Podcast Transcript: Sandy Skelaney


Sandy Skelaney is a Miami street outreach worker who specializes in helping victims of sex trafficking. She talks to NCFY about how to approach sexually exploited youth and how to begin to help them.

Time: 5:22 | Size: 4.9 MB

NCFY: Welcome to Voices from the Field, a podcast series from the Family and Youth Services Bureau. Street outreach workers bring essential services to some of the most vulnerable youth in the world. But the dangers and challenges of this work are especially great when helping victims of sexual trafficking. 

Sandy Skelaney is the program manager for Project GOLD, a street outreach program in Miami that helps this population.  She says that youth workers have to take particular care when working with trafficked girls. 

SKELANEY: You can’t go out to the street and think that these kids that you encounter are going to see their situation as exploitative right away.  And so you have to engage them at their level.  You have to really understand where they’re coming from and the distrust that they have and all of the different layers and work with them at that point.  That connection needs to get made immediately. 

So before you start whipping out the paperwork, the intake forms and all of this stuff and “Let’s dive into all your personal history,” you can’t do that in the street.  The street is just planting the seed, you know.  And also assessing for the safety, like, immediately. 

Are they a threat to themselves?  Are there other predatory people around them?  Is a pimp going to pick them up from the door in an hour?  That kind of thing.  But if you know the situation, if you’ve educated yourself and you know a little bit about “the life,” as we call it, and you can speak to that, they usually pick up on that you know a thing or two and they’ll talk to you, especially if they know you’re not going to be judgmental. 

NCFY: Safety is a particular worry for anyone helping these victims on the street. 

SKELANEY:  We do not go out in groups of less than three people. So one person’s kind of a lookout person. Another person’s doing the interaction.  Another person’s recording things. You know, we have protocols about not intervening in things, calling police, all of that. 

NCFY: But Skelaney says that effective outreach to trafficking victims has to go beyond the street. She and her colleagues track runaway and homeless young women on websites like backpage.com, and they reach out to local businesses where trafficking takes place. 

SKELANEY:  We will take, we will go into the database for missing kids. And we’ll take the missing kids, on the day that we do outreach, we’ll take the missing kids that are designated runaway for our county. And I’ll copy their pictures from their posters and make a little “face sheet,” as I call it, with just the thumbnails of their faces all on one page. 

And we’ll go to the businesses and we’ll ask if they’ve seen any of these kids. We use it as an opportunity also to engage the business owners or staff that work at the motels or those corner stores and things in prostitution zones. We engage them on what they know about the issue, what they know about prostitution in the area, what they’ve seen and things like that and maybe a chance to kind of educate them a little bit about some youth being at-risk and that there’s kids out here and what to do. So business owners will actually tell us if they’ve seen these kids coming and going and stuff. And we can pass that information along to people. 

Sometimes we go onto Backpage ourselves and look for some of the girls that we work with if they’re on the run and we know street names and things like that.  And I’ve found some of our clients on there before. But if you have clients that are being exploited, you definitely should be checking out like Facebook and getting their street names. 

There’s research that you can definitely do.  Especially if you’re dealing with runaways, they’ll post stuff out in the open on Facebook about parties they’re going to go to and things like that.  You can always find opportunities to intervene with them again, either that or through chatting with them online. 

NCFY: A successful program will also enlist the whole community to fight against sexual violence. 

SKELANEY:  The first thing that I did when I brought this program to Miami, I went to all the different people that I thought came into contact with these youth, which would be all of the youth shelters, the Department of Juvenile Justice, the probation officers, Department of Children and Families, all the foster care agencies, the mental health crisis units. I handpicked them and got them around the table for training. And I said, "OK. Let’s work together on this issue."

And so from that point on, we’ve been involved in a working group together. And that’s how we maintain work with us. Because they’re jumping in and out all over the place. And we need to be communicating with each other all the time. So we work very closely with the other shelters, in addition to any of our groups down here that do street outreach to homeless youth or to substance abusing youth. You know, we have different kinds of outreach groups. So we’ll also keep in communication with them. We’ll do cross trainings and stuff like that. 

NCFY: To learn more about street outreach programs and sexual trafficking, visit the National Clearinghouse on Families & Youth, online at ncfy.acf.hhs.gov.


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