New Publication Reveals Judges' Evolving Attitudes on Child Sex Trafficking

Runaway and homeless youth (RHY) are at great risk for trafficking, and until relatively recently, sex trafficking victims were considered criminals instead of victims. Before the enactment of the “Safe Harbor Laws,” minors could be arrested, charged with crimes related to their victimization, and punished accordingly. It is important to know that even after the passage of safe harbor laws in many states, victims’ rights vary greatly across the U.S.

RHY advocates have been working to push for a greater understanding of trauma and its impact on these youth across multiple sectors, and their efforts have changed the perception around this vulnerable population. Trafficked youth are now increasingly considered victims in need of trauma-informed care and victim-centered services.  

A new publication from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ), Voices from the Bench: Judicial Perspectives on Handling Child Sex Trafficking Cases, documents how this evolution has taken place in the juvenile justice system. Drawing on interviews with more than a dozen of NCJFCJ’s members, the report shows how and why many judges’ perceptions of this population have evolved. It also reveals how many judges are working to reorient their courtrooms to be more responsive to the needs of youth victims of trafficking.

The National Clearinghouse for Homeless, Youth, and Families (NCHYF) spoke by phone with two coauthors of the report: Cheri Ely, NCJFCJ’s Program Director for Juvenile Justice, and Gene Siegel, Senior Research Associate at NCJFCJ.

NCHYF: How did the idea for this report come about?

CHERI ELY: The idea came about almost three years ago. When I joined this team, I looked at our institutes for training judges and the type of technical assistance that we were providing for courts. It was clear that we needed a publication to highlight our accomplishments and innovative practices. We’ve done several of these institutes where judges went home and were implementing the services, making sure other judges received the training, which changed the whole perception of this population among attorneys and their system. We wanted to learn about the actions they took after the training.

Our team developed a structured interview tool and identified a group of judges who would be willing to participate. We did 14 or 15 interviews; it took several months.

NCHYF: What are the big-picture takeaways from these interviews?

CE: We learned about all the things that judges can do on and off the bench, from engaging stakeholders to encouraging professionals who work in their courtrooms to participate in training. They really need to understand the trauma aspect and how that will manifest in their courtroom. These young people may exhibit behaviors that judges don’t realize are related to trauma. They may come from detention; they may be shackled or in a detention uniform. They may be combative. If they’ve been trafficked, they may have been detained there, so it’s like being retraumatized.

NCHYF: How has this change taken place? How have judges come to see all these potential approaches they could take, beyond punitive ones?

CE: [NCJFCJ] we started looking at trauma with youth and families in 2007. We worked with the National Childhood Traumatic Stress Network and have done conference sessions, webinars, and articles together. Making sure that judges are trauma informed has been a NCJFCJ priority for a while, even before we came to the sex trafficking issue. The institutes were the beginning of that. Some of our members have led the way, too. Judge William Voy in Las Vegas has been talking about it for 15 or more years. He was on our advisory committee and led that conversation. We also developed a relationship with Rights 4 Girls, who help us better understand the topic. They stress that there’s no such thing as a child prostitute. We work with them on this issue in everything we do.

NCHYF: What’s the main thing that NCJFCJ and its partners try to help judges understand regarding child sex trafficking?

CE: The most important aspect of our training is making sure they can identify youth who are at risk. We see judges answering our pre-institute questions about how many young trafficking victims they see in their courts. Day one, it’s very low numbers. By the end of the third day, a lot of them realize they have seen it and just haven’t recognized it because they don’t have the screening tools. Not every judge can attend, so we need community members who can offer the trainings.

We also talk about treating the trauma. The judge has the responsibility to make sure everyone’s using the proper language. No asking the youth directly if they’ve been trafficked. We ask if they are safe, and the offenses under question are almost secondary. It’s important to have closed hearings, not open ones, if possible. We want them to make sure that if there are family or other supports, the case workers or other caretakers know that those people are safe. Because sometimes they are trafficked by a family member.

NCHYF: How can youth workers with expertise on trauma help build this conversation with the justice system in their own communities?

CE: Don’t be afraid to reach out to them. [Youth workers] can use this report as a starting point, and we are happy to broker those conversations. Host brown bag lunches or screenings of documentaries. Write op-eds for the newspaper. Make sure that the juvenile justice system knows this information about trafficking victims and the ways to help them.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline, a service of the Administration for Children and Families, offers free communication by phone, text, and chat 24/7/365. The National Runaway Safeline provides runaway prevention services to youth, including youth victims of trafficking.

For more insights into the connection between trafficking and youth homelessness, read NCHYF’s blog post “Runaway Prevention is Trafficking Prevention.” FYSB’s publication Bought and Sold: Recognizing and Assisting Youth Victims of Domestic Sex Trafficking, is a free guidebook available in English and Spanish.