By Andrea Powell, Founder and Executive Director, FAIR Girls
Chloe* isn’t even 12 yet, but she has run away from home more than 13 times. She likes to draw with glitter pens and is obsessed with my pink cell phone cover. She’s a child. Lost in her own world, she twirled around in circles in her floral skirt through the halls of the “J level” DC Superior Court, while a judge eventually ruled to have her removed from her parent’s custody.
At 23, I founded FAIR Girls to help provide long-term therapeutic interventions, including safe housing, for exploited and trafficked young women and girls. After working with more than 1,000 girls, I have learned that many sex trafficking situations of American girls like Chloe start within 48 hours of being on the streets. In the past year, with the support of the City Fund administered by the Greater Washington Community Foundation, FAIR Girls has hired a youth case manager whose full-time job is to serve trafficked and exploited children in the nation’s capital.
Chloe continued to run away several times after I first met her that day at court. Fortunately, I was able to connect her with a dedicated FAIR Girls case manager and our partners at Sasha Bruce, a homeless shelter and safe haven for disconnected youth who are unable to return home.
In March, a media outcry over the thousands of missing girls of color in DC put the District under the national spotlight. Town hall meetings were filled with the heated questions of women of color demanding to know why their daughters are not being referred to as “critical missing” but rather being labeled as “runaways,” a stigmatizing term that could result in some minors over the age of 12 not being actively searched for as aggressively by law enforcement.
Six months later, direct service providers like FAIR Girls are working alongside city agencies including the Child and Family Services and DC Courts to implement a citywide strategy that is part of the outcome of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Task Force on Missing and Runaway Youth. This includes the implementation of the District’s citywide plan to pull missing girls and boys back into their homes and communities, including the newly opened STEP shelter managed by Sasha Bruce.
To understand what has been done and where we go from here, we need to be willing to ensure solutions are rooted in the lived experiences of girls like Chloe, whose support systems are shattered with unforeseen and unpredictable acts of life. Chloe’s father died months earlier, she was in a schoolyard fight that led to months of out-of-school suspensions, and her mother was overwhelmed with grief and loss. While on the streets, she met an older boy who gave her expensive gifts. She was flattered with the attention but still too young to understand the price of accepting these gifts. When I met her, I was determined to make sure she didn’t have to learn.
As heartbreaking as her story is, many missing girls are not as lucky as Chloe. In looking at the photos of missing girls in DC, I see the familiar faces of girls who have since been confirmed as child victims of sex trafficking.
Many people believe that sex trafficking happens in faraway countries, but more than 90% of the girls we serve are American girls of color. On average, they are 14 to 15 years old when first sold into sex trafficking and their abuse continues for four years before they receive help. Approximately 60% of the 125 to 150 young girls we serve annually are from the D.C. metropolitan area. As a repeat “runaway,” Chloe was at risk of being one of them.
Since the media storm, FAIR Girls receives an average of one to two new referrals a week of exploited and trafficked girls. While the numbers here are alarming, this is progress. Law enforcement’s focus on missing and exploited youth has resulted in girls who have been missing anywhere from two days to two years being found and connected to the care they need to recover.
However, there is more to be done before we can say that we are meeting needs of sexually trafficked and exploited teens in DC. A critical gap remains that there is no secure therapeutic housing program specifically for child survivors of human trafficking in the nation’s capital. This must be our next step in truly creating a safe haven for missing and exploited youth in the nation’s capital.
Chloe’s story is one of a child being pushed away by adults and institutions, time and time again. To refer to her as a “runaway” is to miss the point. In fact, the very term, “runaway,” implies blame and stigma that does not belong to Chloe or any child who finds themselves on the streets. Chloe’s leaving home was the attempt of a scared and disconnected child at regaining control of her life. Chloe wasn’t a “runaway.” She was “pushed away.”
Our conversation must shift from “why are they running away?” to “how is our community pushing these vulnerable young girls out into the margins of society and into the hands of pimps?”
Pulling in Chloe and the thousands of other “pushed away” girls and boys of color is a critical mission for FAIR Girls and the District of Columbia.
*Names of youth in this post have been changed to protect their identity. All facts are accurately portrayed.