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Breaking the cycle: Smart intervention can save young sex-trafficking victims

She went to Osuna, Mountain View, Double Eagle, Painted Sky, Montezuma and Inez elementary schools. She would even come and play with your kids. She stayed in loose contact with your child until middle school, when she became the “wrong crowd.”

This girl, by the time she is 15, will have a severe alcohol addiction. She’s experimenting with methamphetamine and has already had several negative contacts with the police and justice system. The child-services worker seems overwhelmed and only really cares about the girl’s little brother. Her extended family is wary of her presence due to past incidents when she visits. Within three days of meeting a helpful stranger who saw her walking on the street, she is in an east Texas motel, being sold online to have sex with strange men.

She will cry during the first one. Run away actually, sick to her stomach about what is going to happen. She will stare at the TV in the room, seeing a familiar show, but that is all she has to connect her back to home. The woman she traveled with is snapping her fingers to get her attention. There is a customer here. That’s what they are here for. Due to the meth she was given earlier and a large drink from the plastic bottle of vodka, she becomes a child sex victim; 22 days, 45 men, five states.

When police finally contact her, she is sent back to Albuquerque and directly to jail. Historically, this would have been the end of the story. Now police, social workers, juvenile jail staff, nurses, etc. are receiving better training to identify what a child sex worker sounds and looks like. Where this teenager, historically, would only be labeled a defiant drug addict and left to largely figure out her own problems, deputies intervened and were able to build a criminal case. Her case included multiple suspects, prosecutions and work with advocates to other adults in the youth system to help ensure her success.

This is what we call the High Risk Victim program within the department. It trains law enforcement to take a different approach to sex workers with a focus on teenagers who, through their interactions, are deemed at high risk of being a victim of sex trafficking or other violent crimes. Currently only BCSO has received this training. We hope to one day successfully petition the Department of Public Safety to make it mandatory for police academies statewide.

Upon release from jail, some of the teen’s only options to live will be crisis shelters for youth. Her family is deemed unfit to take care of her, and foster families willing to take in kids her age are in the minority and already full of foster kids. At the shelter, she’ll share dorm settings with kids that share her early childhood trauma behaviors and staff that has necessary, but seemingly unfair, rules about her movements and participation in activities. Eventually she’ll run from this shelter or be kicked out. The cycle will start again.

New Mexico has a glaring lack of options for our sex-trafficked and drug-addicted youth to go. The sheriff’s department works missing-person cases, and based on local and national statistics, we believe we have approximately 75 new kids a year introduced to sex work by adults. This number is based solely on the reports the department receives; it is likely much higher when you add the Albuquerque Police Department’s numbers. These are kids from our communities: they love green chile, Coronado Mall and the Isotopes. The common misperception is that human-trafficking victims are foreign. The truth is that foreign workers are in the minority here. The victims are the kids our community has raised.

The lack of housing for this group of kids is no secret. On a recent case, CYFD worked tirelessly and found a new solution that helped. They placed the child into Treatment Foster Care (TFC). TFC trains parents how to provide a higher level care of kids that might have specific needs. Simply being a human-trafficking victim is not one of them. CYFD placed her into TFC since we thought it a highly high risk for her to go to an Albuquerque shelter, where we felt she would quickly relapse and possibly be re-victimized soon after.

She has been very stable since and reports amazing milestones in her progress to get back on track with school and being able to live a normal teen life. In other large cities in the country, other programs have shown progress with this population of victims. They include large urban treatment centers that can also act as higher-level shelters for the kids. That is our end goal, and we believe it can work. We also know the time and money needed to make these facilities and resources happen can still be several years away.

In the meantime, we are hopeful that Bernalillo County can assist the kids we meet that fit this criteria, and work with the Children, Youth, and Families Department and Treatment Foster Care homes to get a more stable and immediate placement for these victims. We believe the success of this path should be a permanent solution for current victims. The long-term solution is to slow early childhood trauma, but we cannot wait for that total solution and leave the current teenagers, soon to be adults, so vulnerable.

Sheriff’s statement

“I am proud of the tireless work and dedication of our detectives. Youth in our community are safer because of outstanding efforts of the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office Ghost Unit. It is critical to have a victim-centralized focus on these cases, to better the lives of the victims and remove violent child predators from our community. As these predators lurk in our community, our detectives work diligently and thoroughly in their investigations to hold criminals accountable. This victim-centralized focus is an innovative way to fight these cases. I am proud to be the leader of an agency that has implemented unprecedented tactics such as the Ghost Unit to better the criminal justice system in our community. ”

– Sheriff Manuel Gonzales III