Trauma-Informed Legal Representation for Youth in Sexual-Abuse-to-Prison Pipeline

When we criminalize the behavioral results of trauma, we set in motion a cycle of abuse and imprisonment that has harmful consequences for child victims.

A few years ago, the Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation (CEASE) Clinic at the University of Georgia School of Law represented Anna (the client’s name has been changed to protect the client’s identity and confidentiality), a 16-year-old girl in foster care and a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation of a child (CSEC). Since infancy, Anna had experienced abuse and neglect at home. At the age of 8, she was sexually abused by a family member. By age 11, she was court-involved and on probation for an incident that involved taking a classmate’s phone and yelling at the classmate (reported as “terroristic threats”). Anna was described as an “11 yr old single black female” with a “sassy attitude.” At age 12, she first used marijuana and began drinking alcohol, and after cutting herself to dull the emotional pain of her trauma, she was hospitalized for suicidal ideations for the first, but not last, time. By age 13, Anna was a victim of CSEC and dual-involved in both the juvenile justice and child welfare systems.

While in foster care, Anna changed placements 15 times, eloped from placement on at least 4 occasions, was hospitalized at least 3 times for suicidal ideation, was detained twice for runaway status offenses, and experienced further CSEC victimization. Despite having disclosed engaging in survival sex, defined as “exchanging one’s body for basic subsistence needs, including clothing, food, and shelter,” Anna was arrested and placed in a youth detention center for runaway status offenses. She received no medical or therapeutic care, was not referred to a child advocacy center for a forensic interview, and none of the men who exploited her were ever arrested or even investigated. On one occasion, Anna ran away with a group of girls from her placement, a congregate care setting for survivors of CSEC. One of the girls who ran with her reported that Anna coerced her into having sex with an adult man in exchange for food and a place to stay. Even though Anna’s coercive actions were acts of survival so that she did not have to be the one to perform sexual acts with the man, Anna was now labeled a “perpetrator” by the system and was no longer eligible for services for victims of CSEC.

By age 17, Anna had yet to complete the ninth grade. The court returned her home to her mother after the state declared that “there was nothing else we could do to help her.” According to the paperwork that followed Anna throughout her years of involvement in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems, Anna was “defiant,” “impulsive,” “engaged in dangerous and risky behaviors,” “sought the attention of older men,” “had an older boyfriend,” made “poor choices,” was having “unprotected sex,” was “noncompliant with therapy and medication management,” and “refused to take responsibility for her behaviors.” A behavioral checklist completed at a “therapeutic” placement indicated that she was a liar, refused offers of affection, blamed others for her own mistakes, and engaged in dangerous behaviors. With no support or actual knowledge, placement staff completing the checklist also marked “maybe” for stealing, withdrawal, cursing, using pornographic materials, engaging in “seductive moves or sexual advances,” reporting foster parents for physical/sexual abuse, having temper tantrums in private, masturbating in private, acting out in church, and refusing to participate in group activities.

The records, checklists, evaluations, assessments, and reports about Anna were first and foremost inaccurate and missed the core of the problem. Underneath the behaviors and allegedly delinquent acts was a child who had experienced a variety of complex traumas and who was responding the same way any child would under the same circumstances. The court, service providers, and other stakeholders involved in Anna’s case adultified her, seeing her not as a child but as a grown woman responsible for the maltreatment inflicted on her by others. The system labeled her a “perpetrator” and a “prostitute.” However, survival sex is not prostitution, and “there is no such thing as a ‘child prostitute’—there are only victims and survivors of child rape.”

Anna’s victimization was not isolated to those who abused and exploited her: her parents, extended family, and traffickers. She was also traumatized by multiple system stakeholders who, despite having the opportunity to identify her victimization and provide her with trauma-informed and culturally responsive care, criminalized Anna’s behavioral responses to her maltreatment. So Anna fought and hurt herself and behaved the only way she knew how, to survive and to get away from the system that continued to harm her. The continuous retraumatization sustained the constant rush of cortisol through her brain and body, affecting her social and emotional development, as well as her ability to control her survival responses.


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