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USC Alumnae Tackle the Global Crisis of Human Trafficking

  • Alumni
L-R: Charisma De Los Reyes, Megan Healy, Gabrielle Aquino-Adriatico

There are an estimated 27.6 million victims of human trafficking worldwide at any given time, including in the United States. In order to stop it, its true nature needs to be understood. The main indicator of a youth at risk for human trafficking is a prior history of trauma — usually sexual abuse or being raised in a home without a real and unconditional demonstration of love. Until society stops allowing people to exploit others for monetary gain or out of desperation for economic equity, there will always be victims.

“It’s the people who exploit our kids and the people who buy sex from our kids. That is our biggest threat,” explains USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work alumna Megan Healy, MSW ’14, a supervisor in the Commercial Sexually Exploited Children (CSEC) division of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS).

Social workers are key players in the fight to protect youth, protect women, spread awareness and give a voice to all victims and survivors of human trafficking.

“We don’t have to wait until they become victims,” said Charisma De Los Reyes, MSW ’12, county coordinator for foster youth in the San Diego County Office of Education. “We can invest in prevention, early intervention, and hopefully change the trajectory that we see a child on.”

Changing a broken system

Prior to her current position, De Los Reyes worked in Child Welfare Services in San Diego County for almost 18 years. In 2007, she was working with foster youth at high risk of being recruited, approached and exposed to human trafficking due to their unique living situation — being raised by caregivers of the state, foster parents or in foster group homes. The law at that time, however, did not recognize sex trafficking of a child as child abuse or neglect. That only applied to parents and caregivers, not a trafficker or a buyer outside of the home. Law enforcement officials did not know how to work with children or even understand how a child got trafficked.

“It was double victimization,” De Los Reyes said. “Not only by the people who were buying or selling them, but also then by the state who was arresting them for their own victimization. Instead of getting help, protection, support for what had happened to them, they were treated like criminals.”

The whole mindset needed to shift. De Los Reyes began advocating case by case for children caught up in this hypocrisy. In California, a child under the age of 18 cannot consent to sex or consent to be sold for sex, yet the law did not give her authority to help or provide resources for her clients who were minors. De Los Reyes began looking at her cases differently, describing these children as victims of sexual abuse or sexual assault. In this way, she could provide them access to resources and services within the state that they desperately needed.

“If we didn’t call it sex trafficking, it was still rape, or sexual assault,” she said. “Then we could make referrals to community-based providers or internal services for therapy.” De Los Reyes shared her “work around” procedure with social work colleagues, who began implementing the same to their cases. There was still a huge learning curve for the providers as they were not trained to identify, or therapeutically treat, these victims that had been sold over and over. But, it was a start.

Fierce advocacy by social workers and others, including De Los Reyes, over the next few years finally resulted in a groundbreaking change to California laws in 2016, decriminalizing any child under the age of 18 involved in sex trafficking and recognizing it as commercial sexual exploitation. “It changed to everything it should have been,” De Los Reyes said.

The state of California also established a fund to specifically address the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), requiring specialized social workers to assist law enforcement on these cases. It finally allowed social workers like De Los Reyes the ability to create protocols and procedures for cases involving youth that had been trafficked, and inter-agency agreements with law enforcement to have trauma-informed responses in these cases. De Los Reyes established the first CSEC program for San Diego County.

As a result of this change to California law, Healy is a specially trained social worker in a CSEC division that works with the human trafficking task force out of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department in Monterey Park. She leads a team of four case managers working directly with the task force to assist in trying to get convictions on the perpetrators and the exploiters, as well as providing continuing services for youth who have been involved in human trafficking. Whatever these youth need, Healy’s team is there to support them, including medical care, referrals to mental health specialists and enrollment in school. Whatever a court mandates is necessary for a youth to begin recovery for their victimization at the hand of a trafficker, Healy’s team ensures it gets done.

When a youth is identified as a victim or possible victim of human trafficking within her area of Los Angeles, their case is assigned to the CSEC unit. Healy and her team of case managers, trained in intensive trauma responses, practice a harm-reduction model which helps them meet the youth where they are, then provide them with various services to ensure they are safe and on the right path for recovery.

“All of our workers have a higher level of commitment,” Healy said. “They’re going through a lot of trauma with the kids, vicarious trauma as well. Sometimes the kids aren’t that nice to them, but they are willing to understand what has happened in their lives, and continue working with them, continue trying above and beyond to stabilize their lives.”

She often witnesses a desire from service providers for the kids to be grateful or sympathetic for the help they are being provided, but she does not believe this should be expected.

”They don’t need to ever thank any of us,” Healy stressed. “This is what we should be doing. We should have prevented it in the first place, and we darn sure should be taking care of them now.”

Addressing needs beyond our borders

In the summer of 2016, Gabrielle Aquino-Adriatico, MSW’15, went on a group trip to Thailand, led by a strong advocate for women’s rights who partnered their group with a local nonprofit working with survivors of human trafficking. Aquino-Adriatico and her friends immediately felt a connection with them. Now, they all call each other ‘sisters.’

Upon their return to the U.S., the group decided they had to find a way to build on the relationships they had formed with these Thai survivors, and founded the nonprofit Together We Liberate.

“A lot of the sisters we worked with shared their dreams with us,” Aquino-Adriatico said. “We looked at the strengths we each had and figured out how to use them together. We really tapped into multiple communities sharing the stories and the heart behind our sisters and what they wanted to do, and it catapulted from there.”

Together We Liberate raises scholarship funds for youth in Thailand and Southeast Asia who are at risk for entering the human trafficking industry. A local survivor serves as a partner on the ground, determined to mentor and care for local kids who are at risk and provide opportunities for them to attend school instead. Aquino-Adriatico says the scholarships help address a key barrier for these women by providing tuition and books, as well as a monthly stipend for housing and expenses to help them stay in school.

The survivors in Thailand lead the initiative and Together We Liberate empowers them with initial resources that eventually help them create their own programs. One survivor started an after-school program, another started her own nonprofit.

“I think it just shows we as social workers can’t work in silos,” Aquino-Adriatico said. “We have to really be embedded in the community and in different communities. We have to work together to collaborate to really make meaningful change.”

Aquino-Adriatico says there are so many barriers to breaking out of poverty and systemically the odds are against these women who are in survival mode. These systemic barriers take away the choice of living any life outside of the sex trafficking industry. She is happy to report that all of the students that have gone through Together We Liberate’s program have graduated and many have then enrolled in vocational schools. They are now mechanics, teachers, one is an aspiring dancer, another a singer. She is disrupting the cycle.

Continuing to address a crisis at the state, federal and international levels

In order to protect youth, Healy says the culture that allows for abuse and brutalization of children that leads to trafficking needs to change. Further laws and protocols should be focused on keeping the typically male perpetrators from enacting abuse through trafficking.

“If we want to change it or stop it, we need to get services to the people who are the perpetrators,” Healy said. “Be it the exploiters or the people who buy the sex. Because if we don’t stop them, it’s a vicious cycle.”

Healy’s team at CSEC also constantly advocates for the youth they are protecting to be heard. Often their stories are misrepresented when they go to court, and things they have done or said while under the imposing grip of a trafficker are used against them without an understanding of the impetus for how or why a youth would be lured into being trafficked.

“It’s the kid that was abused their whole life that no one listened to, and no one showed them a safe space,” Healy said. “Then they thought they found someone who was safe, but who then brutalized them more. That’s what it is. It’s not somebody that you’re afraid of following you around in Target.”

De Los Reyes’ tenacity changed the way the state and local authorities view and legislate for children impacted by trafficking. She created policies, liaised with the state, and spearheaded an effort to work with the education system in San Diego for earlier identification and intervention. San Diego County now has reporting protocols in schools. In her current role with the San Diego County Office of Education she partners directly with child welfare services and other major local partners in support of 42 school districts with initiatives to help schools with human trafficking prevention education.

She also leads Project Safe From Exploitation (SaFE), which educates and empowers staff, students and school communities to recognize signs of human trafficking, understand its widespread effects, and provide a safety protocol for schools to report concerns and connect students quickly to appropriate services and continued support. De Los Reyes is now connecting this work to changing the system at the federal level.

“We’re giving the Federal government a lot of good information on the realities of trafficking intervention education, especially when it comes to competing demands on the initiatives within schools,” De Los Reyes said.

Aquino-Adriatico is currently pursuing her PhD in social work while also teaching a course on women’s issues, bringing her experience of working with survivors of trafficking to her students. She emphasizes the use of healing-centered engagement and a trauma-informed lens when working with survivors, and how social workers can address power dynamics and analyze systems that perpetuate or support the systemic inequities that enable the human trafficking industry to thrive.

Her eventual goal is to conduct research with survivors that is centered on their voices and communities, and is culturally embedded in every aspect. She wants to inform policy, programs and organizations that work with survivors of trafficking to be intentionally survivor-led.

"My sisters [in Thailand] used to describe themselves as victims of human trafficking,” Aquino-Adriatico said. “Now they describe themselves as survivors of trafficking, which I think is a big identity shift and it shows where they are in the healing process.”

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