Picture the space — a cinderblock room filled with round tables, the kind with seats attached, like you might find in a cafeteria. The feel of the space is hard… institutional. The room we’re in is flanked by two long cell blocks where the young people we’ve come to meet spend their days. Today, our team is visiting a juvenile detention center, commonly referred to as “JJ” — an abbreviation for Juvenile Justice. We’re invited into this space several times a year. We’re there to speak with young people being held in custody about human trafficking — to help them understand their vulnerabilities, and work with them to build skills that will help them navigate difficult situations.
Within our team, we agree that implementing our prevention curriculum, Not a Number, in JJ is one of the more difficult but impactful situations we experience. It’s hard to walk into a place that is designed to confine children. Regardless of the circumstances, however, the connections we’re able to make, and conversations we’re able to have, are quite significant. Unlike in other settings, the children here are never surprised that child trafficking happens in their city. They’re more likely to be surprised that people believe it’s something they should be protected from.
Many of the young people we encounter come from difficult backgrounds: They tell us how they have been surrounded by, and sometimes involved with, gangs, drugs, robbery, or fighting. We hear disclosures of abuse at the hands of partners or family members. The seemingly casual way they tell us about these things speaks to the prevalence and the severity of the abuse they are often experiencing. One of our goals is to help these children understand that what they’ve experienced isn’t their fault. We want them to see that they are so much more than what they have been told and how they have been treated.
This discussion often happens around an exercise called “You Are More.” For this particular activity, we ask young people to think of the words people have used to devalue them or bring them down. The idea is to help them understand what kinds of messages they have received that may have made them feel vulnerable. On this particular day, they began sharing words that must have been very painful. We heard:
When we followed up and asked what words they would like to hear, or know to be true about themselves, this group shared:
After we leave JJ, the images and voices of the youth left inside remain with us. They are children struggling with the same issues that children outside the walls struggle with: self-image, a need to belong, figuring out who they are in the world, wanting to be genuinely loved. But the feedback we get confirms that at least for the time we were together, we have connected.
“Thank you so much for this,” one youth said. “I finally feel positive about myself.”
“Thanks for coming and sharing,” said another. “This could save someone’s life.”