For sexually exploited minors, breaking away from the streets is no easy task, but when they do, most find a system which has few places for them to go.
A gargantuan stuffed teddy bear dominates an iron-framed twin-sized bed in the brightly painted bedroom. The walls are adorned with pictures of smiling teenage girls and a poster with a famous Winston Churchill quote: “Never, never, never give up.”
This room could belong to any typical American teenage girl, a safe place to gossip about crushes and do homework. But this is not a typical teenager’s room. The girl who lives here, at the R.I.S.E. House (Residential Intervention for the Sexually Exploited), a residential group home, has been identified as a Commercially Sexually Exploited Child, or CSEC.
The interior walls of the yellow craftsman style home located in Redwood City, California, are all painted bright colors and dusted with empowering quotes; the aesthetics a small indication of the lengths to which Annie Corbett, president, CEO and founder of Corbett Group Homes, which includes the R.I.S.E House, and her staff have gone to ensure that this home is a safe place, a space where victims of exploitation can extract themselves from what has been notoriously dubbed “the life.”
The R.I.S.E. House, which opened its doors in May of 2014, is one of just a handful of state licensed facilities in California that have been specifically created to handle CSEC placements. Its staff has been trained to work with sexually exploited minors, a population known to have heightened rates of mental illness, substance use issues, and a Stockholm syndrome-like attachment to their exploiters.
The prevalence and plight of sexually exploited minors has increasingly come to the public’s attention over the past few years, but this broad interest has not made the issue any easier to tackle. Rigid regulations throughout the child welfare system are being slowly plied back to allow for the simplest of things: providing shelter for minors who have been victims of sexual exploitation.
Corbett’s house is different from other CSEC programs in California: the youth that are placed at R.I.S.E. are still actively in the life, or being trafficked. Sex trafficking is defined by the U.S. State Department as “recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act … in which in the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age.” This could also include things like making someone under 18 dance at a strip club, perform sex acts for a fee, or act in a pornographic video for profit. Often it means being sent out by a pimp to have sex for money. Being actively in the life and under the protection of the child welfare facility simultaneously poses a number of challenges for a state-licensed facility.
“They’re going to AWOL [run away] every day,” Corbett says. “They’re still attached to being exploited.”
A victim of sexual exploitation will often relapse while trying to leave their exploiter. That relationship strongly resembles that of the domestic violence dynamic and often includes coercion on the part of the exploiter, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. It’s estimated that between 70 and 90 percent of those youth have been molested, abused, or neglected, according to oft cited research published in the Canadian Journal of Community Mental Health in 1987.
Corbett is no stranger to working with foster care youth and youth involved in the juvenile justice system. The R.I.S.E. House is the fourth group home she has opened in the Bay Area, but her decision to focus on CSEC youth was not made lightly. A couple of years back she realized her group home staff did not really know how to work with CSEC effectively. Last year, she says, she had two girls, aged 12 and 13, placed in one of her facilities who had been identified as CSEC. Within a week they had recruited four other girls and were gone. This was not an isolated incident.
“It was just too much for me to handle emotionally,” she says. “Foster parents don’t want these kids, regular group homes don’t want these kids,” she says. “It’s too much liability. I don’t believe these kids have to be throwaway kids.”
Regulations: Can’t live with them, can’t live without them
Working with this population is time-intensive and takes flexibility, Corbett says. But those are two things that the public officials who oversee licensing foster care placements have little patience for.
In order for a residential group home to accept any state or federal money and work with foster care youth or youth involved with the juvenile justice system, a facility must get rated by the California Department of Health Care Services and be licensed by the California Department of Social Services’ Community Care Licensing (CCL) Division.
The purpose of licensing is to make sure that the facilities, such as residential group homes, are safe and staffed appropriately. County CCL offices are tasked with inspecting facilities and investigating complaints under the California Health and Safety code and the California Code of Regulations.
CCL can issue fines and penalties, deny applications and suspend or even revoke licenses for failure to comply with laws and regulations. They investigate complaints, conduct mandatory inspections of every facility every five years and also carry out random inspections.
Over the years Corbett says she has developed a relationship with the division that serves Santa Clara County, but when she began the process to open the R.I.S.E. House in Redwood City she was surprised at the legal hoops she had to jump through, and says that, “each manager can interpret the laws any way they want and inflict torment any way they want.”
Michael Weston, deputy director of public affairs for the California Department of Social Services, has a different view.
“All laws and regulations are the same regardless of the office that is enforcing them,” Weston says. “There is a process in place for people who have concerns.”
But licensing is only one of many challenges in serving a population as complex as CSEC.
For example, the child welfare system is mandated to keep children safe, and a child that runs away is a danger to themselves.
But CSEC youth run away a lot, Corbett says. Given the flighty nature of CSEC, the R.I.S.E. House has adopted a 14-day policy of keeping the placement open even if the girl is back out on the streets. This window is much longer than the typical time that child services will hold a placement. This way if the youth can be contacted or convinced to return, they have a place in which to do so as opposed to returning to find their bed has been given to another person.
Funding a house specifically for this needs-intensive population is also a challenge. For example, the staff offers the girls more allowance money than traditional group homes. A girl can earn nearly $100 a week if they complete their chores and remain on good behavior. That is a lot more than what a youth in a traditional group home might be able to earn, but just a drop in the bucket compared to what they can earn on the street in a few hours.
Not all local agencies have concerns about the new house. San Mateo County Child and Family Services, which has been working to address CSEC for the last few years, says the addition of the R.I.S.E. House and R.I.S.E Program gives child welfare workers a very welcome option for this population that didn’t exist before.
“It’s truly a great resource, one that specifically takes into account their oftentimes very complicated history,” says Effie Verducci, Communications Manager for San Mateo County’s Human Services Agency.
In Southern California, Crittenton Services for Children and Families has been working with sexually exploited minors for nearly 50 years.
Crittenton’s residential treatment compound in Fullerton is licensed as a level 12, which means it provides a high level of therapeutic services and has staff on site to handle more challenging youth. The Fullerton site receives mental health funding and group home funding. Youth placed at the complex get four hours a day of some sort of mental health intervention. The youth stay an average of a little over five months. Here, unlike at R.I.S.E. up north, sexually exploited children and youth mix in with the other kids.
Joyce Capelle, Crittenton’s CEO, sees the limitations of her and other existing programs. If Capelle had it her way and could shirk regulations, she would extend placements to six months at a minimum.
“The exit strategy is not in our control,” says Capelle. “I suspect there is a lot of recidivism.”
Crittenton will take a youth back if they return to the life and then are re-placed with them, but Capelle says she had to fight for that.
“Although this population has been getting a lot of attention, we are all still looking for remedies that haven’t been tried yet,” she says. “But we still come up against licensing and engrained rules that can inhibit treating these kids. We’ve had that fight before about wanting to take back a child.”
Reaching outside of the home for support
From 2 p.m. until 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, residents of R.I.S.E. and any other youth who are being sexually exploited or are at risk of being sexually exploited are welcome to spend some time at the R.I.S.E. Drop-in Center. There they can practice Yoga, share their experiences in substance use groups, and even learn how to cook. The popular prevention curriculum My Life, My Choice is also offered.
Josie Feemster’s enthusiasm for the R.I.S.E. Drop-in Center is evident even through the
phone. As the program coordinator, Feemster says she spends a lot of time on Pinterest finding art projects for the girls; currently her obsession is allowing the girls to paint and decorate mason jars.
She also arranges one-on-one outings with the girls: lunch, shopping, movies. The guiding principal in all these activities is to give these minors the opportunity to make choices about what they do and don’t want to do.
“We want to give them the opportunity to make choices on their own, asking them ‘How would you like to do this?’ because being a victim of exploitation you’re never given options,” Feemster says.
Feemster would know. She spent more than six years being exploited and says she can use her experience to connect with the girls, to understand how the trauma they have experienced colors how they see themselves.
“They’re teenagers first off and they’re trying to figure out what they’re going to do with their life,” she adds. “Then they’re foster youth too and they don’t have all these different social safety nets. It takes a different understanding to work with them.”
Feemster says sometimes it can be as simple as just telling them they’re smart, while also holding them accountable when they say they’ll do something. Often it means putting in the time with a youth when they become interested in something. One young lady, for example, likes to sing. Feemster and her team have been working with her to find singing classes, buying her different types of CDs to see what types of singing she enjoys. Feemster is adamant that if something similar to the R.I.S.E. program had existed when she was in the life, it could have made a huge difference for her. She says, like many girls, she didn’t realize she was being exploited at first and then it became very hard to leave.
“You’re so scared and there are so many reasons you don’t” she says.
Eventually support and positivity from one person in her life, one person who she says didn’t judge her, but instead told her she was beautiful and could do great things, helped her to recognize her own victimization and allowed her to begin the process to get out.
“It’s really powerful to have someone, and somewhere to go,” she says.
And that is what Feemster says they have at the R.I.S.E. House.
“They have a huge, huge support system and that is really powerful.”
Brittany Patterson is currently reporting on environmental policy at ClimateWire, an environmental wire service in Washington D.C.. She is a former Journalism for Social Change participant.