It hardly matters whether the child’s been gone 24 hours or three months.
When a teen in the foster care system runs away and is found, a 2017 state law requires caseworkers to screen them for sex trafficking. They had 151 of those conversations in the law’s first year.
Here’s what they didn’t ask: “How long were you sex trafficked and by whom?”
Instead, caseworkers are using a screening tool — written by a team of experts and now required at county child welfare departments statewide — that includes a checklist of questions to help identify human trafficking in kids who don’t want to say, don’t have the words to describe what happened to them or don’t even realize that what happened to them was illegal.
Do you know the address where you were living? What does your tattoo mean? How many times have you run away in the last year?
Colorado Child Abuse and Neglect Hotline
In multiple cases, the screening has uncovered trafficking and led to prosecution. The questionnaire, also used by detectives and prosecutors as a way to work backward to piece together a case against a pimp selling kids for sex or a drug dealer using kids as mules, is part of a national effort to shut down the pipeline from child welfare to human trafficking.
Because the connection between the two is startling:
Of the 3,570 runaways who were sex trafficked nationwide in 2017, the vast majority — 88 percent — were in the care of a foster home or group home when they went missing, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
State child welfare officials are required to report missing kids, typically teens, to the national center. Girls are more likely than boys to run away — of the 139 unique screenings in 2017 in Colorado, 115 involved girls and 24 involved boys, according to the 2018 report of the Colorado Human Trafficking Council.
One Colorado runaway met the man who would eventually go to prison for trafficking her on the 16th Street Mall. Authorities were tipped off by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, who noticed the 15-year-old girl was advertising for sex on Backpage, a classified advertising website shut down by federal officials last year.
“Hi ladies and gentlemen,” the ad began. “I’m here to escort you to your wildest fantasies. I’m curvy, a 36C, green eyes, and all yours.”
An undercover officer with the Rocky Mountain Innocence Lost Task Force, a trafficking investigation unit that includes FBI, sheriff’s deputies and police officers, responded to the ad and agreed to meet the girl at a La Quinta Inn in Greenwood Village. She told him sex would cost $250 for one hour.
When officers arrived at the room, the girl initially gave a fake name and birthdate, claiming she was 18. But in later interviews with detectives, she admitted she was just 15. She had been staying in the hotel with her “boyfriend,” Matthew Weatherspoon, and had sex with several men and a married couple who responded to the Backpage ad, according to an arrest affidavit from Arapahoe County.
The girl described how she met Weatherspoon on the 16th Street Mall, and after they shared marijuana, he talked to her about Backpage and how they could earn enough money to pay for an apartment. Then he took her shopping for clothes, bras and underwear.
Weatherspoon was sentenced to 24 years to life in prison in 2016.
Running away more than three or four times and staying gone for 30 days or more are red flags that put kids in the highest-risk category for trafficking, said Christian Gardner-Wood, deputy district attorney in Boulder County and the chair of the Colorado Human Trafficking Council.
Teens who run away from foster care are at risk, as are kids who don’t have a stable home life and run away, sometimes due to abuse and neglect. “Traffickers are good at tracking vulnerability,” Gardner-Wood said. “They will find that vulnerability and exploit it very quickly.”
A 2014 federal law, called the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act, created new responsibilities for state child welfare departments. Child welfare officials were required to track and report trafficking to the federal government and improve protocols to find foster children who run away.
Colorado followed up with its own law, including requiring caseworkers to use the screening tool to assess kids who had run away. At the request of The Colorado Sun, the state child welfare department counted 188 screens in 2017 and 289 last year, more than were recorded by the state’s trafficking council.
The same law that required screening also reclassified trafficking of children as child abuse. It meant the state child welfare department had to take a larger role in preventing trafficking, as well as offering support to families of children who were at risk.
It also meant anyone who is a mandatory reporter of child abuse — teachers, doctors, coaches — was legally bound to report suspected child trafficking.
Child welfare departments statewide received information about 273 incidents of possible sex trafficking in 2017, many of which came from the child abuse and neglect hotline. Of the reported allegations, 117 cases were opened for initial investigation. And of those, eight cases were substantiated as sex trafficking and 28 were determined “high risk” but inconclusive.
Calls to the state child abuse and neglect hotline referencing trafficking increased significantly from 2017 to 2018, after a public awareness campaign to make clear that trafficking is child abuse. There were 115 calls to the hotline in 2017, and 190 in 2018.
“People are keeping their eyes out for this issue in a way they haven’t in the past,” said Sara Nadelman, human trafficking specialist for the Colorado Department of Human Services, which includes the child welfare division.
The statewide screening tool was adopted from Jefferson and Denver counties, which began using it a few years earlier, before it was required by state law.
“Whenever we have a kid that we suspect or have concerns about trafficking, we use the tool,” said Danielle Rash, lead assistant city attorney in Denver for the county child welfare department. “Even just not knowing where they are for 24 hours, we need to do that tool when the kid is located.”
In child welfare, the information for the screen isn’t collected in just one interview, but is often put together through multiple conversations and with details from the child’s case file, which can include medical and criminal records, and conversations with caregivers. The screen is kept in the child’s private, electronic case file, and often does not end up in a court file even if trafficking charges are pursued.
If a caseworker’s screening warrants a call to law enforcement, officers typically follow up with their own forensic interview. Prosecutors interviewed for this story said they often do not know a trafficking victim’s foster care history, since those records are confidential.
In the 18th Judicial District — Arapahoe, Douglas, Elbert, and Lincoln counties — a team of professionals including prosecutors, probation officers and caseworkers at the Juvenile Assessment Center screens kids for trafficking. Whether the youth is in court for breaking into a car or gang activity, the child is questioned by a person trained to use the screen.
In a perfect world, a child who is hurt “tells the first adult they see about what happened to them,” said Chris Gallo, chief deputy district attorney in the 18th’s Special Victims Unit. “That is desperately and tragically not true.”
That’s why the screening questions, and how they are phrased, are so important. “That’s an interesting tattoo. Where did you get it?” is how an interviewer should ask about an unusual marking, Gallo said. While a typical person would gladly gush about why they got a new tattoo, a trafficking victim sees it as a brand, one that they have likely been forbidden to discuss. “Psychologically, now the person who is being trafficked is basically property, like cattle,” he said.
In child welfare and at the Juvenile Assessment Center, the primary intent of a screen is to protect the child from trafficking now or in the future. Services, including mental health care, are offered to the teen and their family, and sometimes, the conversation is more about offering help than nailing down a prosecution.
“If that means I don’t get a good investigation, meh, I’ll live in that world,” Gallo said.
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