California Rethinks How to Best Work with Sex-Trafficked Youth

As California seeks to better address the needs of commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC) in its child welfare system, providers in the state should be increasingly tailoring their services with a harm reduction approach.

That perspective — drawn from public health discipline — is at the heart of a new outreach from the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) about how providers should design placements for children involved in sex trafficking.

In an announcement at the end of last year, CDSS sought feedback from how interested providers would “create and implement therapeutic, services-centered placement models that would provide up to 100 regionally based placements, statewide, specifically for commercially sexually exploited children.”

Through the process, which remains in the planning stages, CDSS hopes to provide start-up funds for the creation and implementation of new models, which would favor “innovation, creativity and evidence-based approaches.”

This effort comes as the state has been working to put in place new tools and processes to identify and work with sex-trafficked youth over the past three years. According to a 2017 report to the state legislature, California has devoted $38 million from the state’s general fund since the 2014-2015 fiscal year.

The need for placements are among the biggest barriers to serving CSEC youth, according to several providers.

“San Francisco does not have the capacity right now to support and provide housing for all those young people in the city, especially the higher needs young people,” said Carly Devlin, an intervention services coordinator for Huckleberry Youth Programs, which works with sex-trafficked young people. “The young people that we work with tend not to stay in placements and don’t want to ‘receive placements,’ especially if they’re out of county or out of state.”

The plan to add more and higher-quality placements for sex-trafficked youth has been complicated by California’s Continuum of Care Reform (CCR), which has boosted the requirements for group homes in state, prioritized more family-based placements and required greater integration with mental health and child welfare agencies at the county level.

In guidance to increase more CSEC placements and supports, CDSS said it is committed to supporting placing more sex-trafficked youth in homes, including providing more CSEC-specific training for caregivers.

But the state also asked for feedback on the creation of 24/7 service centers specifically aimed at sex-trafficked youth and those at risk for exploitation. The crisis center is a hallmark of a trauma-informed, harm-reduction model: a safe place where youth would be able to access basic services, including medical attention.

According to the state, a crisis center would also be a way to reach young people who are especially wary of child welfare and mental health systems and who may not yet be ready to leave exploitative situations.

“Just having more transitional living programs … is not always effective,” said Angie Miot-Nudel, director of Quality Client Care Services for the San Francisco-based Larkin Street Youth Services. “Those youth don’t want to engage in mental health services. As soon as you say mental health services, they run the other way.”

Miot-Nudel said that if the state is serious about making critical services more widely available to vulnerable young people, it should think about more mobile services.

“If they have to then make their way to somewhere else in the city and be part of some system, they’re probably not going to do that,” she said. “We need more mobilized services, a way for them to call a hotline and have somebody who can be there in 15 or 20 minutes.”

Devlin of Huckleberry Youth Programs said she “loves the spirit” of a 24/7 center but wants the state to think carefully about the approach.

“I don’t want us to end there,” she said. “It should be a stepping stone toward connecting young people to more stable situations.”

Finding an overall plan for sex-trafficked youth in the state is often complicated by the fact that helping exploited youth and children is not always a straight-forward approach and one size doesn’t fit all youth.

“When we actually sit down and talk to a young person, we may find that the basic needs [for the young person] are very different than what an adult says,” Devlin said. “A young person’s idea of safety, that can be very different than what adults say.

“To create a system of care around this is going to take a lot of different strategies.”

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