Talking to Kids from the Bench

Judge, I love my boyfriend, he’s the only one who cares about me.
Judge, I don’t want to go to treatment. I can stop any time I want.
Judge, my mom’s in jail.
Judge, if you let me out, I’ll run.

These are some of the things judges hear every day from youth who have been sexually exploited. These statements are indicative of the horrific trauma youth have endured at the hands of those who have sexually exploited them, both buyers and sellers. How do we engage with youth in court when a child has learned, over and over again, that adults are unsafe, that they cannot be trusted? How do we speak to youth in ways that do not shame, embarrass, or further victimize them?

First, we must understand what they’ve experienced. About 70 to 90 percent of the youth who appear in offender court have been victims of, or witnessed trauma. Most of the youth in the dependency system have similar stories, and many are in both systems. Trauma shapes the way they interact with, and communicate with the court. That trauma can be extraordinarily powerful for victims of commercial sexual abuse. It is vital that judges learn about and implement trauma responsive courtrooms and practices.

Second, we must remember that commercially sexually exploited youth have had no control over their lives. Most are doing what they can to stay alive. How do we give a youth back some control over his or her life? This process begins when a child first walks into your courtroom. We can ask how they would like to be addressed:

Judge: Good morning, would you like me to call you Ms. Jones or Holly?
Youth: I don’t care, you’re the Judge. It’s up to you.
Judge: True, I’m the judge, but it’s your name. Why don’t you choose?
Youth: Okay, you can call me Ms. Jones.

Third, youth who have experienced the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) don’t consider themselves victims, and they trust no one, including you. Why would they? Judges must build trust, by being consistent, patient, fair, and real, without shaming. This is why I never accuse or ask whether a youth is engaging in prostitution, directly or indirectly.

Judge: Hi, Ms. Jones. We haven’t see you for a while. What’s going on?
Youth: Nothing.
Judge: We’ve been worried about you. Where have you been staying?
Youth: With my friends.
Judge: All the time?
Youth: Most of the time.
Judge: When you weren’t with friends were you on the street?
Youth: Sometimes
Judge: I’ve heard some pretty bad stuff goes on out there. Did you see any bad stuff happen?
Youth: No
Judge: Really, no drugs? No one got hurt?
Youth: well . . . maybe
Judge: That’s tough to see, isn’t it? Did anything bad happen to you?
Youth: *** [No answer]

The fact that the youth did not answer IS your answer.

Fourth, words matter. When speaking with youth who have been commercially sexually exploited we must be impeccable with our words. Avoid sarcasm or put downs, and don’t let anyone else in your courtroom shame, accuse, or put down. Explain your decisions and the reasons you are making them.

Fifth, accept that you will never have the whole story. Recognize that this is the long game, and that building trust and a youth’s acceptance of help takes time. Youth who come into my courtroom have the same right to respect and dignity as anyone else. Consider how hard it is for a child who doesn’t trust to ask for or accept help. Neither recovery nor trust can be forced. Sometimes trust has to be earned, even by judges.

Finally, celebrate every success, no matter how small. For some youth, getting up in the morning and going to school is a success. Not running away is a success. Choosing to walk away from an altercation with a staff member may be a success. Think about how monumentally difficult these tasks are for a child grappling with complex trauma, substance abuse and physical threats from his or her exploiter, sometimes all at the same time. Celebration of success is a vital part of judicial engagement. It shows that we, the court, publicly recognize their achievements and honor their strength.

We build trust one success at a time.

Hon. Barbara Mack
King County Superior Court, Seattle, Wash.
NCJFCJ Board Director