two-thirds of our clients live in zip codes in Southwest Atlanta, where the average poverty rate is 32%. On average, our clients at youthSpark report at least eight adverse childhood experiences, far above the national average (CDC, 2020). Approximately 40% of our clients are referred for sexual abuse or exploitation; 34% for domestic or in-home violence; 18% for trauma exposure, and 44% referred for neglect. Without meaningful support and intervention, these youth have a stronger chance of becoming one of metro-Atlanta’s 3,372 homeless youth, who are more likely to experience ‘force, fraud, and abuse’ in a working situation. Although many of these demographics may not scream human trafficking, they all increase precarity and vulnerabilities, creating the strongest onramps into trafficking and harmful practices. It’s past time for everyone to learn, accept, and share this widely. 

Social justice doesn’t trickle down. We need to prioritize the youth facing the worst problems rather than be tempted to solve problems for the least vulnerable. We have to recognize the “triple pandemic” of COVID-19, structural racism, and economic inequality threaten the survival of women and cis- and transgender girls of color. Or do we not care because these aren’t the “right kind of victims” for the movement? Do we care more about punishment than stopping violence? The only way to address these issues is through approaches that recognize how intersecting systems of oppression threaten the futures of Black, brown, and queer people. We have to shift our political imaginary, or five, ten, twenty years from now, we will be having the same conversation. It is past time to have honest, critical conversations inclusive of the most marginalized in our community, even if these conversations are uncomfortable.

We want “statewide” coalitions invested in root-cause change and creating safety by community building and connection. There is no room for self-indulgent saviors or dividing people into “deserving” and “undeserving” recipients of help. We want a movement that centers the people in need and lets them assess whether our work is successful or not. We don’t want a universal statewide response. We want a coalition rooted in every single community, serving the needs of that community. We don’t need a single point of entry for services. We need a collective impact plan to ensure communities can take care of each other when needed. When we speak of “access to care,” doesn’t that include communities’ ability to care for themselves? To do that, they need financial resources, access to training and replicable community-based and residential services. Moreover, we challenge all to say goodbye to ramping up for January’s “Human Trafficking Awareness Month.” Instead, let’s open our eyes and soften our hearts to the lived experiences of those who will never be identified as trafficking victims because they’ve slipped through the cracks or because they don’t “look like a victim.” Let’s invest in meaningful changes year-round and find generative ways for the corporate community and media to support transformative change. It’s past time to invest that energy each month, every year until we see significant change and stop repeating the same conversations over and over again. It is past time. Let us get to work.