In Texas, the foster care system is failing the vulnerable children it’s meant to protect, leaving them without a safe place to live. Many end up on the streets or in jail, which is one of the few places where they can receive treatment services. This week we look into the crisis in foster care, and efforts to fix it. Credit: Michael I Schiller/Reveal

In Texas, the foster care system is failing the vulnerable children it’s meant to protect, leaving many without a safe place to live. Foster children often end up on the streets or in jail, which is one of the few places where they can receive treatment services. In this episode, which originally aired in July 2017, we look into the crisis in foster care, and efforts to fix it.

Jean grew up in a home unfit for a child. Her mother struggled with drug addiction, and her father was abusive. Eventually, the state of Texas stepped in and put Jean in foster care. She was hopeful that her life would change for the better, but it didn’t. Jean ended up in more danger than she faced at home. Through Jean’s story, the Texas Tribune’s Edgar Walters exposes the problems with the state’s child welfare system and why efforts to reform it have gone nowhere. Kids by the thousands are adrift in Texas’ foster care system, and they often end up on the street where sex traffickers exploit them.

Many young victims of sex trafficking in Texas get trapped in a cycle. They’re miserable in foster care so they run away to the streets, where they sell sex to survive. Then they run from that dangerous situation back to foster care. Many of them eventually have run-ins with law enforcement and end up in jail. Ironically, this is one of the few places where the state provides treatment programs aimed at helping kids who’ve been trafficked. The Texas Tribune’s Neena Satija introduces us to a former sex worker who is helping young women change the trajectory of their lives from behind bars.

Finally, we visit Minnesota, where police are taking a different approach to fighting sex trafficking. Instead of treating young prostitutes as criminals, they’re treating them as victims. With help from our partners at APM Reports, we meet a police officer and a young woman he arrested. Through a series of conversations with her, he was able to develop a method for getting exploited kids off the streets, and keeping them off.


Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The John S. And James L. Knight Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Reveal is a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.


Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal’s radio stories is the audio.

 Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 – 00:18:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)
Al Letson:The best way to get all of our stories without anything in between is just an e-mail in your inbox. Our investigations change laws, minds, and, sure, we’d like to say it, the world. Be among the first to read them. To sign up, just text “newsletter” to 63735. Again, text the word “newsletter” to 63735. I’ll see you in your inbox.
From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is “Reveal.” I’m Al Letson.
Reporter Edgar Walters spent a good part of 2016 trying to reach a woman named Jean Hall.
Edgar Walters:I have been trying to reach Jean. I think I understand she may be in Paris, Texas, these days. Have you …
Speaker 1:Yeah. She was.
Edgar Walters:Oh, God.
Speaker 1:Through Facebook, she connected to me through Facebook, but now it’s been probably … I want to say six months or more since I’ve seen her on Facebook.
Al Letson:He tried her friends, he tried her uncle. Finally, he got in touch with her lawyer.


Edgar Walters:Did you end up meeting with Jean Hall?


Speaker 2:Yes, I did. I told her that you had called and gave her your information.


Edgar Walters:Okay.


Al Letson:Edgar was working on a story about the child welfare system in Texas and he’d found Jean’s story buried in thousands of pages of court documents. He wanted to talk to her in person about what she’s been through.


Edgar Walters:Gauging from her reaction, did it seem like she was interested in talking or [crosstalk 00:01:33]?


Speaker 2:It was hard to say.


Edgar Walters:Jean’s a pretty damaged young woman.


Al Letson:Finally, after four months, Edgar finds out Jean is living with her mom in a trailer park. It turns out, they do live right on the edge of Paris, Texas, a sleepy rural town near the border with Oklahoma. To Edgar’s surprise, Jean invites him to come visit.


Jean Hall:I was telling my mom, because, at first, I wasn’t going to call y’all back.


Al Letson:Jean’s got pale skin and freckles. She’s slender and so small, she almost disappears into the big blue arm chair in her living room. For months, she’s been afraid to talk, but, now that she and Edgar are face to face, she seems ready to open up.


Jean Hall:I was in there telling my mom, I’m like, “Man, I’m 21 years old and I still, to this day, have … Everything just gets piled back up and piled back up and piled back up.


Al Letson:Everything that Jean has been through comes back to her traumatic childhood and a child welfare system that failed to help her. It’s a difficult story to hear, and not appropriate for all listeners.


But Jean is still trying to be positive. She shows Edgar her tattoos.


Jean Hall:I have this on my ankle. It’s cherry hearts, one for each one of my kids. Then, I have my daughter’s name on my back.


Al Letson:She’s planning on getting another tattoo of the word “love.”


Jean Hall:Love just represents everything that I’ve been through. I still have the heart of gold.


Al Letson:The state has been a part of Jean’s life for almost 10 years, but she sees her time in foster care as especially damaging. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of kids are adrift in foster care, many in Texas. Every week, more than 30 kids run away from foster care here. A lot of them end up on the street, and find themselves forced to sell sex to survive.


We first brought you this story in 2017. Our partners at the Texas Tribune have been investigating why so many foster kids end up being exploited by traffickers, and how the child welfare system fails kids like Jean.


Jean Hall:You’re not protecting me, you’re not protecting my family. Child Protective Services, they’re not there for the children. They damage us more than they help us.


Al Letson:Edgar Walters of the Texas Tribune picks up Jean’s story.


Edgar Walters:Jean rocks slowly back and forth in her chair as she opens up. She smokes a cigarette and gets up every few minutes to shoo away one of her cats. Her mom mostly stays in the other room, except to check in on her a couple of times.


Jean Hall:Love you, mama.


Speaker 3:Love you, too, baby.


Edgar Walters:Even as our conversation takes a dark turn, Jean stays upbeat. She laughs a lot during our interview, but that abruptly changes when I bring up one thing: her dad.


Jean Hall:My dad was … We were close. He drove a school bus for the school that I went to. I rode the school bus to school with him, I rode the school bus home with him.


Edgar Walters:Jean’s parents were separated. She’d lived with her mom when she was young but her mom struggled with drug addiction, so Jean moved in with her dad when she was nine. No one ever imagined what would happen next. Her father pulled her out of school and, over the next five years, he raped her repeatedly. Eventually, he got her pregnant.


Jean Hall:I …


Edgar Walters:It’s hard for Jean to talk about.


Jean Hall:Oh, I lost my train of thought.


Neena Satija:I know. We’re sorry. You were saying that …


Edgar Walters:My colleague, Neena Satija, tries to apologize for bringing back all those memories, but it’s Jean who reassures us.


Jean Hall:No, you’re fine. You’re fine. It’s okay.


Edgar Walters:Jean gave birth to a baby girl in July 2009. She was 13. Child Protective Services, or CPS, came to investigate her pregnancy a few times, but Jean says, whenever they questioned her, her dad was close by. She was too afraid to say anything. It took a year before she got the courage to go to the police. They immediately called CPS, and Jean and her daughter, Bridget, were placed in a foster home together.


Jean Hall:I wanted to think that CPS was actually going to be there for me and do something good for me, and they didn’t.


Edgar Walters:I should explain something here. Texas handles foster care differently than any other state in the country by splitting kids into two categories. One is for temporary care. Those kids will probably go back to their families or be adopted. They get a lawyer, a special advocate, and regular hearings in front of a judge. Jean was in a different category called “permanent managing conservatorship,” or PMC. The key word is “permanent.”


Jean Hall:Us PMC girls, or PMC kids period, we’re there until we turn 18. It was like CPS didn’t want to … They didn’t want to make it any better for us, or they didn’t want to make us feel like we were at home.


Edgar Walters:These kids don’t go back to their families. Most of them don’t get a lawyer or advocate and, oftentimes, they bounce between at least five different placements in foster care. In just two years, Jean and Bridget stayed with three foster families. Then, they were moved to a short term shelter, and, after that, to a group home with about a dozen other kids.


Alicia Fry:You read those children’s files and you just cannot believe that they are still standing on this earth after what they’ve experienced.


Edgar Walters:That’s Alicia Fry, who runs the group home where Jean stayed. She remembers Jean’s struggles, and what pushed her over the edge. We’ll never know the full story but, while Jean was in foster care, CPS decided to take her daughter, Bridget, away from her.


Jean Hall:I began to have suicidal thoughts.


Edgar Walters:Jean felt like CPS had failed her. She remembered how her dad had stopped her from reporting him for years, through manipulation and threats.


Jean Hall:My dad used to tell me, “Yeah, you can go tell what’s going on, but CPS is going to take you. They’re going to take your daughter from you.” Exactly what my father told me they would do, they did.


Edgar Walters:When Jean lost her daughter, whatever progress she might have made at Jonathan’s Place disappeared, and Alicia knew what could happen next.


Alicia Fry:We were trying to instill in these girls that they’re amazing and that they’re strong and they can do anything, and I know that, if we don’t do it, then I’m going to lose these girls to the street.


Edgar Walters:That’s what happened to Jean.


Jean and another foster kid decided to run. A friend had told them they could go stay with this woman named Jasmine. Jasmine had a place on the other side of town where people with nowhere to go could just hang out. One night, Jean stuffed her backpack with her nicest things. In the morning, she got dropped off at school, but she didn’t go to class. Instead, she walked down the road to this bus stop on Waterhouse Road. She was clutching a piece of paper with Jasmine’s address.


Jean took the city bus, two different trains, and then another city bus to a rough neighborhood in southeast Dallas. She arrived at a duplex with a red door. After gathering her courage, she knocked.


Jasmine Johnson:The first girl came was Jean.


Edgar Walters:That’s Jasmine Johnson. She called Jean the “first girl” because another girl showed up later that day. She was a foster kid, too.


Jasmine Johnson:I let everybody come to my house. You know what I’m saying? It was an open house. You know what I’m saying? If you didn’t have nowhere to go, I let you stay in my house on Gonzalez Street. We called it G Street.


Edgar Walters:Jasmine let Jean have fun on Gonzalez Street. Jean got a new look. She dyed her hair so no one would recognize her, she got her nails done, and she got new clothes, short dresses and high heels. But Jean couldn’t stay at Jasmine’s house for free. She’d have to pay rent, $60 a night. Jasmine said the girls that stayed with her made their money at strip clubs all over Dallas.


Jasmine Johnson:I asked them did they have IDs so I could put them into strip clubs with my girls or whatever so they can have a job or something. You just can’t be laying up in my house and not making no money.


Edgar Walters:Jean didn’t have an ID. She was only 15. She says Jasmine told her she had only one other choice, selling sex.


This may sound farfetched, but imagine you’re a teenage runaway, hundreds of miles from home. You’re hungry and you need a place to sleep. Then, a stranger offers you those things. It sounds like they’re trying to help, but they exploit you instead, and, like Jean, you end up doing things you’d never imagine.


At the state capitol in Austin, lawmakers started to pay attention.


Speaker 4:All right. Ms. Chairman and members, we have a joint charge.


Edgar Walters:State representatives even held a hearing about it in 2016.


Speaker 4:Study and evaluate the practice of youth being recruited into human trafficking. Specifically evaluate the scope of the pipeline of potential victims from foster care.


Edgar Walters:If you didn’t catch what that lawmaker said, it was “the pipeline of potential victims from foster care.” In other words, lawmakers wanted to study why kids in the state’s foster care system end up exploited by pimps.


Speaker 4:All right, we’ll start with invited testimony. State your name for the record and proceed.


Angela Goodwin:Thank you. My name is Angela Goodwin and I am the Director of Investigations at Child Protective Services.


Edgar Walters:Angela Goodwin explained to lawmakers that most sex trafficking victims have been sexually abused, and a lot of them have had contact with the child welfare system. In other words, they’re kids like Jean. She also said, when kids run away, they’re often approached by a pimp almost immediately, usually within 48 hours.


Angela Goodwin:Why is that important to the foster care system? Because we now know, through these statistics coming in, that, when a child runs from our care, we have to look for them right away, immediately.


Edgar Walters:Texas doesn’t even come close to finding missing foster kids that quickly. In 2016, it took an average of six weeks to find them, and hundreds of foster kids who ran away weren’t found. I asked Goodwin about this.


Is six weeks acceptable, or what would be acceptable?


Angela Goodwin:Well, right away is acceptable. Then, based on the statistic that I gave you, when you’re getting past 48 hours, it’s a very dangerous time.


Edgar Walters:Goodwin told us CPS is working more aggressively to find runaways, but the agency couldn’t even say how many missing foster kids actually got reported to the proper authorities last year.


In Jean’s case, social workers at her group home did call the police as soon as they realized she was missing that day but, by then, she’d already been taken in by a pimp, Jasmine Johnson.


Jean Hall:Jasmine, she didn’t care. She just pretty much, “You’re going to do this, and that’s what you’re going to do in order to stay here.” CPS treating us the way that they treated us, I was willing to do whatever I needed to do to stay away.


Edgar Walters:Jean quickly developed a routine on Gonzalez Street, but she wasn’t Jean anymore. Jasmine had given her a new name, Bunny. Every day, when it started to get dark, she would head outside in her new clothes. She’d slowly walk through the neighborhood, pass some apartments and a basketball court, toward the mini-mart on the corner.


Jean Hall:The street that Gonzalez is off of, I’d walk from there back towards the right and I’d just pretty much back and forth, back and forth.


Edgar Walters:Sometimes, if a john stopped his car on the street corner, the transaction happened right there. Other times, the client drove her back to his place. It was $100 for an hour and $60 for 30 minutes. Jean had sex with a few different men, but she got scared. She remembers one guy who brought her back to his apartment. After a few minutes, he was really creeping her out. She thought she was in danger.


Jean Hall:I ended up telling me I was going to the bathroom and left and walked all the way back to the house. I said, “I’m getting out of here. I don’t like this.”


Neena Satija:Yeah.


Jean Hall:It started getting real scary for me.


Edgar Walters:Jean decided she didn’t want to stay at Jasmine’s house anymore. Now 16 years old, she packed up her things and went to stay with an ex-boyfriend in another part of Dallas, but, after a couple of nights, his parents kicked her out. She was walking back to Jasmine’s place in the dark when a driver pulled up and offered her a ride. They were just around the corner from Gonzalez Street when police pulled over the driver for not using his turn signal. They found Jean in the back seat. She told police what was going on at Jasmine’s house, and she ended up helping them investigate.


Speaker 5:This is Detective [bor-da-lon 00:15:52], badge #6132, and Detective McMurray, badge #4835, with complainant Jean Hall.


Edgar Walters:The detectives asked Jean to call Jasmine, who also went by the name Jay. They wanted help collecting evidence.


Jasmine Johnson:Hello?


Jean Hall:Hey, is this Jay?


Jasmine Johnson:Yeah, this is Jay. Who is this?


Jean Hall:Bunny.


Jasmine Johnson:Who?


Jean Hall:Bunny.


Jasmine Johnson:I don’t know you, brother.


Jean Hall:Oh, my gosh. Jay, please just talk to me because I haven’t done anything. I got caught.


Jasmine Johnson:[crosstalk 00:16:29].


Edgar Walters:Jasmine suspected Jean might be working with police after she left the house so she pretended not to know Jean, but, after officers later raided the house, Jasmine admitted Jean had stayed there. Jasmine was eventually convicted of trafficking a minor for sex. As for Jean, she was sent back to foster care and almost immediately ran away again. Then, she was sent to an institution for troubled foster kids, but she ran away once more.


Jean felt completely isolated, like no one could understand what she was going through, so she was amazed when we told her children’s advocates believe there are thousands of other kids with stories like hers. In fact, lawyers filed a lawsuit on behalf of all 12,000 kids in long term foster care. They said the system had routinely violated children’s civil rights. In 2015, a federal judge agreed.


Speaker 6:Federal judge Janis Graham Jack ruled the state’s foster care system unconstitutional, stating in her scathing opinion, “The system is broken and has been for decades, and children almost uniformly leave state custody more damaged than when they entered.”


Edgar Walters:The lead plaintiff in that lawsuit has a story a lot like Jean’s. The judge wrote, “These stories are typical of the foster care system in Texas,” and she’s ordered sweeping reforms. She said the state needs to give long term foster kids a lot more support. That includes a lawyer and an advocate for each of them.


 Section 1 of 3          [00:00:00 – 00:18:04]
 Section 2 of 3          [00:18:00 – 00:36:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Edgar Walters:That includes a lawyer and an advocate for each of them. The question is, do Texas lawmakers wanna pay?


Speaker 7:Good morning members. Senate Finance Committee will come to order. Clerk, please call the roll.


Speaker 8:Senator Nelson.


Jane Nelson:Here.


Edgar Walters:That’s Jane Nelson, a republican state senator with the most power over the Texas budget. In January 2017, she called in the head of the Texas Child Welfare Agency for a hearing. His name is Hank Whitman and he asked lawmakers for more than a billion dollars to make improvements. That would increase his budget by more than 25 percent.


Hank Whitman:This is a problem that’s been going on for three decades. If we keep the land we’ll never get there.


Edgar Walters:He pointed out that other states spend more. In 2016, Texas paid group homes up to $260 a day to care for troubled kids. California and Florida paid almost twice that. Whitman also wanted more money to hire child abuse investigators. That’s because Texas fails to check on hundreds of kids each day who may be in immediate danger.


Hank Whitman:We have to spend the funding now, senator. Otherwise, these children will end up in the criminal justice systems and they’re there for life.


Jane Nelson:I cannot say this strongly enough.


Edgar Walters:Senator Jane Nelson cuts him off.


Jane Nelson:We wanna see results. Hear me. We don’t have time for anymore of this other stuff. We need to find those … Your agency gets a total of 3.8 billion dollars.


Edgar Walters:Hank Whitman said that’s not enough to do the job.


Hank Whitman:Interesting. We either pay now or we pay later before somebody loses their life.


Edgar Walters:Senator Nelson declined my request for an interview. So did Texas Governor Greg Abbott, but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton agreed to speak if we flew hundreds of miles to meet him at a public event. So, we send our political reporter, Patrick Vtech.


Patrick Vtech:Oh, great. Hey, how you doing? Good to see you again. Thanks for making time for us. Appreciate it.


Edgar Walters:Patrick asked Paxton about the importance of funding foster care in Texas and what that means for fighting sex trafficking.


Ken Paxton:So, I’m in an interesting spot. I don’t get to decide policy. What I do is I enforce whatever the, you know, the legislature gives me authority to do. So, I would love for more to be done with human trafficking.


Patrick Vtech:Specifically with funding or just mean in general?


Ken Paxton:Just in general. Everything. I mean, it’s devastating to our state, to our community. It’s so sad. Certainly, the more we can do to save these, especially young women, better.


Edgar Walters:Saving these young women is exactly what that lawsuit against Texas Foster Care was meant to do. But after a judge ordered the state to make sweeping reforms, Ken Paxton fought them. He’s delayed and appealed the judge’s directions again and again. He says, as the state’s top lawyer, he has a responsibility to fight lawsuits. Paxton says it’s not his job to fix foster care. Instead, he’s focusing on going after criminals. The pimps who exploit kids. Under his leadership Texas has convicted more and more every year, but police on the ground say that approach only goes so far.


Michael McMurra:But you gotta arrest an awful lot of people to have a dent on that.


Edgar Walters:That’s detective Michael McMurray. He’s been sending pimps to prison for more than a decade and he worked on Jean’s Case, but he thinks kids will continue to be exploited as long as the foster care system remains broken.


Michael McMurra:The McMurray theory of fixing this problem was going to be, we’ll put all these pimps, all these traffickers in prison and the word will get out and people won’t be doing this anymore, because they’ll be too afraid to go to prison and it’ll solve the problem. But the other part of that, you know, finding a place to put the kids, treating the kids, getting mental health services, it’s not there and the McMurray theory is not working out too well.


Edgar Walters:The McMurray theory didn’t work out well for Jean either. After police recovered her from Jasmine’s house and she ran away from her foster home again, the state eventually agreed to let her live with her mom. She was done with foster care. Jean testified in her pimps trial. Jasmine Johnson was convicted of trafficking a minor for sex and sent to prison for 25 years. But the whole experience made Jean feel even more like a victim.


Jean Hall:Miss, here you go. Here’s your subpoena. We’re gonna need you to come testify. Oh, is that so? Well, I’m not going. Well, if you don’t go, you’re going to jail. Okay, well, whatever, you know? Thanks y’all. So much for the victims, right?


Edgar Walters:Jean wishes she’d gotten help finishing school and finding a job. She had no way to support herself. Jean had another child, a son, but she also got into drugs, so the last time we saw her, she was in the Lamar County courthouse in Paris, Texas. Neena and I went to meet her at her 9:00 AM hearing.


Speaker 9:Did she give you a number?


Edgar Walters:When we get into the courtroom, we see Jean sitting on the other side, her head in her hands. She’s been charged with possession of methamphetamines.


Speaker 10:[inaudible 00:23:23] 107. Jean Marie Hall. Jean Marie Hall.


Edgar Walters:The hearing only lasts a couple of minutes. We aren’t allowed to record.


Speaker 10:[inaudible 00:23:33]


Edgar Walters:Suddenly, Jean runs out of the courtroom. So we follow her and when she sees us, she gives us each a big long hug.


Neena Satija:Hey Jean, what happened?


Jean Hall:They said they gonna let me stay out until the 21st.


Edgar Walters:Through her tears Jean tells us that she’s going to plead guilty to her charges and spend at least six months in a state jail with a rehab program.


Jean Hall:It’s a good program from what everybody’s told me. It’s just being away from my babies.


Edgar Walters:If she thinks rehab would really help her, but it’s hours away. Jean’s already lost her daughter. She doesn’t wanna be away from her son. His birthday is in a couple of days, so she asked if she can go to jail after that and the prosecutors agree.


We walk out of the Paris, Texas courthouse into the pouring rain. All of a sudden Jean runs out into the middle of the street smiling, her arms outstretched. It seems like she’s trying to take advantage of these last moments of freedom.


Jean Hall:[inaudible 00:24:42]. I hate this town.


Edgar Walters:Those last words, I hate this town.


Al Letson:That story from the Texas Tribune’s Edgar Walters and Neena Satija. Since it first aired, state law makers have given the Texas Child Welfare Agency an extra 500 million dollars, about half of what it asked for. They also created a 3 million dollar grant program to give child sex trafficking victim services like healthcare and counseling. It’s the first time the state has funded a program like this. It turns out a lot of sex trafficking victims in Texas can only get the help they need in jail. When we come back, we go behind prison walls to meet a woman who’s helping girls like Jean piece their lives back together.


Kathy Griffin:This is how we do it.


Lenay:This is how we do it.


Kathy Griffin:La la la la la.


Lenay:I love Mrs. Kathy.


Al Letson:That’s next on Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Jean Hall’s ordeal with the broken foster care system in Texas is not an isolated case. Our reporting shows that foster care has become a pipeline to sexual exploitation in the state. That’s what happened to Lenay. We’re using her middle name to protect her privacy. Her story is not appropriate for all listeners. Lenay became a foster kid at 13 and spent almost a year at an institution for troubled teens, but no foster family would take her in.


Lenay:I was just tired of being there. I had finished the program. Nobody else would accept me so I was like, I don’t wanna be here anymore. I ran away.


Al Letson:Lenay left for school one day, but instead of going to class, she just started walking down the street, just like Jean did when she ran away. Within minutes …


Lenay:I actually met a guy and he told me, oh, I love you. I care for you. I’m gonna be there for you. If you ever need anything, just let me know. Well, I told him ahead I was a runaway. I didn’t have anywhere to go.


Al Letson:The guy told Lenay she could stay with him if she brought in some money. Over the next three years, at least three different men trafficked Lenay for sex. Every few months she would go back to foster care, sometimes on her own or police might bring her back. Then she’d run away again. In August of 2016, she finally landed in a place where she felt safe and she started to believe she could move forward.


Lenay:I don’t wanna run the streets. I really want to finish school. I’m very smart. I want to go to college. I wanna go to Prairie View A&M and do …


Kathy Griffin:Tell them what you wanna study.


Lenay:I wanna study forensic investigations.


Al Letson:That woman who jumped in is Kathy Griffin, an advocate who works with sex trafficking victims. Kathy changed everything for Lenay.


Lenay:She started talking to the girls about how we have to change. Nobody can make us change. You could sit in the program and act like you’re gonna change. For what? You’ve gotta wanna change. It’s gotta come from the inside.


Kathy Griffin:‘Cause when you get outside, that’s when the …


Lenay:That’s where the test starts. The test starts when you walk outside and this is my test.


Al Letson:Lenay’s saying all this at a place where she’s met other young women who share her struggles. Where men can no longer pray on her. Where she’s found a mentor. There’s just one problem, that place is the Harris County Jail in Houston, Texas. Neena Satija based at the Texas Tribune picks up the story from here.


Neena Satija:The Harris County Jail is the third largest in the country. It’s got about 10,000 inmates at any given time, like a little village right in the center of downtown Houston. You said the fourth floor is where the all the women are?


Speaker 11:Yes. Where the women … Hi, how are you?


Speaker 12:Good.


Neena Satija:When I get a tour of the jail Lenay’s been behind bars for almost four months. She shares a room called the pod with two dozen other women. She sleeps on a metal bunk bed and wears an oversized jumpsuit. Lenay ended up here because in August 2016 she offered a man oral sex in exchange for money. He turned out to be an undercover police officer and he arrested her for prostitution. She was only 17, which is the age that people are considered adults under Texas criminal law. So, she went to jail. When we peek into Lenay’s pod, you can tell she’s the baby of the group. Several women are surrounding her, braiding her hair into this elegant crown on the top of her head. No one wants kids like Lenay in jail, especially not child advocates, but police and prosecutors say they don’t trust the foster care system to protect kids who’ve been trafficked. So police look for a way to charge them with something. In jail, Lenay can’t run. Her pimp can’t get to her and she can meet mentors, like Kathy.


Lenay:She’s motivated me. At first I wanted to leave the program. I was like, ah, this isn’t for me. I don’t wanna change. When I met Mrs. Kathy it changed my whole perspective about the program. If she could do it, I could do it.


Neena Satija:If she could do it, I could do it. One reason Kathy connects so quickly with kids like Lenay is she’s been through some of the same stuff. For decades her life was unstable, ruled by a cocaine addiction.


Kathy Griffin:I was a theater major. Then I went on the cold blooded tour with Rick James in ’83 where my serious addiction started, because everybody in the industry got high. And then when the lights and the cameras were all gone and the tours, I still had an addiction that had to be met and fed, so it took me from Beverly Hills to behind the trash dumpster.


Neena Satija:You can find Kathy’s mug shots online. She looks disoriented and her clothes are rumpled. Now, more than 10 years later, she’s always stylishly dressed, wearing super high heels. She still has a scratchy voice. She says it’s from smoking thousands of dollars worth of dope a month for more than two decades paid for mostly by selling sex.


Kathy Griffin:I roxatuted.


Neena Satija:Roxatuted? What does that mean?


Kathy Griffin:That means if they didn’t have money and they could exchange sexual favors for drugs.


Neena Satija:Okay.


Kathy Griffin:I’ve done everything from high end escorts, being a kept woman to prostitution. Roxatution. The only thing I didn’t do was strip.


Neena Satija:Eventually, Kathy got clean. She was one of the first participants in a drug diversion court in Houston. Now, she runs programs for women who’ve been involved in prostitution. They’re all different ages and she comes across foster kids or former foster kids a lot.


Speaker 13:One, two, three. This is our roadway to freedom and we gonna say it aloud. We’re gonna get back to recovery, ain’t no stopping us now.


Neena Satija:One of Kathy’s programs is called Roadway to Freedom. I got to see it in action recently at a women’s prison in Dayton, Texas. There’s about a hundred women singing here in white jumpsuits. When Kathy started speaking …


Kathy Griffin:And y’all look so pretty.


Neena Satija:Everyone just lights up.


Kathy Griffin:Y’all got y’all little makeup on?


Speaker 13:Yeah.


Kathy Griffin:Got lipstick on. Y’all got Crayola and colored pencils on.


Neena Satija:The Crayola and colored pencils line isn’t a joke. Women in prison don’t have makeup, so that’s what some of them used to put on eyeliner and eyeshadow. Kathy tells me a lot of women in here are sex trafficking victims and a lot of them were let down by the child welfare system.


Kathy Griffin:The foster care system is so severely broken. Just about everybody in here that went through foster care has had sexual abuse and they were running away from it.


Neena Satija:Lenay fits that profile. She was adopted at a young age and says her adoptive parents abused her, physically and sexually. She used to run away from home all the time. So later on when she wasn’t getting help in foster care, it made sense to her to run again, even if it meant selling sex instead. Kathy understands that and she tells Lenay …


Kathy Griffin:Does it make you sad to think sometimes that your childhood was stolen from you?


Lenay:It does and I’ve learned to accept the fact that I can’t take what happened back, but I can only move …


Kathy Griffin:You’ve been listening in class, haven’t you?


Lenay:I can only move forward.


Kathy Griffin:You have stayed focused from the time that I brought you to the program and that’s very rare. I want you all to know that’s very rare for somebody as young as she is to stay as disciplined.


Neena Satija:There’s an irony to what Kathy’s saying right now, because she knows the only reason she was able to find Lenay and become her mentor is because Lenay’s been locked up in jail for four months.


Kathy Griffin:When coming to jail is like starting over brand new for you, especially at your age.


Neena Satija:But, as Kathy and Lenay are talking, Lenay is about to get released from jail and because Lenay’s only 17, she’s still a foster kid. She has to go back into state custody first. The problem is there isn’t a bed available for her. Dozens of foster kids in Texas face this situation each month. Because there’s no room for them in a foster home they have to sleep in a hotel or in a caseworker’s office. In Lenay’s case, she’ll have to sleep in a child welfare office in Houston. The kids who stay there all have to sleep on cots in this one big room that can fit maybe 20 at a time.


I mean, why would that happen?


Angela Goodwin:We’re working with what we have. I mean, I don’t, I’m not trying to be flip. I don’t know another way to put that.


Neena Satija:That’s Angela Goodwin. Back then, she was a top official at the Texas Child Welfare Agency. She says, the state can’t create more beds for foster kids. That’s up to the private sector. Things are even worse for kids who’ve been sexually exploited.


Angela Goodwin:We have a very limited number of specialized beds for human trafficking victims. We have about 20 available north of Houston in a place called Freedom Place. We have about six in a foster home situation in east Texas and that’s it.


Neena Satija:Kids sleeping in the caseworker’s office don’t get supervised like they would at a real foster home, so it’s easier for them to run away. The state wouldn’t tell me how many foster kids run away when they’re living in an office, but I asked the Houston Police Department. In just two months, police say dozens of kids ran away from the office where Lenay will be staying. Kathy tells Lenay she hopes she won’t run.


Kathy Griffin:What’s gonna keep you from running from this facility?




 Section 2 of 3          [00:18:00 – 00:36:04]
 Section 3 of 3          [00:36:00 – 00:52:27]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)


Kathy:-this facility.


Lynae:Support. I’ve always had my case workers support, but it’s just like I wanted more support. I just felt like there wasn’t enough.


Kathy:You were missing me?


Lynae:I think so, Miss Kathy. I think I was missing you.


Neena Satija:Kathy’s worried that once Lynae gets out of jail, she won’t be able to reach her, so she’ll have no way of knowing if Lynae’s safe. Later she tells me there’s got to be a place where Lynae can get help that isn’t jail.


Kathy:We have got to have beds for individuals that are coming out so that we can continue the process and keep things running smoothly because it took them a long time to get messed up and we must have beds.


Neena Satija:That aren’t in jail.


Kathy:That aren’t in jail.


Neena Satija:A few months later I got to see Kathy again. She’s a busy woman, so the best way to catch up with her is when she’s heading out of one programs at the prison or the jail. We’re in a parking lot when Kathy gets a phone call. It’s from another young girl she’s trying to help, by convincing her not to run away, to stay put.


Kathy:The street will eat you alive. You feel me? And just keep me informed so I’ll be able to still keep up with you and help you. All right, precious? Stop running so much, okay? Be still so somebody can love on you for a while, okay?


Neena Satija:Kathy hangs up the phone and closes her eyes for second.


Kathy:If they would give me some legs, I could be able to work miracles.


Neena Satija:Even with everything Kathy does to help these young women, there’s a lot of forces working against them. Lynae had promised Kathy she’d call her once she left jail and got to that child welfare office, but Lynae never called. Instead she walked out of the office just a few hours after she got there.


I remember you telling her, like, you’re one of the more focused people, despite being so young you’re one of the more focused people in jail that I worked with? It felt that way. So that’s why it was just such a bummer when she just took off like that.


Kathy:See, and when they so young and I can’t put them in where the rest of the girls are, they fall through the cracks.


Neena Satija:Yeah.


Kathy:And that’s the piece I need fixed. At least I plant seed, but if they live to come back.


Neena Satija:Right?


Kathy:You know?


Neena Satija:Lynae turned 18 just a few weeks after she walked out of that office. She’s still missing and her Facebook page suggests she’s still being trafficked. But Kathy isn’t giving up hope. She’s planning to open a shelter for girls just like Lynae that can get them help outside of jail. It’ll be called Kathy’s House.


Al Letson:That story was produced by Reveal’s Nina Satigia based at the Texas Tribune. Six months after this story first aired, Nina was able to track down Lynae in Houston and they listened to the original piece together.


Neena Satija:That’s it.


Lynae:Aw. I loved Miss Kathy.


Al Letson:Turns out Lynae and Kathy had gotten in touch earlier.


Lynae:Yeah. I cried on the phone with Miss Kathy because I told her I really hated that I disappointed her. When she says she’s just glad that I didn’t go back completely down that path.


Al Letson:Lynae said she’d gone back to dancing at strip clubs, but was not selling sex and she was working on getting her own apartment. Kathy Griffin is now the Human Trafficking Director for Precinct One of the Harris County Sheriff, and she’s still working on starting Kathy’s House.


In Texas, jail was the only place Lynae could find the help that she needed. Other state’s like Minnesota are doing everything they can to keep sex traffic kids out of jail, by looking at them as victims, not criminals. That part of the story when we come back on Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.


For more than a year now, we’ve been reporting on drug and alcohol rehabs that require people to work for free in exchange for treatment. Reveal’s Amy Julia Harris and Shoshanna Walter were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on this. Since we first started, we’ve been getting tips about rehabs all over the country, dozens and dozens and dozens of tips, way more that we could ever tackle on our own, so we built a network to share these tips with local reporters to investigate rehabs in their own backyard. So far more than 100 reporters have joined. If you want to help us investigate or if you have a tip to share yourself, go to Again, that’s


From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Ledson.


Tough subject today. Sex traffickers have been known to trap and exploit children and once a child is in, it is extremely hard to get them out of that life. Many of these kids are runaways who’ve been bounced around from foster care, group homes and state custody. Some end up in drug rehab and mental health treatment centers and often behind bars. This is something our partners at APM Reports looked into. They found that some states, including Minnesota, are taking a different approach. Those states are treating these young people as victims instead of criminals.


Sgt. Grant S.:The reason tape recorder’s on is so that I have a record of us talking today, okay?


Al Letson:That’s Sergeant Grant Snyder. He’s interviewing a 17 year old runaway.


Sgt. Grant S.:Let’s just go back and tell me the story about from you guys running from Eu Claire, tell me what happened?


Bobbi Jo Larsen:It all started on July 4th.


Al Letson:They’re in an interview room, in a Minneapolis police station. It’s a small space with no windows, the size of a walk in closet. They’re sitting at a small round table.


Bobbi Jo Larsen:I’ve been locked up all the time since I’ve been 14. And that’s why I’m running, you know?


Al Letson:Bobbi Jo Larsen ran away from a drug treatment center in Eu Claire, Wisconsin. And by the time Snyder found her, she was selling sex. She was posting escort ads on the web and working with a guy she calls E.


Sgt. Grant S.:When did you start posting ads, when you were with E?


Bobbi Jo Larsen:Probably about a year ago.


Sgt. Grant S.:Like the next day after you met him, a couple of day, you think?


Bobbi Jo Larsen:Probably the next day or something. He knew I’ve never really like dealt with it.


Sgt. Grant S.:So he told you he’d never done it before?


Bobbi Jo Larsen:He told me he’d like been around prostitutes and stuff, but he told me “I’m not a pimp, I’m a player.”


Sgt. Grant S.:Okay. So first of all that’s not true, he’s been doing it for a long time. Okay? You understand?


Al Letson:Bobbi hasn’t slept. She’s high on four different drugs, and hasn’t eaten in days. She does not want to hear Sergeant Snyder trash talk the guy she was with.


Bobbi Jo Larsen:He didn’t force me to do nothing.


Sgt. Grant S.:Okay, I understand that. This is something I know a little bit about, so I want you to listen to me, okay? Any guy that allows a young lady like yourself to be victimized like that, to do degrading things, you know, that speaks of their character. You understand that right? You know what I’m saying is true, don’t you? I mean you feel it in your heart, right? I know that you do because you said when you’re with these guys, that it makes you feel. I’ve talked to, like I told you, hundreds of women over the years, and they all say three things to me. I’m only doing this because of the money, I wish I could do anything else, but they can’t because of the money that’s involved, and it makes me feel. How many of those things are accurate for you?


Bobbi Jo Larsen:All three.


Sgt. Grant S.:Exactly.


Al Letson:After that interview, Bobbi is sent to a group home two hours north of the Twin Cities. Almost immediately she runs. This time she ends up in the hands of even more dangerous men. They put an ad for Bobbi on Backpage, an online hub for commercial sex. Sergeant Snyder finds her two weeks later and she’s back in the interview room.


Sgt. Grant S.:You don’t want to be out here doing this. It’s dangerous, you got raped this time, you got a gun put against your head. The world is filled with evil, and you know that because you’ve met most of them, right? Right?


Bobbi Jo Larsen:Yeah.


Sgt. Grant S.:And these people aren’t your friends, we’ve told you this before. We are your friends, even though right now you’re irritated with me because I’m asking you questions.


Bobbi Jo Larsen:That’s how I’ve always been.


Sgt. Grant S.:Okay.


Bobbi Jo Larsen:It’s always been true.


Sgt. Grant S.:But so we haven’t lied to you, when you run away, we keep looking for you, and we find you and we bring you back. Okay?


Al Letson:Sergeant Snyder is not going to charge Bobbi with a crime. In many places around the country, it’s still routine for girls who sell sex to face delinquency hearings, but Snyder doesn’t want to punish Bobbi.


Sgt. Grant S.:So I argue that our primary objective has to be that victim and that our, that we’re the tool for that victim, not the victim being a tool for us to meet our aims.


Al Letson:The victim he’s talking about is Bobbi. When Grant Snyder became a cop 20 years ago, he didn’t think prostitution was a victimless crime. The victim was the public, the homeowner, the city. But he kept winding up in that interview room with women and girls who had awful stories to tell. And he began to think that there was another victim here. Even if the girls themselves didn’t think so.


Sgt. Grant S.:The victims who are now survivors, who have come out of the life and have come out of a history of trauma and exploitation have been very patient in helping me to understand exactly what things look like through their eyes.


Al Letson:When he met Bobbi, she was traumatized and afraid of the police. This is more of the recording of the first time when Sergeant Snyder brought Bobbi to the station.


Bobbi Jo Larsen:No, I mean I understand, like I’m not doing anything right in the situation.


Sgt. Grant S.:You know what though, you’re a victim for me, okay? You’re a victim. I told you that, so I don’t want anybody mistreating you.


Al Letson:Bobbi says she had a bad experience with police before meeting Sergeant Snyder and that made it hard for her to trust a cop. She talked about that in an interview in 2016.


Bobbi Jo Larsen:The officers kind of just threw me up against the wall and kept slamming my head into the wall. That drew the line and I was like, I’m not going to trust any police officer. That even if you do wear a badge, you have no right to treat someone like that.


Al Letson:The first time Snyder caught Bobbi, it didn’t seem like she was listening. But it turned out she was.


Bobbi Jo Larsen:The number one thing that I will always remember is him saying, “From this day on, you will be protected.”


Al Letson:Snyder caught Bobbi five times before she stopped running away, back to people who would exploit her all over again.


Bobbi Jo Larsen:I don’t know if it was because I was so brainwashed that I was finally okay with it? You know after the first few times, I was like, this is how I’m going to end up living my life for the rest of my life, and I’m okay with it. So I didn’t even think twice that I’m a victim.


Al Letson:But eventually, Sergeant Grant reached Bobbi. His message got through. She stopped running and she got treatment for drug addiction.


Bobbi Jo Larsen:You learn not to trust anyone, on the street, so an officer or a counselor or anyone can’t expect that trust right away. That’s going to come with time.


Al Letson:Sergeant Snyder put in the time and was eventually able to gain Bobbi’s trust. And Bobbi is grateful to the cop who wouldn’t give up.


Bobbi Jo Larsen:His heart was so big and at that point in my life, that’s all I needed and that’s all I was looking for from day one, is love and a big heart, and I saw that with him. So honestly I don’t know why I opened up, but I did.


Al Letson:Sergeant Snyder uses what he’s learned to help others fight sex trafficking. He trains law enforcement and attorney’s around the country and is a frequent speaker at events like this one at a suburban high school.


Sgt. Grant S.:Victims are incredibly resourceful. When Bobbi Larsen ran away from Eu Claire Academy, within a period of one hour, she ran away in an orange jumpsuit, that said Eu Claire Academy on the back of it. Within one hour she had met a woman, who gave her money so she could buy clothes. She got a phone from somebody, got on a chat line, met a guy she’d never talked to before, and convinced him to drive from St. Paul to Eu Claire to pick her and her friend up and drive them back to Minneapolis. I can’t even get my kid to put the dirty dishes in the sink. Okay? And they accomplished all of that in an hour.


Al Letson:When we last checked in with Bobbi Jo Larsen in 2016, she’d been out of prostitution and drug free for around two years. She’d done a lot of thinking about what made her so vulnerable to being trafficked. Partly was that she wanted to get high and because she wanted out of group homes and treatment centers. But she wanted something else too.


Bobbi Jo Larsen:In a way I felt really beautiful that all these guys are paying to get services from me. Or the pimps, I thought at the time they loved me, so even though I’ve always had a really good loving family, I was adopted at a young age, so that was something I also struggled with, like why did my parents give up on me and not love me, my biological parents. And it seemed like my adoptive family, it wasn’t enough.


Al Letson:Pimps prey on these insecurities, showering their victims with phony love. The attention, along with the grip of drug addiction, led Bobbi back to E a few times. E, who’s real name is Roger Bouchet Robinson, eventually pled guilty to promoting prostitution.


Sgt. Grant S.:Many of the victims that we deal with make bad choices. And simply because you’re a 13 year old who ran away from home doesn’t mean that you should be victimized by somebody, doesn’t mean you should end up on Backpage, doesn’t mean you should end up in a hotel room, or on Lake Street or something where people can exploit you commercially.


Al Letson:Other folks in government and law enforcement around the country are beginning to see things the same way as Sergeant Snyder. Almost two dozen states have stopped charging minors with prostitution and this year, the federal government shut down We want to thank Bobbi Jo Larsen for sharing her story. She hopes it’ll help others. The original version of of Bobbi’s story was produced by Sasha Aslanian, and edited by Katherine Winter of APM Reports. It was updated by Reveal’s Michael Schiller and Phoebe Petrovic.


Nina Satigia was our lead producer on today’s show. She had help from Phoebe Petrovic and from Edgar Walters and Morgan Smith at the Texas Tribune. Our editor was Taki Telonides. Our production manager is Myunde Inahosa. Our sound design team is the Justice League, my man Jay Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, Claire C-Note Mullen, and Fernando my man yo Aruda. They had help from Catherine Ray Mondo. Our CEO is Christa Shoffenberg. Amy Piles our editor in chief. Our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Comarado, Lightning.


Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Katherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heizing Simons Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center For Investigative Reporting and PRX.


I’m Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.


Speaker 14:From PRX.


 Section 3 of 3          [00:36:00 – 00:52:27]

Sam Ward is a former senior digital producer for Reveal, where he oversees the web team. He has years of experience producing creative digital media projects for Oregon Public Broadcasting, PBS, ITVS and the Smithsonian, and he has managed projects for funders such as the National Science Foundation, U.S. Department of Education and Annenberg Media. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Ward is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.