In her job as a Missing Youth Specialist with KVC Kansas, Kristen Tebow has found a way to reframe the “two years of hell” she spent as a victim of human trafficking into what she calls a “super power.” Her past experiences give her a unique opportunity to connect with the vulnerable youth she works with. “If they know I was a product of the game and that I know the streets, it’s so much easier for me to build a connection with them – we just have it. They want to talk to me when they don’t want to talk to anyone else. They know that I get it,” Tebow says. She credits her supervisor Kelly Young, Director of Evidence-Based Initiatives, as being instrumental in the changes to her mindset and her ability to transform an unimaginable past experience into a positive force for helping others. She now uses what she and Kelly call her “survivor leadership skills” to locate and recover youth who are absent from their foster care placements.
The safety of youth is KVC’s priority and it has continually exceeded federal performance standards on safety. Yet still, nationally and in each state, about 1% of youth in foster care have run away or otherwise gone missing at any given point in time. This often happens because youth miss their biological families, are upset about having to move to the home of a new foster family, or they are experiencing the effects of childhood trauma such as difficult emotions. The vast majority of youth are located quickly and safely.
When a child or teen in foster care goes missing, caseworkers update the child’s digital case management record which automatically notifies the state child welfare agency. The youth’s name goes on a list that is updated daily. The caseworkers also notify local law enforcement and notify the parent if parental rights are intact. Although there’s hardly a typical day in Tebow’s line of work, she starts each workday by reviewing this list, which has 12 names on it currently. Then she uses a variety of techniques to locate the youth on the list. She works closely with the child’s case team, as well as local law enforcement and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Youth (NCMEC). She interviews contacts and connections via phone and in person, scans social media and distributes posters of missing youth to hospitals and other locations in the area the youth is believed to be. When kids voluntarily turn themselves in, it’s often a result of this work; flooding the area with posters or calling so many people that it becomes too much work for the youth to stay hidden.
Overall, the Kansas Department for Children and Families’ effort to create Missing Youth Specialist roles like the one that Kristen and a colleague of hers fill has been very effective. Their Youth Recovery Reports show that while there were 94 missing youth in May 2019, there are just 43 missing youth in January 2020, which equates to a 54% reduction.
There is urgency to locate each youth and bring them safely home. One reason for the urgency is that, across the nation, 16% percent of the children who ran from the care of social services and were reported missing to NCMEC in 2019 were likely victims of human sex trafficking. As defined by Homeland Security, human trafficking is “modern-day slavery and involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.” The FBI estimates that over 100,000 children are victims of sex trafficking across the United States, and that up to 60% of all child sex trafficking victims have histories in the child welfare system.
Tebow’s office is based in Topeka, Kansas. While the Midwest may seem an unlikely area for trafficking to occur, Tebow explains that, in addition to being a point of convergence for many highways, traffickers like to recruit from the Midwest because youth here are often more trusting and naive than their peers who grew up in larger cities. Trafficking recruiters seek the easiest and most vulnerable targets, which often leads them to youth in foster care. While Tebow makes clear this is not the case for every child who ends up in foster care, she says that “some foster children are missing something from their lives, and they go looking for it. They are desperate to feel loved, and traffickers can mold into that pretty easily. You don’t know that until you’re already in it – and then you just can’t get out.” Tebow wants people to understand that it’s “very rare for people to be kidnapped in a parking lot and forced into this. There are no chains or ropes…traffickers don’t need that. They use psychological mind control.”
When asked what we can all do to prevent human trafficking, she says “Prevention starts in the living room with your own kids. Do what you can to develop trusting relationships with your kids so they feel they can come to you with everything. The other part of prevention is not raising entitled young men. We need to get it into society’s mind that we don’t need to purchase somebody.”
Tebow has been a national speaker on the topic of human trafficking since 2012, speaking at events for Shared Hope International, Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS), Polaris and various survivor-led groups working to end human trafficking. She’s consulted with the FBI, Homeland Security and others. Now a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW), she joined the KVC team in spring of 2017 as a Family Support Worker in Lawrence, KS while finishing her studies.
Regarding how long she is involved with a youth once they are recovered, Tebow says it takes as long as it takes: “I’ll never tell a kid that reaches out to me that I’m never going to talk to them again. I’ll let them know even through they’re not technically on my list anymore, I’ve got some time this week so we can go to coffee.”
If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
Or if you’d like to help children and families like Kristen does, explore KVC careers here. KVC Health Systems is a team of professionals who are working to create a world in which every person is safe and connected to a strong family and a healthy community. KVC offers an inspiring work culture, a commitment to employee engagement, competitive pay, a robust benefits package, a flexible work schedule, ongoing training and more. The organization provides in-home family support, foster care, adoption, behavioral healthcare and children’s psychiatric treatment across 35 location in five states. Learn more at www.kvc.org/careers.