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Mobilizing Professionals to Prevent Child Trafficking
Nadine M. Finigan-Carr, PhD, MS | University of Maryland School of Social Work
Nadine M. Finigan-Carr, PhD, MS, is a research assistant professor, director of the Prevention of Adolescent Risks Initiative, and assistant director of the Ruth H. Young Center for Families and Children at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. But if you ask her, she studies “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.”
Her research among youth and adolescents focuses on sexual reproductive health risk behaviors (sex), substance use and abuse (drugs), and aggression and violence (rock ’n’ roll). She’s a passionate advocate for children and youth in pretty dire situations. She’s devoted her career to research that identifies youth at risk for violence and victimization and, ultimately, works to prevent them from becoming victims. She’s currently looking at human trafficking within the child welfare system.
According to the International Labour Organization, there are nearly 21 million victims of human trafficking globally. Of this number, about 26 percent (nearly 5.5 million) are children. In Maryland, between July 2013 and June 2017, local social services departments reported more than 350 cases of suspected child sex trafficking statewide.
“These kids are hidden in plain sight,” Finigan-Carr says. She went on to say people don’t realize it’s happening, or they don’t know what to look for. “When folks hear ‘trafficking,’ they think of children smuggled from city to city in vans or boats, or Liam Neeson fighting for his daughter in Taken.”
But often that’s not what trafficking looks like, Finigan-Carr says. “It’s the kid whose parents are behind on their rent so the landlord sleeps with the young girl in the house to let the parents slide,” she says. “It’s the young LGBTQ male whose family abandons him and forces him to move out when he comes out. Living on the streets, he’s forced to sleep with multiple men for a place to stay.”
Traffickers relentlessly target and take advantage of children and adolescents like these who face extreme adversity, violence, discrimination, economic vulnerability, or dependence. Communities hit hard by these adversities, like Baltimore, may be particularly vulnerable to human trafficking.
Often, child trafficking victims are misidentified or not identified at all. Finigan-Carr is trying to change that by helping state and local officials to build the infrastructure to address child sex trafficking.
Based on their research, Finigan-Carr and her team have created an algorithm to help identify youth already in child welfare who are at high risk for trafficking using data from the Child and Adolescent Needs and Strengths assessment administered by caseworkers every three months. They’re working directly with the Maryland Department of Human Services to identify these youth and provide proper preventive services.
“If we can identify and intervene at younger ages and look for those risk factors,” Finigan-Carr says, “then we can prevent it from happening and prepare professionals to intervene with specialized services for victims.”
With a grant funded in 2014 by the Children’s Bureau, an office of the federal Administration for Children & Families, the half-dozen workers in Finigan-Carr’s Child Sex Trafficking Victims Initiative began training all child welfare workers in the state, starting with the five jurisdictions with the highest rates of child sex trafficking. These professionals are learning the risk factors and signs, and the appropriate course of action. Once the five-year grant is complete in 2019, this training will become a part of future onboarding for all child welfare workers, helping ensure that no trafficked child in Maryland’s child welfare system will slip through the cracks.
Another study, the Maryland Human Trafficking Initiative (MHTI), funded by the Department of Justice, Office for Victims of Crime, brings together multidisciplinary teams from all over the state — including law enforcement, local departments of juvenile services, state’s attorneys, and victim services providers — for similar training.
In September 2017, MHTI held its first Maryland Child Trafficking Awareness Conference, a free statewide gathering to mobilize communities and individuals in response to human trafficking. More than 300 people — from legal professionals to caseworkers, to medical professionals and the general public — gathered for a full-day training blitz on how to work together to truly address the issue of human trafficking.
On a state level, Finigan-Carr has worked with legislators to change the laws of human trafficking. Previously, the law’s definition of “sex trafficking” meant that child welfare caseworkers could intervene only if the parent or guardian was responsible for trafficking the child.
Today, thanks in part to Finigan-Carr’s advocacy, the law has been altered to include the sexual molestation or exploitation of a child by a “parent or other person who has permanent or temporary care or custody or responsibility for supervision of a child, or by any household or family member.” Now, child welfare can intervene and engage, regardless of the perpetrator responsible.
Finigan-Carr equates working with trafficking victims today to working with domestic violence victims 30-plus years ago — society at large needs to recognize what’s going on and how to deal with it. What keeps her motivated is seeing a day where, similar to domestic violence, there is less victim blaming and more support for survivors.
“Human trafficking victims are already marginalized and abused and stigmatized for being who they are,” she says. “People often overlook them as victims and instead see them as ‘players in their own mess.’ That’s far from the case in most situations.”
Finigan-Carr is quick to point out that she’s not a social worker. In fact, she first moved to Baltimore 26 years ago as a classroom teacher with Teach For America Corps. There, she saw firsthand the impact on education and development of children who faced severe circumstances. One case stuck with her — a second-grader, whose mother had HIV/AIDS and whose third-grade sister was HIV-positive, and didn’t understand “why he couldn’t be sick” like his family.
No one talked to him about what was happening. He didn’t understand their health issues and no one supported him in any way. Finigan-Carr was compelled to take action and work with him when he entered the foster care system. “He needed therapy,” she says. “He needed someone.”
Inspired by this young boy, Finigan-Carr, her husband, Sylvester, and their 18-year-old son, Jahid, now foster children in need.
“I have to be a part of the solution,” she says. “I can’t tell people to do X, Y, and Z if I don’t know what they’re going through. It gives me a different perspective being a foster parent.”
Finigan-Carr has dedicated not only her career but also her personal and family life to this cause. And she won’t quit until her job is obsolete.