In this limited podcast series, Melanie Thompson, survivor activist and advocate, leads discussion around what life can look like after being trafficked. Touching on both the challenges and the opportunities for young people who have experienced human trafficking, Melanie, in conversation with other survivor leaders, bring their perspectives to help inform and empower young people who are on their own journeys of healing. These podcasts were created to supplement the newly released graphic novels for young people who have experienced trafficking, published by the Office for Victims of Crime.
In this episode, Melanie Thompson is joined by Audrey Morrissey, associate director of My Life, My Choice Boston, to speak on their experiences of transitioning once a case has closed and the potential challenges and feelings that youth may experience. They also discuss resources to help with this transition, strategies for navigating relationships within systems, and the importance of providing youth with consistent and stable relationships.
The following is a transcript of the podcast:
For those who have completed cases, yeah, I've seen depression, fear, anxiety. When I think of being in a court systems as an adult, whether I was the defendant or pressing charges, it's a traumatic experience. So, if it takes me [00:10:30] a few days to come down from that experience, imagine what a child goes through.
MELANIE THOMPSON: Hi, my name is Melanie Thompson, a survivor activist and advocate. I’m partnering with the Center for Court Innovation on the Child Witness Materials Project, funded by the Office for Victims of Crime. The project was created to empower and support youth, who have experienced human trafficking, by providing them with materials and information to better understand the criminal legal and child welfare systems. This podcast series focuses on discussions around life after trafficking, including both the challenges and opportunities there are for young survivors.
So, today we have Audrey Morrissey here with us. She is the Associate Director of My Life My Choice, Boston. Audrey, how are you?
AUDREY MORRISSEY: I'm great, Melanie. How are you today?
MELANIE THOMPSON: I'm doing all right. So, I'm just going to jump into these questions. I'm eager to hear what you have to say about this. So, what I want to talk to you about specifically is the nitty-gritty life of somebody that just went the court system and how they would feel immediately after a court case. So, as you know, young people can be involved in so many different types of court cases, whether it's a juvenile hearing or serving as a witness in an adult criminal court case, or maybe even somebody that's in need of protection in family or dependency court. And we often talk about prepping for these cases and we talk about what may happen during the case. Your law guardian or your ADA might try to prep you for what things might look like inside of the courtroom.
But oftentimes, and you know I can speak to this from experience, they don't prep you for what happens right after the trial or the grand jury testimony is over. So, I know that you yourself have certain experiences with the life, as well as you working with children who have experiences with the life. And I wanted to know what your opinion is about how we feel directly after we've gone through this type of situation inside of the courtroom, or what does the youth that you serve feel as soon as they leave the courtroom?
AUDREY MORRISSEY: When I think of My Life My Choice and the youth that we serve and the experience of having to testify against an abuser or an exploiter, after that experience, I've noticed and witnessed a lot of the young people, they're really afraid for their safety. I've been a part of prepping young people to testify, but I feel like one of the things that people are not saying to the young people are asking the question of, "Do you fear for your safety?" Really having that conversation. And a lot of my experience with youth who've been involved in the court system, particularly around testifying, a lot of times they end up going back to the same neighborhood or the same place that they came from, right? Where the abuse might've occurred. And so I feel that that's something that really needs to be looked at.
MELANIE THOMPSON: No, absolutely. And what I'm hearing is, is something that I know I have felt when I was younger, this feeling of not prepping for my emotional state and my emotional capacity and really not being transparent or checking in with me as to whether or not this was something that I found scary, right? And that's just what the court system looks like for children. So, I guess, going with that thought, do you think that this is something your youth may have wanted to know beforehand? Like, "This could be a fearful experience for you," or, "This may make you feel nervous"? Is this something that you feel the courts are doing adequately with the youth that you serve, or do you feel like they're not prepping them at all for their emotional responses?
AUDREY MORRISSEY: Good question, Melanie. Absolutely not. I mean they might give a overview of how many times you might have to go to court, who might be in the court. But one of the things that I think would be helpful, because we know, I've seen it in adult court systems where an attorney would sit with an adult, right? And practice, right? Because in helping them understand when we go in this system, let's be real clear, if you are pressing charges and testifying, that that person's lawyer is here to tear you down and win a case, and prepare them that this is not... Right? Because a lot of our young people go in thinking their lawyers will only prep them in a way of which they think they'll win a case. You have to be real clear what really happens and what could go right and what could go wrong in the court system.
MELANIE THOMPSON: No, absolutely. And I definitely identify with that. I remember when I was being prepped as a child for grand jury testimony, my lawyer at the time was prepping me for the things that she would ask. And then she sideswiped me and told me that she was going to order me some McDonald's, and for a child that's fun. And then right there after, she switched and started prepping me for cross-examination, and that was a very scary, dramatic experience. I absolutely understand what you're saying with that. Something that I want to know. In the youth that you serve, do you see any specific changes in the first day after they finish going through that court process or in that first week? Are there any emotional changes? Do you think that them going through any type of court system testimony, do you think that affects how the rest of their week looks?
AUDREY MORRISSEY: Listen, I've had kids, after going through that experience, all of a sudden they're missing from care. They can't sit with whatever they're feeling, whether it's fear, disappointment or if they felt used, right? Because people want to win their case. So, I've seen a lot of kids gone missing from care a day or two after going through a court proceeding. Again, it's very scary for them. It's a powerless place to be, whether you're testifying because someone did something to you or you're the defendant. It's scary. And depression. I've seen depression. I've seen a lot of kids too, they might go into court with an open mind, "Yes. I'm going to do this," and I've seen a lot of them change their mind, right?
And say, "I can't do this." You know what I'm saying? And will just back out all the way. And sometimes backing out means after their first couple of experiences going back and forth to court, let me disappear so that folks won't find me. And for those who have completed cases, yeah, I've seen depression, fear, anxiety. When I think of being in a court systems as an adult, whether I was the defendant or pressing charges, it's a traumatic experience. So, if it takes me a few days to come down from that experience, imagine what a child goes through.
MELANIE THOMPSON: Absolutely. On the flip side, I'm curious to know, have you seen any of the youth that have gone through your program that have also gone through the court system, do you have any experiences where youth felt needed in these court systems and did their feelings change once the case was done? This feeling of a duty that they have, or some type of role or attachment to their, for lack of a better term, position in this court case, once it was finally closed, were there any unprocessed feelings of maybe not feeling needed anymore, maybe feeling like they were done being used or maybe they didn't fulfill their job duties properly, anything along those lines?
AUDREY MORRISSEY: Absolutely, Melanie. That's a great question. You do. I've seen it a couple of times. You have the kids that are like, "Yeah, I'm going to show up, stand up for what happened to me. I'm going to be the good witness." And they've said after the case, "My lawyer doesn't even call me anymore.” And like you said, with the McDonald's, Melanie, in your case, where folks will say, "After the case is done, come by, we'll go for lunch, debrief," right? And then they don't hear from them. And that feeling of... Because our kids are smart, right?
MELANIE THOMPSON: Right.
AUDREY MORRISSEY: And so that feeling of, "Wow, they just used me," right? And let's not add if there's any, again, going back to their neighborhoods? And facing their peers who might know, right? And they're giving them a hard time and then there's no protection, you know what I'm saying? The bullying and all of that, that occurs. And then feeling alone, right? Yes. I've witnessed that, where they felt like, "This person, I thought they were going to be there for me, and they just, once they won their case, I never saw them again."
MELANIE THOMPSON: And you know that is such a common, unfortunately, common thing that occurs. I remember my ADA that was on my case told me up and down during prep that I was such an articulate and smart individual. And a lot of people bypass the fact that these lawyers and things, they're giving you these compliments and making you feel validated because they need you for their cases, right? But she would tell me all the time, "You're so articulate and you're so smart and you're going to do great things. And if you ever need a college recommendation letter, call me." Once the case was done, she would say, "I'm going to," like you said, "I'm going to take you for lunch. Hey, let's meet. Oh, keep in touch with me. I would love to see how things are going in your life." I never heard from that ADA again, until I became an adult and became my own advocate and ended up speaking at an event where she was in the audience. Now, all of a sudden it was, "I missed you. How have you been?" That's very manipulative you know, but I could have an entire podcast on that alone.
I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about on a micro level, of the interactions that youth have with all of these different adults in their lives, the providers, the legal practitioners, the social workers, all of these things, they have these interactions with these adults immediately after their court cases conclude. And I don't think we talk enough about the shift in all of these relationships following these court cases.
So, I would like you to speak a little bit to that notion. The fact that these youth are switching social workers very constantly, going from a lawyer or a DA relationship to automatically being shipped off to a diagnostic reception center or a residential program, or the fact that from court to CPS to the program itself, you're being picked up and transported by all these different individuals, to people who drive the car, to people who do intake, to people who are your milieu staff, right? Can you speak to that instability a little bit?
AUDREY MORRISSEY: Oh my God. Let's be really clear. Our system-involved youth are definitely passed through our systems and it's like, no one stays, you know what I'm saying? It's like, "This person, this is my social worker. Okay. For six months. Now I moved to another program. This is my new clinician. I'm only here for 90 days, an assessment program. This is the lawyer that's coming in talking about the case that's moving forward, that I've been going back and forth with for two years," right? "Here are, you know, the doctor's office," right? "My pediatrician who I'm seeing."
MELANIE THOMPSON: Right.
AUDREY MORRISSEY: "Here's the psychiatrist I'm seeing. Here's where I go if I'm hospitalized." And so when I heard you say that, and I know it's so true, our young people are just being passed along from one... In the name of, "I'll help you. I'll help you. I'll help you. I'll help you." And in the end, I find that our children, when they reach age even 20 or 21, they don't even know how to function. So, our systems, whatever system it is, the court system, whatever it is, our children aren't leaving these relationships with anything solid, you know what I'm saying?
Meaning anything that will contribute to their growth, contribute to them being productive members of society. And it's really, really sad, even right down to the attorneys that they get.
MELANIE THOMPSON: Absolutely. And it contributes to the lack of trust building that we witness in direct service providers and in these programs, right? By the time the child gets to your program, they've already been passed along 2,500 times. And by the time you say hello, they already have a wall up, a guard up, a preconceived notion about what your program is going to be like for them. And we're not recognizing how that can negatively impact the growth of that person. So, I think we really need to take heed to that. Going along those lines, these are some things that a lot of practitioners and providers are unaware of. They don't realize that switching or passing along us youth through all of these different people can have a negative impact on how we are, right? A lot of people, providers, practitioners, a lot of us focus so much on the multi-disciplinary team that's supposed to help, right?
The idea that a child needs a village, but we're not talking enough about stability and having that, at least one contact or point person, that a person can really build this trust with. And a lot of providers and practitioners are unaware that some of the things they're doing to help can be negatively impacting the youth that they're serving. Do you know if there are currently any resources in place that young people can access that may help them with all of these different changes or being passed along? Is there any groups or any type of thing that they can access that may be able to help them navigate getting passed through so many times?
AUDREY MORRISSEY: Well, one of the things that I will say at My Life My Choice in Massachusetts. When our youth are assigned a mentor, that mentor, who is a survivor, is the most constant person in their lives. For instance, I've had youth that I've worked with maybe from 12 to 19, right? And I've witnessed them going through all of these systems and went with them to help them advocate for themselves, right? All the movement that you just talked about. It's proven that mentorship works. Someone consistent, Melanie, as you said. Just one somebody, right?
MELANIE THOMPSON: Mm-hmm.
AUDREY MORRISSEY: To be in that child's life consistently. And what I mean about that, if our youth, if I meet them and they're in the foster home, and now that didn't work out. They're in a program. I go to that program to see them. Now they might be hospitalized. I go to the hospital to see them. You know what I mean? Now they might be in juvenile lockup. We go to the lockup to see them. What I do believe is that we all should be working on a program that puts people in youth's lives that are consistent. But I do know this. Around mentoring, particularly kids in the system, the best folks to mentor them are other folks like myself and you, Melanie. You've been through the system. Survivor mentors, you know what I'm saying?
MELANIE THOMPSON: Absolutely. And you're so right. I would even add, just thinking about something that you just said, the first time that I was assigned a mentor, I was in a residential treatment facility that the courts had just sent me to. So, I'm fresh out of my court case. And we had to live on the facility's property. However, the unit would say, "Each of you will be assigned a mentor." And what their mentor program looked like, was first of all, it was understaffed. So, we had one mentor to 10 girls, right? But then it would be the mentor coming up, maybe once a week, to choose which one out of the 10 of us they were going to take to lunch and bring us back. There was no true mentorship there. There was no true development of a trusting relationship. On the lunch date we didn't talk about much.
Oftentimes, I can tell you, I learned more about their personal biological children than I did about building a true friendship with somebody. And although it was nice to get off of the facility, it was really just that. All of the girls lining up to fight to see who was going to go to lunch this week, right? So, I think that we need to really, like you said, ask those tough questions when we're looking at mentors and evaluating who's going to actually be in our youth's lives.
AUDREY MORRISSEY: I want to add something to that.
MELANIE THOMPSON: Please.
AUDREY MORRISSEY: The other thing we hold up, even with the kids, if they say, "Oh, I don't like my mentor. I don't want her anymore," right? And it's something, right? Because of what they've been through, right?
MELANIE THOMPSON: Right.
AUDREY MORRISSEY: What we do, we say, "You don't get a new mentor." So, to help them learn to build relationship, right?
MELANIE THOMPSON: Mm-hmm.
AUDREY MORRISSEY: And each time we've done that, the relationship, you look at it six months down the line, it's one of the most healthy relationships, right?
MELANIE THOMPSON: Mm-hmm.
AUDREY MORRISSEY: Because also teaching the youth not to just drop people that are in their lives anytime you feel like it, particularly when they have your best interests.
MELANIE THOMPSON: Absolutely. I think that is an amazing approach. And I think to anybody that will hear this, I think if they're talking about mentorship in their programs, a lot of times, because we've been passed around so much, our relationship with building relationships is tarnished, right? We already assume people are temporary. We don't see them as permanent individuals. We don't see that they actually care for us, right? We feel like they care for us for something that they need in the temporary. So, oftentimes when my mentor says something to me I didn't like, which is probably a harsh truth that I needed to hear, right? Looking back. Or, "My mentor showed up five minutes late, so she doesn't care about me. I don't want her." That's our first line of defense because we're so used to being passed around from the courts to the programs to a foster home or foster care agency, right?
So, for us, it's easy and quick for us to say, "You know what? I'm going to throw this in the trash." But I think that taking the approach that you're taking with your youth and saying, "No, you're not going to switch. You're going to work out whatever this issue is. And even if you don't like them 10 months from now, you've learned how to deal with people around you, that you may or may not get along with," not only is it an important skill to have for your personal growth, but it also is a skill that you're going to need when you transition as an adult to the professional world, right? And I think that that's something that many programs don't do. They don't give us the skillset necessary to not only grow within ourselves, but to grow within our communities because we're not going to be children forever. So, I think that's an amazing approach that you're taking.
And with that, I just want to ask you and you can answer this in terms of your own relationship with exploitation or with the youth that you serve. What did healing and moving forward look like to you or the youth that you serve during this time of transitioning and what advice can you give young people, what advice did you give yourself who are just beginning the process of their healing and emotional processing?
AUDREY MORRISSEY: Well, when I take a look at myself, it took definitely a lot of healing, a lot of therapy, right?
MELANIE THOMPSON: Mm-hmm.
AUDREY MORRISSEY: Really getting to the core of who I was, right? How I operated. Getting down to the core of issues and the messages, right?
MELANIE THOMPSON: Mm-hmm.
AUDREY MORRISSEY: Because a lot of our kids get recruited, and myself, due to the messages that I received as a little girl, right? "Keep secrets. You're not worthy," right? All those things. "Children are to be seen and not heard." Irrelevance, right? So, I had to go through therapy. I didn't have a program like My Life My Choice. For me, thank God, for substance abuse, because if it weren't for substance abuse, I wouldn't have found a way out, right?
MELANIE THOMPSON: Mm-hmm.
AUDREY MORRISSEY: And through substance abuse and getting in recovery and women who had been through what I had been through who were living productive lives, reaching out to them and asking them, "Please show me how to live." You know what I'm saying? "I don't know how to do this. I don't know how to go food shopping. I don't know how to do any of this." And so through therapy and support of women in my life, that made all the difference. I needed someone consistent to teach me how to live. And with our youth today, they also need someone consistent to teach them how to live, how to be healthy young people, right? And so the number one thing that I advise? Consistency. You and I have just talked about this. When you are working with young people, the consistency. Meeting them where they're at. No judgment. "I'm here." And don't say you understand when you don't understand, you know what I'm saying? That's a big one. If I don't get it, and if I haven't that experience, I'm able to say to a young person, "You know what, baby? That I don't know about, but I know I care about you. And if it's harmful to you, I want to be here in your corner, to be at your side, walk not in front of you or behind you, but be at your side to walk together to the other side."
MELANIE THOMPSON: Absolutely. Okay, Audrey. So, looking back on everything that's occurred in your life or in the lives of the youth that you serve, is there a point in time where you or your youth knew that you've made it, for lack of a better term, or had moved past your trafficking experience? Or do you feel like that point ever exists?
AUDREY MORRISSEY: Well, absolutely. For myself, this is how I look at it. That it's almost, I don't look at it as a curse anymore. I look at it in terms of, I was able to live two different lives in one lifetime, right? And what I took for bad, even though it was bad, I now apply for the good, meaning to help others. And so when I look at it in those terms, I don't use it that I arrived, but that's behind me, you know what I'm saying? And when I am helping victims of commercial, sexual exploitation, it gets me, in a sense, out of my own misery, right? And so I don't really focus on the past. The only time you really hear me talk about the past is if I'm working with the youth and I'm using an example of my experience. I will then use that to share with the youth.
And so doing what I do, and I've been consistent in doing this work... And I've been out of the life, for me, 28 years. May 28th, 28 years clean, you know so it's been a long time. And so I know I'm not that person anymore. I just know that. And our young people who come, and we have a leadership core at My Life My Choice, and so those youth who come to leadership, who are being consistent, they'll talk about their experiences. But because we do it in such a creative way where, without using their name, without using their faces, there might be some recordings or pamphlets made or meet with folks to talk about how to best serve young people, you can see that those young people know that they've made it out, you know what I'm saying? And that they are on their way. Because in a creative way, they're allowed to use some advocacy and use their voices in a way to help other young people. And that reminds them, "I don't live back there anymore. This is who I am today."
MELANIE THOMPSON: Right. That's so important. Thank you. And congrats on your sobriety.
AUDREY MORRISSEY: Thank you.
MELANIE THOMPSON: What message would you tell a young person who's currently involved or just recently finished going through the justice system?
AUDREY MORRISSEY: Well, what I would say is that it's just an experience. And for myself and a lot of folks like us, we very rarely come out of what we've been through without passing through the court system, and that it is just part of the process. And then encourage them. Find out what it is that they want to do and encourage them and let them know, "You don't have to go back there again. There's a way out." And as I said earlier, "And I'll walk right beside you and make whatever referrals are necessary, and I'll walk alongside you to kind of, in a sense, walk from the clouds into the sunshine," you know what I'm saying? And I always tell young people, "Listen, sweetie, if I'm here trust and believe, if I can do it, so can you. So can you."
So, we have to leave young people with hope and young people are the ones that I do share my story with. When adults, "Oh, can you come speak and share your story?" No. The value in my story is to walk a young person through my story. Number one, so they know they're not alone, right? And also to leave them with some hope that, "If she can do it, so can I."
MELANIE THOMPSON: Amazing. Can you discuss a little bit about the work that you're doing now, and maybe some of the work that you do in conjunction with other survivor advocates around the country?
AUDREY MORRISSEY: Oh my goodness.
MELANIE THOMPSON: I know.
AUDREY MORRISSEY: Goodness. Well, at My Life My Choice, I train on commercial sexual exploitation, before COVID across the country, but now, believe it or not with COVID, our training has gone through the roof on Zoom. We also have a 10-week prevention curriculum at My Life My Choice, and our 10-week prevention curriculum is used in 33 states across the country and in Canada. And so I train providers across the country on how to implement our prevention curriculum. I do a lot of advocacy. Right now, I'm working on the equality model, really trying to support and get the equality model passed in Massachusetts, number one. That's the state that I live in. And when I'm needed across the country to speak to legislators, DAs, politicians, whomever. And I have to say, this has been the hardest fight that I've been in, the equality model versus a full de-crim.
And I'd be lying to you if I said it's easy. This has been the biggest battle, probably because it's so close to home. It has been one of the toughest things that I've done since doing this work. And it's a big responsibility to carry, but I'm so grateful, Melanie, I have sisters like you and so many other sisters across the country who believe in the equality model, which simply means we all believe that no child or woman or trans woman, no one should be arrested and charged with prostitution. We agree on that. But what we disagree, legalizing the buying and selling of people, that's a hard pill to swallow, and brothels. And just to add to that, when people hear de-crim, I think most people are thinking the way we are. Don't lock them up. But I don't think people really understand they're saying pimping, brothels, and buying, that that's part of the full de-crim. How could a human being think that it's okay for someone to sell people? And here's the real hit. And if people didn't buy people, there'd be no need to sell people.
MELANIE THOMPSON: I absolutely agree with that. I think you may have touched on this, but are there any national advocacy efforts that a young person should know about?
AUDREY MORRISSEY: Well World WE is a great organization. I know that they have young leaders working on these issues. And so I would encourage young people to go on their website because they do have a space where they have young people doing a lot of things. And usually each year they usually do a conference. I believe this year, they did do it, like everyone else, via Zoom, but they offer a good space. And the good news about World WE is that they're connected, just like the name World WE, so young people should look on their website and look up what projects that the young people are working on.
MELANIE THOMPSON: Awesome. And then lastly, do you have any last messages or ending thoughts for any young survivors that may be listening to this?
AUDREY MORRISSEY: Sure. One of the things I want to say is that, we do recover. And what I mean by that, we recover from those traumatic experiences. You can be whatever or whoever you want to be. I know survivors, Oh my God, with Doctor in front of their names. Please. We can do whatever we want and why shouldn't we come together, number one. Stick together. And if we stick together, we can make the biggest changes in this crazy world that we live in. And there's space for us in this world. And find out where you feel safe, where you feel, "This is my space. This is what I want to do." Explore until you find what it is that you want to be and want to do. The world is wide open, and we don't have to let our exploitation prevent us from being successful people.
And if that means some of us come from different places, we just got to get healthy. And for some of us that means physically, mentally and do what we need to do. If you need therapy, young people, it's not a punishment. It doesn't mean there's something wrong with you. It's just about healing. I always think of therapy as a young person and young people hate... "Oh God, there's nothing wrong with me." No. No one's saying there's something wrong with you. The real honest to God's truth, anytime I go to therapy, I usually come up with the answers myself. It's just having someone to listen to me. And do what you need to do to heal. It's okay. If you look at it, as I'm doing this for my well-being, my self-care and my healing, it is okay.
MELANIE THOMPSON: Amazing. So, I hear that we have some steps for our young people that may be hearing this. You can look at websites like World WE. That's World Without Exploitation. Look at their website and join any initiatives like that. I hear recognizing that therapy does not mean there's anything wrong with you and seeking that if you feel like it will help you on your healing journey, and remembering that we can heal, recover, and be greater than our exploitation experience. Audrey, thank you so much for your time.
AUDREY MORRISSEY: Thank you, Melanie.
MELANIE THOMPSON: To learn more about the work that Audrey and her organization are doing, you can visit www.mylifemychoice.org. If you want to hear more podcasts like this, we encourage you to check out the rest of the series that covers topics just like this.