We’re invited into juvenile detention centers several times a year. We go to speak with young people about human trafficking — to help them understand their vulnerabilities, and work with them to build skills that will help them navigate difficult situations.
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 gangs, drugs, robbery, or fighting. We hear disclosures of abuse at the hands of partners or family members. One of our goals is to help these children understand that the abuse 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.
We ask young people to think of the words people have used to devalue them or bring them down. On this particular day, they began sharing words that must have been very painful. We heard:
“Disgrace to family”
Then we ask what words they would like to hear, or know to be true about themselves. The group shared:
After we leave the center, 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.
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.”