Social Welfare field faculty member Michelle Talley has spent this academic year coordinating a series of seminars and special events to help educate the UCLA Luskin community on the problem of sex trafficking in Los Angeles County's foster-care system.
Michelle discusses her experience and her work in the following Q-and-A.
Question: How did you first get interested in working with troubled families?
Michelle Talley: I first became interested in this subject when I worked for L.A. County's Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) from 1998 to 2001. Initially I was overwhelmed as I did not realize that there were so many families hurting with needs that were not being addressed. By the time I entered their lives it was difficult to understand the complexities of their lives. I realized that being genuine and work with the family on their terms in order to establish the relationship and begin working with them. Although working for DCFS was the beginning of my social work career I feel that it is my passion and my desire to work with families who are in crisis.
Q: You worked for some time helping children and families deal with mental health issues caused by neglect and abuse. What lessons did you learn from seeing families in those kinds of situations?
A: For the most part families are doing the best they can to care for their children, but due to the lack of resources and support they are left to do what they know is best. Most parents who have abused their children have also been abused as a child. Families of color define mental illness as negative and subsequently do not seek help to address it. Families use the terms "crazy" or "stupid" to define mental illness. Oftentimes individuals who are struggling with mental illness do not have the support of their family. Families are in a crisis and end up using substances to heal their pain but often it intensifies the problem.
Q: You're focusing this year on sex trafficking of minors within Los Angeles County's foster child system. Describe a bit the problem you're trying to address.
A: Individuals who are from families who have a history of being abused and neglected and have unaddressed mental health issues are more vulnerable to homelessness, poverty, substance use and being trafficked. According to data collected by Michelle Guymon, director of placement at the Los Angeles County Probation Department, 70 to 90 percent of children who have been sexually exploited have a history of abuse and neglect. In 2010, the Probation Department identified 174 youth that were arrested for "loitering" or "prostitution," and 59 percent of those had also been involved in the foster care system. Some astounding statistics:
The statistics confirm that youth who are the most vulnerable have histories of abuse and neglect, an unstable family and living environment, and homelessness. Also there is a disproportionate number of youth of color in foster care who are also commercially sexually exploited.
Q: Why is it so hard for these girls to escape the system of sex trafficking once they get sucked into it?
A: First the young girls are running from a home environment that is violent, harmful and abusive. This leaves a lifelong imprint on how they define family and the type of partners they are attracted to. Often times this is not a conscious process. Once a trafficker picks one of these girls up, he will usually establish a relationship where the young girls feel "love" and "secure" at first, but soon he changes to become more violent, demanding and abusive. He often threatens the young girl and she feels stuck. The young girls seems to do what the trafficker wants in hopes to get back to the relationship she had prior to being exploited. Also she feels that the trafficker loves her (and he states this to her) so she feels that she is doing this out of love and loyalty for him. The young girl may also use substance like alcohol, marijuana to numb the emotional pain. The young girls also have mental health issues that are not being addressed.
Q: Is this a recent development or has this problem existed in L.A. County for a long time?
A: The problem was first identified by Los Angeles County Probation in 2010, but it is not a new problem -- Sex exploitation has gone unnoticed for several years. Society has defined sexual exploitation as an international problem without realizing that it is also a domestic problem. There have been several legislative and policy approaches to address sexual exploitation in the last 10 years, but enforcement is lacking.
Q: Is this problem unique to L.A., or do other cities face the same problems?
A: It is a national problem. New York and Georgia also have been impacted by sexual exploitation of youth. Sexual exploitation of youth in the Midwest is prevalent at or around truck stops. It is a global problem that touches all ethnicities and geographic regions of the U.S.
Q: What could the criminal justice system or the Department of Children and Family Services do differently to help address the problem?
A: This is a complicated problem; there are a lot unknowns about sexual exploitation in Los Angeles. The current approach -- criminalizing the victim -- has been shown to not be effective. Providing treatment would be much more helpful to combating the problem. Research needs to be done to define the problem and determine the unique needs of Los Angeles County. Once we have determined the scope of the problem then it is important to determine the needs and the best way to intervene.
Q: What are you and your colleagues at UCLA Luskin doing with DCFS to help fix things?
A: The first thing we are doing is educating UCLA and other community professionals about the problem. Then we would like to develop research to help advise community-based agencies about best practices. We hope to develop curriculum to further educate students and community professionals about the problem, and expose interns to work with clients who have a history of sexual exploitation. UCLA is exploring collaborations with another community-based agency to potentially apply for funding to support the effort of completing research in this area and develop curriculum.
Q: What skills should future social workers possess if they want to effectively work for a better life for these young girls?
A: A passion for working with youth who have experienced multiple trauma, and also a desire to make a difference in the lives of youth. Future social workers should be genuine, caring and willing, and display a non-judgmental attitude when working with others. They should train to understand the scope of the problem and learn best practice models. Understanding and empathy are essential skills to have in working with youth.
Q: What results do you hope to see from your work? What will be different after you and your colleagues make these contributions?
A: I would hope that we would have a greater understanding of the problem and how it affects everyone who lives in Los Angeles County. I would like to develop curriculum to educate individuals and identify best practice models, and over time there will be a reduction in youth who have been exploited.