The Runaways: Foster Youth & Sex Trafficking in Houston, TX

I can say without controversy, and as a die-hard Houstonian, that the streets of Houston are not an ideal place for unaccompanied minors— especially those without adequate resources and support—to have healthy, formative experiences. And yet, thousands of children find themselves in this situation every year. The Texas Department of Family & Protective Services reported that 1,707 youth placed under their conservatorship ran away from their placements in 2017. In its annual Foster Youth Runaway Report, DFPS noted that being a runaway or homeless youth constitutes the number one risk factor for exploitation. A total of 35 young people reported having been sex trafficked while on runaway status in 2017, per that same report.

Establishing a causal link between homelessness and exploitation in young people might seem straightforward or even obvious given the lack of resources, familial support, stability, and guidance inherent to being unhoused. But unpacking the concrete reality of the situation reveals even more distressing truths. According to several studies cited in a 2013 report by the HHS Administration on Children, Youth, and Families (ACYF), anywhere from fifty to more than ninety percent of children who were victims of sex trafficking had been previously involved with child welfare services. What do we make of this unsettling correlation? How are we failing foster kids by allowing them to fall victim to trafficking?

Last week, I attended a Zoom panel hosted by the Juvenile & Children’s Advocacy Project (JCAP), United Against Human Trafficking (UAHT), and Unbound Houston, an organization centered on human trafficking awareness and prevention. One of the panelists, NH, spoke on the harrowing experience of foster care and surviving human trafficking. She pointed out that, when dealing with trafficking allegations, DFPS focuses its investigations on the child’s household; that is, the Department only has the legal authority to investigate the people directly responsible for the child’s welfare, like a parent or legal guardian. Traffickers don’t typically target members of their own households, let alone their own children. But the 2013 ACYF report noted that sex traffickers often recruit foster kids from group homes. And in NH’s case, the Department actually approved placement for her—a pregnant minor at the time—in a home with the man who would be her trafficker. Such a complete oversight shocks the conscience and makes one wonder: What, if anything, is being done to prevent this from happening?

In 2017, DFPS established the Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation Division (HTCE); two years later, DFPS implemented a screening tool, called the Commercial Sexual Exploitation – Identification Tool (CSE-IT), developed to help caseworkers identify potential victims of trafficking among the kids who come under the care of the Department. The State is taking steps toward ameliorating the issue of child sex trafficking, largely due to widespread criticism—and legal action—regarding its previous methods. However, in 2019, DFPS reported that 2,122 kids under their conservatorship had run away at some point in the year and that 46 of those reported being sex trafficked—an increase in both the number of runaways and in trafficking instances compared to 2017. (Although this could be due to improved tracking/reporting systems). Also, data shows that sex trafficking cases (both of adults and youth) in Harris County actually doubled in 2019, with no indication of these numbers decreasing. Naturally, the 2020 pandemic has had some impact on these statistics, and perhaps it is still too early to determine whether the efforts of HTCE and DFPS’s improved screening techniques will help kids in situations like NH’s. But there is still the issue of the runaways.

From what I’ve learned working with trafficked youth over the past few months, part of the problem lies in the fact that many kids prefer the streets to foster placements, which often impose strict rules and services the kids just aren’t interested in. The teens (particularly the older ones) may struggle to connect with their caregivers and advocates, and would rather be among their chosen folk in a looser, more familiar environment. Overcoming the effects of grooming is also a major challenge; as I’ve unfortunately witnessed, recovered runaways are prone to return to their traffickers at the earliest chance they get. This is where HTCE and organizations like UAHT, Unbound Houston, and Harris County Youth Collective (HCYC) get it really right: by focusing on community awareness and offering resources for kids involved with the system outside the system. 

Part of HTCE’s efforts—like those of other worthy local organizations—have involved providing outreach and education on human trafficking at the community level. Over the past year, these groups have trained thousands of people on how to recognize and prevent trafficking in their communities, established safe spaces for victims and families, and built databases for connecting individuals with the resources they need most (See: the 2020 Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force Report). HCYC’s Youth & Community Specialists offer mentorship and counseling to young people from a lived-experience perspective; they understand what these kids are going through (and what their particular needs may be) because they’ve actually been through it themselves. This community-based work is vital to harm prevention and improving outcomes for kids in foster care, especially those most susceptible to exploitation. 

It’s about empowering youth to commit to their own futures and creating environments conducive to staying on that well-lit path. That means giving these kids resources they’ll actually want to partake of, equipping locals with the necessary tools, and creating a community prepared to fight to keep their young people safe. In this way, we can work toward making the mean streets of Houston a better place to be.

$127M Lawsuit Against a Kent County Children’s Hospital and Its Workers

Cumberland Hospital for Children and Adolescence is being sued for physical and sexual abuse of their child patients. Law firm Breit Cantor filed a multi-million dollar lawsuit in Richmond Circuit Court on October 20, 2020, against Cumberland and its parent company Universal Health Services (UHS), its former Medical Director Dr. Daniel Davidow, and Herschel “Mickey” Harden, a former psychotherapist who was indicted in February for sexually abusing a former female client.

The allegations in the lawsuit go as far back as 2008. As per a report by CBS News 6, Dr. Davidow took femoral pulses of his female clients and would “place his hand beneath the minor patient’s undergarments and sexually abuse the minor patient by intentionally touching the minor patient’s intimate body parts.”[1] Additionally, Dr. Davidow “wasn’t taking the femoral pulse of patients when their parents were in the room, he was only taking the femoral pulse of patients when they were alone when they didn’t have somebody there to speak for them and when they are the most vulnerable.”[2] Patients as young as 12 years old have made allegations of sexual abuse by the doctor.

The complaint filed alleges some of the following:

  1. UHS, Cumberland, Davidow, and Harden constantly pressured staff to change the primary diagnosis of patients, chart aggressive or sexually aggressive precautions in the patients’ records, and otherwise made fraudulent and materially false statements in medical records to justify longer stays.
  2. If a patient’s parent or guardian would not consent to admission or questioned changes to the medical records, the staff at Cumberland Hospital would threaten to call the police and the Virginia Department of Child Protective Services to force the patients’ parents to admit their child to Cumberland Hospital and silence them from making reports or question decisions made by Cumberland, UHS, Davidow, and Harden.
  3. Contrary to Cumberland’s “Seclusion and Restraint Philosophy and Family Notification,” UHS, Cumberland, Davidow, and Haden frequently used physical restraints and seclusion to coerce, discipline, and retaliate against patients.

Davidow since then has had his medical license revoked. The hospital is also alleged to have been playing a money game, by moving clients around the hospital to different beds in order to increase profits. This is being done even though Cumberland does not have adequate staff, proper licenses, and resources to take care of the children. The allegations against Davidow were brought up in a group session led by an intern. As stated by an alleged victim per CBS 6 News “He had me slide down my pants and he grabbed my underwear and pulled them down.”[3] Additionally, the alleged victim stated, “I was obviously very tense because it was a very uncomfortable situation and he was like just relax, just relax and he still did not have gloves on.”[4]

The complaint can be found here.

For more information see the CBS News 6 press release.

[1] Laura French, $127M lawsuit filed against doctors, Cumberland Hospital for Children for alleged sexual abuse, CBS News 6, (Oct. 21, 2020, 6:09 PM), https://www.wtvr.com/news/problem-solvers/problem-solvers-investigations/127m-lawsuit-filed-against-doctors-childrens-hospital-for-alleged-sexual-abuse.

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

Weekly Roundup

Utah Passes “Free-Range” Parenting Law – First of its Kind

After a New York mom allowed her 8-year-old son to ride the subway home alone, her story went viral with people calling her “America’s Worst Mom.” But now, the Utah state legislature is using her story as a basis for a new law.

The measure, sponsored by Utah state Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R, exempts from the definition of child neglect various activities children can do without supervision, permitting “a child, whose basic needs are met and who is of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm, to engage in independent activities . . .” Those activities include letting children “walk, run or bike to and from school, travel to commercial or recreational facilities, play outside and remain at home unattended.” The law does not say what the “sufficient age” is.

Utah Governor Gary R. Herbert, R, signed the bill into law earlier this month after it passed unanimously in both chambers of Utah’s legislature. Critics, of course, have argued that this style is not safest for children, despite the fact that stranger abduction is rare. This story begs the question, what implications will this have for state child-welfare authorities in Utah? Will other states follow suit? You can read more about this measure here and here.

Black Students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High Speak Out

A mostly white group of Stoneman Douglas survivors started a movement after the shooting to honor the victims and rally Americans to stop gun violence. Last weekend, they took their fight for stricter gun control laws to Washington and other cities in what they called a March for Our Lives. Many citizens are lauding these young people for their achievements and bravery, but what about the African American students who attend the same school?

“I would say that our voices were not intentionally excluded, but they were not intentionally included,” said Kai Koerber, a junior. “Now more than ever, it is time to represent the diversity of our school, and the diversity in the world.” Kai is part of a group of students who feel that their Black peers were unable to muster the same kind of support as the mostly-white students have, dating all the way back to activism surrounding the Trayvon Martin death. About 11% of the high school’s 3,000 students are black.

The other students from Stoneman stand in solidarity with their African American peers, and hope that they can combine forces to shed light on Black Lives Matter in their fight. It is truly inspiring to see what these kids have accomplished in mere months, regardless of whether you agree with their point of view. You can read all about it here.

Study Finds Second-Born Brother More Likely to Get Involved in Criminal Justice System

A new study conducted at MIT found that second-born children are more likely to break the law. It looked at hundreds of sets of brothers and found that the younger counterparts were 20-40% more likely to get in trouble at school and enter the criminal justice system.

Those who conducted the study have a few theories as to why this may be the case. Parents often don’t dote on their second-born children as much as they do on their first-born. They tend to spend less one-on-one time with them and are often less enthusiastic about doing engaging activities like reading bedtime stories and playing games. Parents also tend to take less time off from work with a second-born child. As a result, second-born children may feel like they have to compete for their parents’ attention and may act out more. You can read more about the study here.

It will be interesting to see whether this study has any implications on the school-to-prison pipeline research already being conducted across the country. Why does “getting in trouble at school” have to immediately translate to “entering the criminal justice system”? Is this study biased in and of itself? Regardless, it is important for parents to think critically about how their parenting style may shift from child to child and how that will effect their children long term.