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 (September 26, 2019)

Grown-up solutions to combat child poverty

Some communities refuse to just sit back and watch tens of thousands of children grow up in poverty — a circumstance that makes them more likely to face diminished educational and job prospects, violence, incarceration and a host of health problems that shorten life expectancy by a decade.

In southwestern Pennsylvania, numerous nonprofit organizations, foundations, government agencies, schools, businesses and individuals are working to combat the effects — and in some cases the causes — of child poverty. But:

  • We have no unified plan, goal or leadership on the issue.
  • There is no single place to go to find out who is doing what to address the problem.
  • Many measures with track records for getting kids out of poverty, or reducing its bite, have not yet been tried here.

Read more . . . 

 

Juvenile arrests in Oklahoma decline

A group of local youth gathered inside a community center Tuesday night in south Oklahoma City, where Oklahoma City police Staff Sgt. Tony Escobar and other adult mentors led them in a discussion about leadership.

Earlier in the night, Escobar dished out slices of pizza. Now, he helped the students as they split into small groups, tasked with identifying positive traits and weaknesses of famous leaders.

At the end of the exercise, Taylor Wood, volunteer coordinator, challenged the students to decide what kind of leader they want to be.

“Everything that you do, you can be a leader,” she told them. “You don’t have to be a leader that the whole world knows about. You don’t even have to get credit for being a leader, but you can be a leader in every situation. At home, among your friends, at school, if you play sports. No matter what you do, you have an opportunity to be a leader.”  Read more . . .

 

Suzann Stewart: Family Safety Center is moving the needle on intimate partner violence, sexual assault and accountability

I keep a top 10 list on my computer at the Family Safety Center. It’s not the top 10 in good things … but the bad things like access to health care, high incidences of adverse childhood experiences scores in children and adults, intimate partner and family violence, education rates, high incarceration rates etc.

Seems morbid, but it’s motivational for me with the staff and agency partners who perform above and beyond daily in our work to improve the lives and health of our most vulnerable family members and friends. It reminds me that every day our partnership is making a huge difference in changing the bad effects of those statistics for the better.

Tulsa does have a top 10 nationally recognized change agent in this partnership model of co-located multidisciplinary agencies, with three trend-changing programs moving the needle: to mitigate and eradicate family and intimate partner violence, identify and more effectively treat victims of multiple traumas and hold offenders accountable for their abuse.  Read more . . .