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G.R.A.C.E. Court . . . Providing an Outlet for Children Involved in Human Trafficking

Janice Haywood


  • Launched in 2016 by the Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida, G.R.A.C.E. Court, focuses on children who are victims of commercial sexual exploitation and labor trafficking, providing specialized trauma-informed care.
  • The Human Trafficking Screening Tool and a Benchbook guide juvenile court judges in recognizing and responding to cases involving human trafficking, ensuring appropriate interventions and protections for affected children.
  • G.R.A.C.E. Court utilizes a multidisciplinary team approach to provide comprehensive services, including therapy, case management, and vocational support, with a strong focus on collaboration to stabilize and support the children involved.
G.R.A.C.E. Court . . . Providing an Outlet for Children Involved in Human Trafficking
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C.C. (her initials are being used to protect her identity) came into the child welfare system at the age of 14, when she was arrested for prostitution. Due to the Safe Harbor Act, which protects children from prosecution for prostitution, she was treated as a human trafficking victim, not a criminal. Once she was in the system, she was assigned a therapist and participated in a drug program. She had treatment interventions that helped her with her depression, irritability, sleep issues, and social withdrawal, among other issues. This year, C.C. graduated from high school, was accepted at the University of Florida, and has decided to pursue both medical and law degrees. Her success is a result of her involvement in G.R.A.C.E. Court.

According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, Florida is third in the nation in ranking by number of calls per capita. The National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888) is a national anti-trafficking hotline serving victims and survivors of human trafficking and the anti-trafficking community in the United States.

Perhaps because of these high numbers, the Eleventh Judicial Circuit of Florida launched the G.R.A.C.E. Court—Growth Renewed through Acceptance, Change and Empowerment—in 2016. G.R.A.C.E. Court is a specialized court devoted to children who have been identified as victims of commercial sexual exploitation and labor trafficking. Judge Maria Sampedro-Iglesia is the associate administrative judge of the Juvenile Division and the head of G.R.A.C.E. Court, the first known trauma-informed unified family court in the country that deals with all aspects of human trafficking juvenile victims. Judge Sampedro-Iglesia specializes in human trafficking and understands the dynamics and what services and interventions need to be ordered for the victims and their families. This knowledge is extremely important and is key to the success of G.R.A.C.E. Court, which currently has approximately 160 cases.

Commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) is defined as "any sexual activity involving a child in exchange for something of value, or promise thereof, to the child or another person." The child is treated as a commercial, sexual object. CSEC is recognized as a form of child sexual abuse. Sex trafficking is defined as "the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, patronizing, or soliciting of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act." 22 U.S.C. § 7102(10).

Youth who appear in court are at a high risk for CSEC, so a Benchbook has been created as a reference guide for judges, attorneys, and social workers who assist children known or suspected of being victims of human trafficking. The publication was developed with the assistance of Judge Sampedro-Iglesia; Keyla Bade, division chief for the Department of Children and Families; and Elisa Hevia, a Harvard Law School student intern. The information contained therein includes such things as human trafficking street terminology, CSEC resources and contact sheet, and information on what should be done when encountering a suspected victim of human trafficking.

The Benchbook guides juvenile court judges in identifying situations that may involve elements of human trafficking and determining what steps may be taken to protect a juvenile in a dependency case or delinquency case who might be a victim of human trafficking. Trafficked juveniles may be involved in activities such as pimp-controlled prostitution, escort services, residential and underground brothels, pornography production, cyber-pornography, massage parlors, and work in bars or clubs. Other activities might include gang activity, drug use/sales, and illegal peddling. The Benchbook acknowledges that human trafficking can be difficult to identify, because it can be difficult to recognize what juvenile criminal behavior is a result of victimization, rather than criminal intent. Presenting even more of a challenge, trafficking victims may not view themselves as victims, but might instead believe that, despite repeated abuse, the trafficker is a loving boyfriend, protector, or parent. Therefore, it is important that juvenile court judges not rely on the representations made by children regarding whether they see themselves as a victim. Victims of human trafficking might also have a history of antisocial behavior and may be uncooperative and distrustful of people in authority. In other words, victims may not meet expectations as to what a victim should look or act like. Juvenile court judges are also advised that it is equally important to identify juveniles who may be at risk for human trafficking. Juveniles who commit status offenses, such as running away or skipping school, are highly vulnerable to victimization.

Juvenile court judges are instructed that they need to be aware of safety issues that may arise if a case comes before them that involves possible human trafficking activity. For example, the trafficker might be a family member or custodian who may be in the courtroom making a human trafficking victim reluctant to answer certain questions. Judges also need to be thoughtful regarding placement of the child. If a child is placed at home, he or she may be placed where the trafficker resides. If a child is placed in a juvenile detention or residential juvenile facility, he or she might be able to recruit new victims. Dealing with human trafficking victims involves many facets, and juvenile judges are provided information in the Benchbook so they can be aware and on alert as to what they need to consider when dealing with a victim's case.

When CSEC is suspected in a dependency, delinquency, family law, or domestic violence case, child protective investigators (CPIs) and case managers are required to utilize the Human Trafficking Screening Tool (HTST) (found on page 33 of the Benchbook). The HTST is designed to identify juvenile victims of both labor trafficking and CSEC as early as possible and to increase the accuracy of reports regarding the number of trafficking victims who enter the Florida juvenile justice and child welfare systems. The tool will also inform CPIs and case managers which services are necessary to meet the complex needs of these children. Once a case is identified as human trafficking, it is transferred to G.R.A.C.E. Court for handling.

When a child is accepted into G.R.A.C.E. Court, the court evaluates his or her needs and ensures that the child is referred to the appropriate service providers. The core services and provisions available to CSEC victims are: food and clothing, housing, medical care, counseling, substance abuse treatment, education and vocational support, employment opportunities, mentoring, and intensive case management. The goal of the services is to provide support in order to recover from victimization, successfully transition to independence, and begin to lead a healthy life—physically, mentally, and emotionally. It is hoped that the services and support will also reduce any further victimization. According to Bade, the managing attorney for the Department of Children and Families in Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties, without therapeutic intervention, G.R.A.C.E. Court would not be successful.

Children in G.R.A.C.E. Court are referred to the Citrus Helping Adolescents Negatively Impacted by Commercial Exploitation (CHANCE) Program for residential placement and/or treatment services. There are currently 15 homes which accommodate only one child at a time and which are open to boys or girls. The foster parents are specially trained in dealing with CSEC children, according to Dr. Kimberly McGrath, the clinical coordinator for foster care at Citrus Health Network. She supervises therapists for the victims and their families. If there is not a CHANCE home available, the child can be placed in a foster home within the specialized therapeutic foster care (STFC) system. The goal of STFC is to enable a child to manage and work toward resolving his or her emotional, behavioral, or psychiatric problems in a highly supportive, individualized, and flexible home setting. STFC foster parents are specially trained to care for children with mental, emotional, or behavioral health needs, and they receive 24 hours of human trafficking training as well. STFC requires one parent to be a stay-at-home parent because he or she must be available 24/7 to respond to crisis or to provide specialized therapeutic interventions.

Even if children are not in a CHANCE placement, they will still receive wraparound services from CHANCE, through an in-home clinical team. The goal of the CHANCE Program is to either stabilize a placement or provide a stable placement. The clinical team, which is available 24/7, consists of a family therapist, an individual therapist, a targeted case manager, and a life coach, who is a survivor of human trafficking. There are plenty of issues they deal with—for example, if they are dealing with a runaway, they try and identify what the triggers are, determine individual realistic goals, and redefine what success means to the child, which can vary depending on his or her circumstances.

To achieve its mission, G.R.A.C.E. Court was established with the understanding that collaboration is essential. G.R.A.C.E. Court utilizes a collaborative, multidisciplinary team staffing model. Staffings are held twice a week with the therapist, case manager, child, attorney from the Department of Children and Families, guardian ad litem, and attorney ad litem, who represents the child. Coordination of care makes a huge impact on the cases involved in G.R.A.C.E. Court and allows the child to actively participate and be involved in his or her own case and understand what is going on when the court hearing occurs.

Members of G.R.A.C.E. Court are also involved in a task force that has a human trafficking child planned recovery aspect, which focuses on locating children who are missing. This task force is a multidisciplinary meeting that occurs once a month and includes the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, a missing child specialist, a victim advocate from the FBI, a therapist, and a case manager. If the task force plans an operation to recover a child, it is coordinated with the clinical team, so that a bed can be made available and an on-call therapist can be available to respond once the child is found. According to Yinay Ruiz, the Our Kids of Miami-Dade/Monroe County Miami CARES project manager, this has proven to be a successful model, and they have recovered approximately eight children so far.

G.R.A.C.E. Court celebrates all successes of children involved in the court. The successes they celebrate can range from a child returning from runaway back to his or her foster home placement to a child living independently to a child going off to college with a full scholarship. Cupcakes are brought to court, and there is a reward closet that the child can pick from, with items such as clothes, cosmetics, nail polish, and shoes, which are all donations received by G.R.A.C.E. Court. "Little steps in recognizing them go a long way. We make a big deal out of it," according to Yinay Ruiz.

G.R.A.C.E. Court does have its challenges. Funding is one of the main ones, though Dr. McGrath notes that "[t]his is a short-term cost that will result in long-term savings" as a result of a significant reduction in runaways and an increased ability to keep children safely in their homes. Additional challenges include the lack of knowledge/expertise for children who are victims of human trafficking and the lack of an appropriate step-down placement when a child has successfully completed his or her stay within the STFC.

Judge Sampedro-Iglesia, the judge who took on the challenge of creating this court, states, "[W]e know these children are challenging; however, if all you have to share is something negative please do not. Do not present me with a problem without a possible solution." There is currently no other court in the country like G.R.A.C.E. Court, though it has certainly shown itself worthy of replication.