Working in Juvenile Detention

We’ve been working toward this day for a long time. We’ve talked about serving in the Guilford County Juvenile Detention Center for what feels like forever. We’ve completed our background checks, we’ve been fingerprinted, we’ve studied the trafficking safety curriculum, we’ve visited with the staff – we’re ready.

At least we thought we were.

I didn’t expect the nervousness I felt in the pit of my stomach as I walked through the heavy steel door of the classroom. My senses were temporarily overwhelmed. The grating whir of the electronic deadbolt disengaging, the voice over the intercom directing us when to enter, the crash of the heavy door sealing us in.

This is…a prison. I suppose we knew that, but somehow it all seemed less real until now. Here the kids are not free to leave at the end of the day. They are locked in cells at night. They wear matching clothes. They must never walk behind the guards. The pencils are all trimmed to about four inches…

This is not the world we normally live in. But it is a very real place, and the kids before us were equally real.

As I looked into the dark brown eyes of the boy in the front row, a deep sadness overcame my disorientation. Suddenly I was focused on this young man, wondering how he came to be in this place.

What was his childhood like? Had he sat with a loving mother as she read stories to him at night? Did he fingerpaint at the kitchen table and play on swings in the park? Did his father tuck him in at night and remind him how very loved he was?

Or, did he hide behind the couch as his mother was knocked around by her boyfriend? Did he cover his ears to block out the yelling? Did he go to bed hungry because there were no adults sober enough to feed him? Or maybe his single mother had to work three jobs, and despite loving him she just wasn’t there to help guide his development at an early age.

Is it possible that he has a strong, loving family behind him, and he just found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, making wrong decisions despite knowing better? Sure, of course that’s a possibility. But that would be a rare exception to the general rule.

We’ll never know exactly what circumstances may have led to their presence in that classroom, but when I looked in each of their eyes I couldn’t help but wonder if somewhere along the line things had broken down for them. These sure didn’t look like evil thugs. They’re just kids. And like all kids, they’re dealing with the life that has been dealt to them.

Ethan and I exchanged a quick nervous glance before diving into our first lesson. Would this curriculum even work here? Was the material too naive? Too innocent and simple? Would they just roll their eyes over these clueless, sheltered people who had never experienced the fear of growing up without safety and a solid foundation?

Much to our relief, the kids were polite and receptive. They asked questions and wrote notes on the handouts. At one point one after discussing the difference between prostitution and trafficking, one of the boys asked, “but what if they like it?”

We’ve heard that sentiment before, from men in Thailand defending the culture of abusing and devaluing women that exists there. That culture exists in large part because of like-minded men who live in a fantasy-land of denial, believing that their patronage of the sex industry is noble and helpful to families in poverty. It must be good, because the girls seem very happy.

We explained that looking happy and appearing to “like it” is all part of the job. Not much different from the slimy brand of salesman, who acts like your best friend long enough to manipulate you into the deal he wants. No one actually believes that guy really cares, right? It’s all about the money. In the same way, a sad or reluctant prostitute isn’t going to earn as much money as one who appears to “like it”. 

The idea that girls might not be choosing that life seemed foreign to them, but we could see the light going on.

This is one of the most foundational concepts, critical to understanding and ultimately fighting the scourge of sex trafficking. We must understand the circumstances that lead to a girl selling her body, even when it appears to be consensual.

Unless we change that mindset, we are literally choosing to believe that these girls woke up one morning and thought, “You know, I think I’ll let a greedy, abusive pimp control every minute of my life, while disgusting men use me like an object, because at the end of the day I might get a small cut of the profits.”

Are there cases of women consensually and independently abandoning freedom to become sex workers? Sure, it happens. But it’s almost always a response to trauma or circumstances beyond their control. An abusive home life, extreme poverty, abandonment, hopelessness, depression, manipulation, or force. Some become addicted to drugs and have no other means of supporting their habit. Does that sound like something you’d do because you like it?

Understanding the reality of their circumstances changes the way we see people in the commercial sex industry. Boys and girls alike are trapped without hope and without options, because no one has ever helped them to see their true potential and value. 

Jesus taught us to look past the “yuck”. The things that offend our moral sensibilities, like prostitution. Imagine if he had avoided the woman at the well because she was a dirty sinner. But He didn’t avoid her, and neither should we. Underneath all the “yuck” is a soul in need of a savior. We need to see them as God sees them.

Give us Your eyes, Lord. 

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