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.”

The Child Guidance Center’s CAT Program Featured on Jacksonville News

By Action News Jax

Click Image to Watch Interview

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Mental health issues are some of the most challenging a person can face.

It’s especially true in children.

Christopher, 13, knows that struggle.

The middle schooler from Jacksonville lives with depression and has had suicidal thoughts.

“A long time ago, I was doing many bad things, and I was trying to run away from the house, and I tried to hurt myself,” he said.

Chris and his mom, Justine, shared their personal story with Action News Jax, hoping other families will recognize they’re not alone and take the difficult first step to get help.

Justine was nervous about talking to us on camera, so she read aloud a letter she wrote to lawmakers, praising the Child Guidance Center and its Community Action Team Program for helping her family survive their crisis.

The letter read:

“My name is Justine, I have 3 kids and a wife. Chris is 13, Carley is 11 and Carson is 8, and my wife’s name is Melissa. We were introduced to the CAT team roughly 8 or 9 months ago, by miss Allison a former therapist at Child Guidance, who Chris was seeing at the time. Miss Allison was an amazing therapist who thought it would be more beneficial to us for him to be put with the Cat team. We were told they come to the house and not only work with Chris but would work with the whole family. We were also told that they would also have more resources to better help my family with the crisis we were going through. They have done so much more than this. I never thought we would get the help we were so desperately needing until the CAT team came into our life. They are just amazing people and amazing at what they do. They have worked so hard with my family and have shown us so much support.”

Chris’ depression has led to behavioral issues.

With his mom’s permission, the 13-year-old sat down with Action News Jax reporter Paige Kelton. When asked about his biggest challenge

Chris answered, “Trying to get all the negative thoughts out of my head and just put the good ones in.”

He added, “Like, when I’m bored, I don’t have nothing to do, just sitting at the house, all the negative thoughts come into my head.” 

Helping Chris focus on the good thoughts, is Tashae Tate Miller, a therapist at The Child Guidance Center in Jacksonville.  

She worked with the boy and his family through the Community Action Team, which uses a wraparound approach, giving families 24/7 access to services, including guidance for parents.  

Miller said, “Kids can’t verbalize their emotions, and it’s hard for parents if they don’t know what to do, how to get it out.”

She added, “Getting that help, it not only helps kids, it helps the family as a whole.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 6% of kids ages 12 to 17 have depression and almost 8 % have behavioral disorders. 

The CAT team uses mentors, nurses, therapists and case managers.

Funding is provided through the state.

The challenges come when families leave the program and are on their own.

“For most of the kids. that mentorship plays a role in helping get them through things, and if they don’t have that continued care, it’s hard,” said Miller.

We asked Chris if it was easier to talk to someone who is not a relative.

He replied, “Yes. ​​​I talk about what I shouldn’t have done and what I should have done, that helped me much better.” 

Chris and his family are still moving toward being a healthy, happy family. 

They now have the tools to get there.

When asked what he wanted most in life, the 13-year-old responded, “To grow up and be a better man.”

After hearing those words, Justine smiled broadly, tears in her eyes.

Chris’ therapist tells Action News Jax that what Chris and other kids like him need most are mentors but local programs have long waiting lists and strict guidelines for qualification.

According to the Kids Hope Alliance, there are 10 mentoring programs in Jacksonville.