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.

LGBT Youth Exist, are Overrepresented in the Foster Care & Juvenile Systems, and Deserve Protections

 

Despite campaigning on promises to protect and support the LGBTQ community, the Trump Administration has sought out to harm LGBT folks since his inauguration in 2017 weaponizing various policy initiatives and a cabinet of notoriously anti-LGBTQ politicians against the community. While largely aimed at LGBTQ adults, these attacks have also hurt LGBT youth. Despite making up only 9.5 percent of youth in the US, percent of LGBTQ Youth are disproportionality represented in both the Foster Care and Juvenile Systems. In a recent study of California youth grades 6-12, researchers found over 30% of youth living in foster care identified as LGBTQ. While not widely researched, it is estimated that 20% of all youth in juvenile justice facilities are LGB. Additionally, LGBT Youth are 120% more likely to experience homelessness. These youth are particularly vulnerable youth are in dire need of increased protections, and the incoming Biden-Harris administration is in an excellent position to provide just that.

The Obama administration did some work to help LGBT youth, including issuing anti-bullying guidance through the Department of Education and a Dear Colleague letter containing legal guidelines that reaffirmed the rights of LGBT youth in schools. These advancements, at the time seemingly indicative of progress tirelessly pursued by the LGBTQ community, were quickly stripped away by the Trump administration.
Trump Administration’s Harmful Policies Affecting LGBT Youth

  • The U.S. Departments of Justice and Education revoked the Obama Administration’s guidance detailing school obligations to transgender students under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 197
  •  Housing and Urban Development (HUD), withdrew two notices impacting LGBT people: the first requirement for emergency shelters receiving HUD funding to post information about LGBTQ people’s rights to access shelter safely, and the second being critical data collection and implementation guidelines for a homelessness prevention initiative targeting LGBTQ youth.
  • Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) attempted to remove language protecting the rights of LGBTQ folks to access programs funded by HHS including child welfare services and openly announced protections would only be granted to types of discrimination already banned by federal statute. In 2019, at the time of this announcement, discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity were not yet statutorily protected. Shortly thereafter the Trump administration issued a waiver to the same effect to the state of South Carolina, prompting outrage from the House Ways and Means Committee for the “intentional” violation of a congressional mandate to act in the best interests of children. The combined result of these actions was that otherwise qualified families could be turned away-with little to no recourse- from adopting or fostering youth from federally funded welfare programs on the basis of the prospective parent(s)’ sexual or gender identity, leaving LGBT youth with even fewer options for loving, affirming homes. HHS rule overturning Obama-era protections against LGBT discrimination in healthcare. The rule would have allowed the HHS to adhere to biological definitions of sex meaning male or female, completely disregarding an earlier regulation that accounted for an individual’s gender identity. Fortunately, a federal judge blocked the ruling stating that the move directly opposed the SCOTUS decision in Bostock v. Clayton County.
  • Ed Dept. memo that Bostock ruling doesn’t apply to children or Title IX cases (though the memo does state that Bostock may be used to guide cases depending on circumstance)
  • HUD allowance for discrimination against transgender individuals and youth in single-sex accommodations for homeless individuals.

Today, the Biden-Harris administration has the opportunity to step-up and help protect LGBT youth, and so far it looks like they might do just that. On his first day in office, President Joe Biden issued a sweeping executive order protecting LGBTQ folks from discrimination in schools, housing, the workplace and healthcare. Though the order falls directly in line with the June 2020 SCOTUS ruling in Bostock v. Clayton County, backlash from conservative and religious groups alike have begun, with both groups claiming their rights – or those of women – are being erased or threatened by the choice to uphold LGBTQ rights. While promises to pass the hotly contested Equality Act within the first 100 days of his presidency have recently been rescinded due to difficulties with a newly democratic senate, the Biden administration remains openly optimistic that the act will be passed sooner rather than later, codifying protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity into federal law in the areas of federally funded programs and public accommodations which are not covered under the most recent executive order.

The Human Rights Campaign has set forth a list of demands for the new administration, which includes calls to protect LGBTQ youth in foster care, create a comprehensive federal definition of bullying which would include sexual orientation and gender identity, and an end to the violent practice of conversion therapy. This is especially important for LGBT youth, considering that in 2020, of the 10% of LGBT youth that reported undergoing conversion therapy, roughly 78% of them reported their experiences took place before age 18. The practice has long been debunked as an effective method of “therapy” and instead carries an increased risk of suicide for those who have been subjected to it. Once more, this risk is amplified in youth. The passage of the Equality Act would address this as well as the neglect and harm experienced by LGBT youth in foster care, homeless shelters, and the criminal justice system. Only time can tell for sure whether or not Biden will honor the promises to push for total equality made on the campaign trail, but to those watching closely, this presidential term already seems promising.

$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.