Protecting Girls AND Boys from Sexual Exploitation

October 16, 2013

There is no way to tell, just by looking at the plain brick building lying on the edge of Flatbush, that the Jewish Child Care Association has been around for 191 years. The building, simply labeled “JCCA East 29th Street Brooklyn Office,” sits around the corner from Magic Nail Salon and Choice French Cleaners. The Association offers many services ranging from adoption to daycare to mental health services, but two of their programs stand out in particular because of their focus on helping both girls and boys who have been sexually exploited.

The Association was formed in 1822 to specifically help Jewish orphans. Since then, it has expanded and now offers its social services “helping kids of all backgrounds,” described Leslie Gottlieb, the Director of Communication and Marketing for the Association. Their new program, called RESOLVE, seeks to find foster parents for commercially exploited children, also known as CSEC. The program officially began in August 2013 and is contracted by the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) to care for 24 children. It provides intensive therapy and training to help these children rejoin their communities before being placed in foster homes.

A previously established program at the Jewish Child Care Association is called Gateways, which is based in West Chester. This is a residential program that serves teenage girls who have been sexually exploited. The program houses 13 girls who then complete a 6 to 12 month program that concentrates on three areas. These are called the 3Rs: Recognize trauma, Rebuild self-esteem, and Reconnect to healthy and accessible community resources. “Gateways is a model program for women. There are a lot of misconceptions about these girls and this program helps women go back to college and to their families,” said Gottlieb.

Gateways serves as the first stop for sexually exploited girls and then they can step down to the RESOLVE program. Currently, there is only one girl who is undergoing this process. She is seventeen years old, attends school, and participates in the Association’s youth development program. Kiersten Daniel, the program director for RESOLVE and other specialized programs spoke from the Association’s Bronx office when she said, “She is looking for a job close to her home in the community and has been meeting with our vocational coordinator to help her in finding a position.” She now lives with a foster parent.

Although many of the children brought into the program will initially be girls, RESOLVE is also for boys. The ACS has stated that there are 2,200 sexually exploited children in New York City according to a 2007 report. Daniel explained that part of the reason for starting this program was because the Association felt that not enough attention was being given to boys.

Daniel referenced a report titled “And Boys Too” by End Child Prostitution Child Pornography and Trafficking Children for Sexual Purposes, also known as ECPAT-USA. This report has been useful in the Association’s research in creating RESOLVE. The report stated, “The John Jay College and the Center for Court Innovation study The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in New York City in 2008 estimated that as high as 50% of the commercially sexually exploited children in the U.S. are boys.”

The Association receives the most of the information on exploited children in New York City, as well as its funding from the ACS. The press office for ACS explained upon inquiry that the ACS was chosen by the Mayor’s office to plan for and distribute the $622,220 that the City received in Safe Harbor funds. These funds were allocated by New York State’s Office of Children and Family Services.

The press office stated in a report that, “Children’s Services proposes using $217,000 of the Safe Harbor funds to increase [the Department of Youth and Community Development’s] street outreach work and build outreach workers’ capacity to identify and engage youth at risk of sexual exploitation who may be AWOL from foster care placements.”

Many of the exploited children in New York City are identified through the outreach efforts of ACS and the New York Police Department. In 2005, Mayor Bloomberg announced the launch of Operation Guardian, an initiative that would target pimps and provide around the clock support for exploited children that are identified and cooperate with the prosecutions. When asked, the Office of the Deputy Commissioner, Public Information was not aware whether Operation Guardian was still in effect today.

While New York law enforcement struggles with finding both girls and boys who are sexually abused and exploited, Daniel described that for the Association, “The hardest part has been finding foster parents.” Some find the entire program to be slightly controversial and ultimately, caring for a child that has gone through this sort of abuse can be far more intense than many people can handle. Separate from the children, the foster parents all go through special training on how to care for traumatized children. “Their training is not just about being a foster parent, but educating them about CSEC,” said Daniel.

RESOLVE works to recruit foster parents from all five boroughs in New York City. Daniel explained that the Association has been trying to build awareness in various synagogues, churches, community centers, and libraries. “And all of [these locations] have to be LGBTQ affirming,” said Daniel, which means that they are open to members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community becoming foster parents.

The entire process for foster parents can take 4 to 9 months. The children and foster parents are all required to work with licensed social workers and psychologists throughout their training. Right now, there are four potential foster parents in the RESOLVE program. They are required to go through a home study conducted by a social worker, as well as a psychological screening. Much of the training curriculum for RESOLVE has been modeled after another organization called Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS) based in Harlem.

Girls Educational and Mentoring Services was founded in 1998 by Rachel Lloyd, a survivor of sexual exploitation. The organization focuses on young women between the ages of 12 and 24 and helps them to get out of the commercial sex industry. Besides doing outreach and providing therapy, GEMS also offers housing to these young women. Representatives from GEMS often go up to the Gateways program to facilitate survivor-led groups.

Both Gottlieb and Daniel talked about how the issue has been elevated especially in the past year with the FBI opening hundreds of investigations into cases of sex trafficking. President Obama made a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative on human trafficking in September 2012 calling it “a debasement of our common humanity.”

It has proven to be a difficult task to identify and help these children who have faced so much trauma at a young age. The efforts to help boys, in particular, pale in comparison to helping girls according to ECPAT-USA’s report. It is another struggle to educate and reach out to the community in general about CSEC and how they can help them. Even more challenging is the fact that fewer people are willing to become foster parents for these kids. Daniel commented that it has helped that the subject has been in the spotlight recently, but as Gottlieb stated, “There are stereotypes [about these children] that are just not true.”

Jumaane Williams Winning Votes One House Party at a Time

September 30, 2013

Jumaane Williams, council member for the 45th District in Brooklyn, won the primary election by spending only $7 per vote, one of the lowest numbers among the City Council candidate races. In total, he received nearly 76% of the vote.

Jerry Skurnik, a political consultant at Prime New York, explained that one of the biggest factors that affects a campaign is how much competition a candidate faces. If a candidate’s opponent is relatively unknown among the voters, then he or she will most likely be spending less on their campaign. Looking at his opponents, “Jumaane knew he didn’t have to spend as much. Candidates react to their opposition,” Skurnik said.

Skurnik said that the average amount of money that city council candidates raise is $150,000. Williams’ campaign has raised $88,210 so far, though he has only spent $69,086.97 according to the website of the New York City Campaign Finance Board. His major opponent, Jean Similien, spent approximately $23 per vote and received only 12% of the vote.

The main source of Williams’ fundraising came from house parties hosted by individuals in the 45th District. The Chief of Staff for Jumaane Williams’ office, Rance Huff, explained that the office would approach community residents and leaders and ask them if they would host backyard barbecues or an afternoon tea. They purposefully were not trying to reach out for corporate donations, Huff said.

“Jumaane would stop by and chat at the house parties,” said Huff, where community members would generally give small donations, around $10. Leading up to the primaries, Williams’ office hosted only two or three major fundraisers of their own.

Leading up to the general election, Huff commented that they have no intention of even opening a campaign office. The plan is to keep it simple. The office will continue to collect small donations by asking residents and other community leaders to host small fundraising parties in their homes.

Other than reaching out to people in person, by phone or email, Skurnik stated that it is simply too expensive for council candidates to be running ads on television. And “Most are using social media as a supplement to that.”

Even so, Williams has managed to create a fairly strong presence on social media with more than 1000 likes on his Facebook page and more than 5000 followers on Williams’ personal Twitter account. Huff said, “Our opponents had no social media. The campaign mainly uses Facebook and Constant Contant to send out email blasts once or twice a week.”

There were no Republican city council candidates running in the primary election and so far, no Republicans are running in the upcoming general election against Williams. However, Huff says that their focus is turning to their next opponent, Erlene King, a candidate from The Rent Is Too Damn High party. Huff said, “We are not taking her for granted.”

King has raised $9,995 at this point and spent $48,539. King said she decided to join the City Council race this past June when she was called into a meeting by several parents who were concerned when P.S. 269 was being turned into a charter school. Ms. King emphasized that her priority will be to fight for schools and education in the district, something she believes Mr. Williams has ignored.

Her campaign tactics also include house parties, mailing flyers, and making phone calls. “We weren’t doing much before the primaries. We didn’t want to confuse voters because they’ll be looking for your name when it’s not on the ballot,” said King. Her office has not been very active on social media, with 17 followers on her Twitter account and 20 followers on her Facebook profile page. Her campaign’s website recently went mobile within the past week.

The rest of the funds that Williams’ office has currently raised will go towards getting out the vote, said Huff. He also added that will mainly consist of providing the money for “footwork and transportation.” Additionally, Williams’ office will also be focusing on promoting Bill de Blasio for New York City mayor and Scott Stringer for comptroller.

For Pakistanis in Flatbush, Voting is Not a Priority

September 16, 2013

Along Coney Island Avenue, the western edge of Flatbush, Brooklyn, is what is informally called Little Pakistan. Despite having a strong presence of restaurants, shops, other businesses, and children attending public schools in that area, the voter turnout among Pakistanis in Flatbush was estimated to be low last Tuesday, the day of the primary election.

According to Muhammad Razvi, Executive Director of The Council of People’s Organization (COPO), there are 20,000 registered Pakistani voters in Brooklyn. On Tuesday, “I would say maybe 3,000 voters showed up to vote,” said Mr. Razvi at the Unity Showcase Festival hosted by the NYPD in Prospect Park on September 15.

“I think people are more involved in politics back home [in Pakistan]”

COPO, which was previously known as the Council of Pakistan Organization, formed in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, and its office is based in Flatbush. Their name was changed in order to appeal to more people in the community. Their mission is to empower marginalized communities and help them assimilate as Americans.

At the Unity Showcase Festival, COPO had its own table set up with a popcorn machine and sign-up sheets for those who wanted more information on ESL classes and voter registration. In the preparation for the upcoming mayoral election in November, Mr. Razvi said, “We’re making sure everyone gets the information they need on voting.”

For some Pakistani Flatbush residents, the information is being delivered. Kaniz Chaudhry, who works and helps manage a store on Coney Island Avenue called Ar Razzaq Fabric, usually works at the polling stations as an inspector. But this year, “I didn’t have time to vote. I was busy at the store.” It just was not a priority for Ms. Chaudhry this year. However, three of her family members did vote on Tuesday and she plans on working at the polling stations in November.

Unfortunately, there are those who are still not receiving all the information they need despite the outreach efforts of organizations like COPO. Kausar Parveen has been living in Flatbush for ten years and works at Madina Fabrics. She described how she voted on Tuesday with her phone by way of text. When questioned further about this supposed voting method, Ms. Parveen became flustered and simply ended the conversation with, “Whatever my husband says, I vote for.”

Little Pakistan represents the largest collection of Muslims in Flatbush. Besides focusing on Pakistanis, there are other organizations that are trying to mobilize the Muslim community in New York City to take an active participation this election year. The Muslim Democratic Club of New York (MDCNY) had in recent weeks been calling up Muslim voters and also used social media and the hashtag, #MuslimVote, to urge Muslim New Yorkers to vote during the primary election.

The secretary of MDCNY, Aliya Latif, states, “The electorate is becoming increasingly diverse and New York Muslims are a critical part of that diversity. According to our data analysis based on Muslim surnames, there are 105,000 registered voters in NYC…We endorsed progressive and civil rights driven candidates up and down the ballot in our effort to improve representation for all New York City voters, particularly American Muslims.”

Leading up to the primary election, MDCNY had endorsed John Liu. Out of all the candidates, John Liu was the only mayoral candidate to actively reach out to Muslims at various mosques and was also the only candidate to speak at the launch of MDCNY in March 2013. Last Friday, MDCNY announced that they are now endorsing Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York City.

In spite of groups like COPO and MDCNY increasing their efforts to encourage Pakistanis and Muslims to participate more in civic affairs, it is still not enough. Even when Pakistanis have the information they need, they are not motivated to make a trip to their polling station. They do not see any significance in their vote when most candidates will not even reach out to them. It may take years before the Pakistani and Muslim community truly mobilize to make their voices heard.

An Evening With Lesbians Who Tech

August 23, 2013

On August 22, 2013, there was a happy hour hosted in the basement of The Dalloway located in SoHo by a group called Lesbians Who Tech. The purpose of this group is to have gatherings of lesbians who work in and around the technology industry to network. There was no formality to this event. Women simply walked into the dimly lit bar, ordered a drink, and started engaging with whoever was standing beside them. Before long, The Dalloway was packed.

Most of these women expressed their concerns right away about the lack of women and lesbians working in the technology field. Katie Sweetman is a graphic and web designer for a company that helps out nonprofit organizations. Although her workspace is very accepting, she stresses it is important “to be able to work at a place where it’s no big deal I’m gay.”

On the other hand, Gwynna Smith who works at the Department of Education for New York City puts more emphasis on the significance of women, in general, joining fields like technology. She says, “It’s important for women to be in technology so that in the future, if this girl wants to go do STEM [science, technology, engineering, math], she has a spot. We have to have mentors for them.”

Sarah Beauge argues, “Any industry where not many women are represented needs women because it builds a sense of community.” Ms. Beauge works in financial consulting, but she recognizes that this applies to any field lacking females.

Additionally, Sarah Lewis sees a lack of female representation even within the queer community. “LGBT groups are mostly represented by white gay men who are just a small part of the community, which is multi-faceted.” Ms. Lewis is a business analyst and project manager for New York Life Insurance. She insists that diversity is essential to creating safe spaces for everyone, and it appears that women are lacking that support within the technology field.

Many in The Dalloway had several theories as to why so many women avoid careers in technology, but it all came down to one factor: fear.

Nicole Murray, a developer and system administrator for the Mount Sinai health system, says, “I don’t think men are pushing women out. I think women are too scared.”

Ms. Murray mentions she did not study anything related to technology in college because she did not think she would excel at it. It was only after she graduated that she stumbled across a job opportunity in Information Technology. She claims she was just at the right place, at the right time. In fact, most of the women in this article are working in technology by chance and without having any background in it.

Moreover, many of these women describe their office environments as being male-dominated. Because of that fact, Danielle Lee, an Associate Web Developer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, thinks this should give women even more reason to work in technology. “Everything is online now. Society is constructed through online devices which are mainly controlled by straight men.”

The Vice President of Technology at Goldman Sachs, Karen Chang, adds to this point saying, “Products are delivered by people who do technology,” and that calls for innovation, which is not being done by women. In order to convince women to join the tech industry in the future, “You have to demystify what it means to do technology. Make it more accessible.”

The more that these women speak about their industry, the easier it is to see how passionate they are about closing the gender gap they witness every day. So on this night, they are happy to meet with other like-minded women doing their best to shake up the technology industry.

The World Hangs Out in Flatbush

August 16, 2013

At the corner of Coney Island Avenue and Newkirk Avenue in Flatbush, Brooklyn stands P.S. 217 Colonel David Marcus School. The school is closed but the playground adjacent to it serves as a public park for the summer. It is the perfect place for friends and family to get together.

On one side of the playground, children ranging from toddlers to seven years old play on the jungle gym and slides. Two women wearing niqabs are perched on a bench engaging in conversation while keeping an eye on the blue bicycle parked next to them. Other parents keep a steady hand nearby as their child attempts to climb up ladders. A South Asian father holds his son up and helps him slowly swing from one monkey bar handle to another. His daughter waits impatiently on the ground for her turn.

There are several veiled women who sit on benches. They rock their babies in their arms and chide their other children when they get too rowdy on the slides. Most of the time, though, the mothers are relaxed and chatting, enjoying the beautiful weather. Some of them are speaking Hebrew. Others are speaking in Arabic.

A man drags an ice cream cart across the playground. He settles in one corner and leans against the wall ringing a bell idly in his hand. No one is paying him any attention, but he doesn’t seem to mind.

On the other side of the playground, are two basketball hoops and a small lawn with a track field surrounding it. There are two separate basketball games going on. One of the games has six players: two are Caucasian, two are African American, and the other two are South Asian. This would be the perfect game to photograph for one of those “diverse” college brochures.

A couple of girls sit at a table and write in their notebooks with their heads bent down. They are the only ones who appear to be involved in a serious activity. By late afternoon, the playground is packed with children running, riding their bicycles, and zipping by on their scooters.

“I hit you! You’re it!” yells a Hispanic boy as he darts away from his friend.

The ice cream man is now collecting money from a small crowd of boys and girls and handing out ice cream bars.

A sizeable group of South Asian teenagers all wearing green clothing walk briskly by the playground, talking excitedly. They cross the street and head towards the Halal Chinese Afghani Cuisine restaurant. Today is August 14, 2013, Pakistan’s independence day. The green clothing is worn in celebration for this day. Next to the restaurant are Punjab pharmacy, Lahori Chilli, and further down Coney Island Avenue is an Orthodox Jewish school called Congregation Agudath Sholom School.

Three African American teenage boys who epitomize the very definition of “hipster” roll into the playground on their skateboards. After a few turns around the small track field, one of them shows a young Hispanic boy some tricks on his skateboard. The young boy smiles and looks on in awe. The older boy then slides the skateboard towards him to try out for himself.

The young boy skates across the playground over a large-scale painting of a world map on the pavement. Clearly, the artwork goes well with this neighborhood.