Kimberly McGrath, of Citrus Health Network, Heals Trafficked Children

By Tina Rosenberg, New York Times

Kimberly McGrath at Citrus Health Network. Photo: Maria Alejandra Cardona for The New York Times

“Now we know they really are just extremely traumatized youth.”

What happens to a child who is exploited commercially for sex?

Kimberly McGrath is changing the answer to that question. Historically, trafficked children have been arrested for solicitation and sent to juvenile court.

Today, all children sold for sex are, by definition, trafficked. Yet some are still arrested. Most are sent to group homes. “The core understanding was that these were defiant, rebellious youth who would rebel in a family,” Dr. McGrath said.

In 2013, Florida officials asked Dr. McGrath, who coordinates foster care services at the Citrus Health Network in South Florida, to come up with a different response. She started from the premise that these children were not defiant criminals. A vast majority had been abused, which made them more susceptible to the manipulations of traffickers. And they had never gotten help to recover from that abuse.

Dr. McGrath and her colleagues looked at what had worked for other traumatized children and adapted it to trafficked children. They educated not just therapists and social workers, but also foster parents.

It has been difficult to recruit foster families, but Dr. McGrath’s program has done it — finding courageous and dedicated families who receive special training and help from psychologists and social workers. This therapeutic foster care costs less than group homes, and the children do better in every way. “When foster parents are equipped and prepared to deal with their special needs, children thrive in family-based environments,” she said. “They really are just traumatized kids.”