SAN DIEGO (CN) – Judges from across the country Tuesday discussed best practices for helping child sex trafficking victims caught up in the juvenile justice system, which they said should not include detention as a means to keep children safe.
Judges Angela Ellis of Houston, Catherine Pratt of Los Angeles and John Romero of Albuquerque addressed a group of their peers gathered at the National Conference on Juvenile Justice hosted by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges to discuss how their respective jurisdictions’ treatment of sex trafficking survivors has evolved.
The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges first adopted a resolution on domestic child sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation of children in 2013. It calls for judges to use their “unique position” to prevent sexual exploitation of children by working for a coordinated response by justice and child-serving systems in identifying victims and providing necessary services to “heal from trauma.”
The judicial organization also runs an institute on domestic child sex trafficking, where Pratt and Romero serve as faculty members involved in training programs for judges on child sex trafficking.
Judge Ellis said Tuesday she began to challenge detaining sex trafficked children when she realized the same kids were showing up on two different court dockets: one as a victim, and another as an offender.
Ellis said there is a culture in juvenile court of “adjudicating for services or incarcerating for services” and that many judges and officials involved in the cases of sex trafficking victims believe detention is “safe” for victims because “I know where you are.”
“I knew from working in the field that wasn’t always true. You can never assume they’re safe,” Ellis said.
She said she would never detain a child rape victim in order to keep them safe and that child sex trafficking victims need to be treated the same way.
Judge Pratt, who works in Compton, said she has used custody time for many child sex trafficking victims who are arrested on other charges and when a “public safety analysis is performed.” But she said there needs to be changes to how probation and other officials treat kids who run away, because it’s “very common” behavior for child sex trafficking victims to flee.
“Once we know her, we try not to use incarceration unless it’s necessary,” Pratt said. “We don’t use custody time as punishment, if I’m concerned about a girl’s safety I’m going to find a therapeutic placement.”
Judge Romero told his fellow judges to “get out of your courtroom, get out of your chambers” and get involved in the community to find resources to help “kiddos.”
“Let the community develop resources we don’t have so we can’t say ‘My hands are tied and I only have detention,” Romero said.
“If the only tool you rely on is detention, you’re going to lock people up without thinking about the trauma you impose on a kid.”
Romero said while kids in detention might get “three hots and a cot” referring to three square meals a day and a place to sleep, detention is not an appropriate placement.
In an interview with Courthouse News, Romero said sealing and expunging records of child sex trafficking survivors is “critical” because their records follow them into adulthood and many children involved in the juvenile justice system end up in the adult justice system.
“These are all the same kids, they’re just a little older and you’re seeing them now with prostitution charges or drug charges or whatever it is when the underlying malady may actually be that they’re still being trafficked,” Romero said.
“Just because they’re another year or two older doesn’t mean they’re still not victims and exploited kids.”
He said in his 15 years serving on the bench in New Mexico he has never seen a child charged with prostitution and that kids normally face charges for battery, trespassing and other crimes. But he said those criminal behaviors are typically symptomatic of child sex trafficking, and when courts only deal with those charges, it’s not “telling the whole story.”
“In our system, because of the amount of work that we have and a penchant for moving things through quickly, we don’t always ask that next and important question: What’s the rest of the story? Not just what did you do, but what has happened to you,” Romero said.
Romero said he believes changes still need. to take place in the juvenile justice system, that local laws need to evolve with the federal mandate outlined in the 2015 Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act which identifies child sex trafficking as child abuse, giving states the green light to amend their laws so “a non-care giver, non-parent, third party can be criminally charged with child abuse.”
The conference was scheduled to finish-up Wednesday. The National Judicial Institute on Domestic Child Sex Trafficking is holding a conference in Portland, Oregon in August.