In the thirteenth episode of the Red X Podcast, Nicole interviews Colleen Merced from the McMahon/Ryan Child Advocacy Center in Syracuse, NY. In the news, are social media posts about child abductions for human trafficking true? Leah Hartman, a new advocate, co-hosts.
Lance talks about his morning at the Apex Farmer’s Market and breakfast from the Wandering Moose, a moose brisket biscuit. Nicole reports on her recent visit to DC with Episode 009’s guest, Erin Wallin to present legislation to create better restitution for child pornography victims. Nicole and Erin met with staffers and got encouraging feedback from Senator Bob Corker’s representatives.
For many people, social media is the first place they get their news. Unfortunately, Facebook posts aren’t the most reliable sources about nearly escaped human trafficking abductions. Posts from alleged parents, grandparents or witnesses about how they and their children were followed by child traffickers often go viral. And even though they may get shared thousands of times, that doesn’t make them true.
You might have seen the story from a southern Californian mother who recounts her terrifying trip at Ikea in which she and her children were stalked by people trying to kidnap her children to traffic. Or maybe you saw the viral video of a man who claims his wife and children were pursued by traffickers in Canton, OH. He got more than a half million views. A mother visiting Boca Raton Park says her daughter was being lured away from her by another child and that authorities told her it was a part of a trafficking ring. In upstate New York, three separate stories circulated regarding a group of traffickers posing as a part of Bible study group.
Although all these scenarios are shared thousands of times and encourage hypervigilance when with children in public, none of these stories turned out to be true. Lara Powers, a human trafficking victim advocate says that the problem with a false narrative about how children are trafficked can be harmful because these fictitious stories can overshadow the truth of how kids become ensnared. Regarding the ikea story she says,“I find that it so misrepresents the dangers, warning signs and risks associated with sex trafficking that its readers and likers may now try to protect kids by watching for the wrong things in the wrong places. They may miss real sex trafficking as it happens; they may miss the opportunity to extend a lifeline to a child who needs their help. What people don’t understand about sex trafficking can prove lethal to kids.”
The Red X welcomes Colleen Merced, the Executive Director of the McMahon/Ryan Child Advocacy Center from Syracuse, NY. Colleen helps Nicole and Leah with some trivia questions Lance prepared. The city was originally named after “Siracusa” the Italian city off the east of Sicily. Syracuse is the home of the Orange, the mascot of Syracuse University. Before that, the school claimed the Saltine Warriors as their mascot. Syracuse is also home to the Carrier Dome, originally named for the air conditioning company, although ironically the dome is not air-conditioned and Colleen says that it gets really hot there in the summer.
Colleen originally started advocating for youth when she began working with gangs and runaway youth in New York City. She then began working with women, children and sometimes men who were victims of domestic violence. From there she helped lead a task force that was trying to get the first child advocacy center up and running. The McMahon/Ryan Child Advocacy Center is unique in that its services are all co-located so that the variety of providers working with a child and family are physically located in the same building. Law enforcement, prosecutors, social workers, mental health professionals, child protective services, and medical professionals in their care clinic (medical clinic) for child abuse referrals are all in the McMahon/Child Advocacy Center. Advocates at the center work directly with the youth and their family. When a child enters the center, they are met with an advocate who will follow them throughout the entirety of their court case. The team of professionals meets every month to review cases. Having everyone co-located facilitates services so that they are collaborative in response. Many child advocacy centers are not co-located, which makes coordinating between providers more difficult and can mean that a child might have to report their story of abuse to multiple people; co-location minimizes the number of times the child must repeat the story.
The Center also has representatives that go into local classrooms to teach children about personal safety beginning in kindergarten. By sixth grade, the students continue the conversation about keeping themselves safe and are introduced to information about human trafficking and CSEC (the commercial sexual exploitation of children). In high school, students use the Love 146 curriculum. So far, the Center has done outreach for 18,000 youth. Helping parents understand how to talk about healthy sexuality with their children and to teach their children the anatomically correct names for body parts is one important way parents can equip their children to be able to report sexual abuse if they ever are touched inappropriately.
The McMahon/Ryan Child Advocacy Center primarily sees abuse cases. However, sexual abuse can create a vulnerability that can lead to trafficking. Often children who are trafficked are on their own until they meet a trafficker and may see him or her as a stable support. It can be very difficult to help children self-identify as victims. Sexual and physical abuse can manipulate a child’s understanding of trust which can put them at risk of exploitation, but it can also interfere with their willingness to receive help.
The McMahon/Ryan Child Advocacy Center received a grant that focused specifically on LGBTQ youth who are a high-risk population. Their vulnerability has nothing to do with their sexual preferences, but rather the increased risk that they will have conflict within their home because of their sexuality that can result in lack of support or homelessness. For them, trafficking may be about survival: trading sex for food or shelter.
Last year the McMahon/Ryan Child Advocacy Center saw 1,036 victims. Of those, only 60% were at poverty level. Sexual abuse knows no race or sociodemographic boundaries. Fortunately, the culture is changing so that youth are more willing to speak about their abuse. Traffickers and abusers want children to stay in fear and to believe that they had some role in causing their abuse. Sexual abuse can have a rippling effect for everyone involved and can be very divisive for a family, especially when the child is abused by a family member. In 90% of the cases of sexual abuse, the child knows his or her abuser.
The Advocacy Center has a little more than 100 youth who have been trafficked locally. A large percentage of them are involved in gangs. For the child, the gang may be their “family”. Relationship with an abuser can complicate the healing process.
Colleen wants more awareness of what trafficking is and how it can be prevented. Often the signs can be counterintuitive—a child might be coming to school with their hair and nails done or new jewelry. Or they may have new possessions suddenly appear such as a new phone. These can be signs that a child is being groomed for trafficking. It’s important to understand that recruitment tactics involve the dynamics of power and control so that parents can help identify signs with their own children. You can learn more at www.mcmahonryan.org.
The advocacy center measures success as children learning to trust them and reaching out so they can take steps to recover from trauma and abuse. The psychological damage from years of abuse at the hands of a parent can be profound and may be a lifetime of recovery. One of the girls who the Child Advocacy Center served was identified from pictures obtained by Homeland Security. This young girl was trafficked from the age of 2 to 12 by a family member and her mother was also found in the picture. During the course of her victimization she tried to tell people but no one responded. The Child Advocacy Center was able to help her reclaim her life and overcome her anxiety and depression. Her traffickers were put in prison for life. She is now getting a college degree and wants to work in programming.
The Center also served a young girl who was relocated from the city. She had been trafficked for several years and was witness to a horrible crime. Advocates worked to develop a connection with her, get her job training, housing and a GED. The McMahon/Ryan Child Advocacy Center offers support without judgement and may be the first time a child has had someone reliable to advocate for them.
Physical rescue may come first, but treating the trauma of abuse may take years. Part of that treatment is helping a person understand that abuse is not the victim’s fault. Success can begin before a child has even left a trafficking situation. Success can begin with a child being a part of a trusting, stable relationship so that they can be ready to take the first steps to recovery.