New Mexico’s Judge John J. Romero, Jr. has accepted an appointment on the National Advisory Committee on the Sex Trafficking of Children and Youth in the United States.
In this role, outlined in the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act of 2014, Romero will advise the Attorney General, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and Congress on national policies to improve the prevention and intervention of sex trafficking of children and youth. The committee will also recommend best practices for states to follow.
Romero currently serves in the Second Judicial District Court of the Children’s Court Division in Albuquerque, N.M. and hears delinquency, child welfare and adoption cases. He sits on the Board of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) and is also the lead judge for the NCJFCJ’s National Judicial Institute on Domestic Child Sex Trafficking.
His commitment to child welfare advocacy includes presiding over the Program for the Empowerment of Girls (PEG), an intensive multi-agency juvenile probation program for girls who have some type of violence and trauma in their history.
He spoke to The Chronicle of Social Change about his role on the Committee.
CSC: What drives your interest so much in the this area of policy and this work?
JR: I’ve been a judge for, coming up on 14 years in a few months, from the very beginning, even before I was a judge, I was involved in representing young kids in contested custody cases as “guardian ad litem.” And I’m a father and grandfather, so I hang out with kids all the time. There was a book that was written, something about the most important things I learned in life I learned in kindergarten … the corollary to that is that many of the important things I’ve learned today is from kids. So when I got on the bench, I was involved in the infancy in the birthing of a program that we ended labeling as Program for the Empowerment of Girls, which was essentially a multi-agency, multi-disciplinary intensive probation supervision program for girls in the juvenile justice system who are already adjudicated.
That’s been a dynamic effort because we keep changing and modifying based on what new things we learn. A lot of what we’ve learned is what doesn’t work. And finally learning how to encourage the voice of the girls in our program and, to some measure, as adults, yield to them as the experts in what’s best for them, which is hard to do by the way. When human trafficking generally and sex trafficking specifically came up on the radar, I thought “oh my god, the cases we’ve been handling have this going on and we didn’t recognize it for what it was.” A label for that sometimes is “hidden in plain view” – you don’t know what you’re looking for, so you don’t know what it is when it’s right before you, so that’s been what’s driven my interest.
Additionally, I’m one of those judges that is very blessed to be able to specialize in delinquency that is juvenile justice and dependency work, and some of the data certainly suggests that that is an area where we ought to be more alert to what’s going on with our kids. I guess the question is not “what did you do?” but “what has happened to you?” that we’re learning to start asking now, not necessarily outright, but through the people who work with them on a more confidential basis.
CSC: How do you see in your new role some of this vision translating into policy?
JR: It’s multi-faceted. What I’ve experienced is the degree of awareness varies nationally, varies within our own state, so how do we create that awareness while simultaneously developing an appropriate gender-responsive and trauma-informed venue and services for these kids? How to develop services generally, and how to do it in a way that builds relationships and engages these kids rather than chasing them off as another exploiter because sometimes our system is an exploiter as well. I would venture to guess that many of our child welfare workers in the trenches still don’t get the connection about why we are supposed to have prudent parenting and how that is preventive of kids running away and getting recruited into sex trafficking.
CSC: What challenges do you think you will face in particular in helping with that awareness and translating that down to policies that affect folks on the ground?
One of the basic obstacles is the lack of awareness among many people in our community and nationally that the issue of working with children is a very important issue, in fact a very pivotal issue in how juvenile work, and dependency by and large, is unknown and unrecognized by the population generally. The only things that seem to matter are the high profile criminal cases. When we’re talking about country’s most valuable resources, our children, we give a lot of lip service to that but when it comes down to it, placing value and importance n the work of juvenile and family court judges, that’s still a hard sell for some people to make them believe that it’s important.
Another obstacle is dispelling many of the myths that surround the issue of human trafficking generally and sex trafficking specifically. The first myth is that that’s not happening here – that’s only with kids sneaking across the border or being brought into New York from Eastern Europe and that doesn’t happen with our kids. That of course is a falsehood.
Another obstacle is the many myths that surround boys who are being trafficked, in terms of labor trafficking or sex trafficking or otherwise. That they are willing participants and they are part of the “boys will be boys.”
The other obstacle is recognizing that among us are the transgender and gender non-conforming youth who are particularly vulnerable to being recruited and trafficked, and they are basically disenfranchised by their own families. So what do they turn to, what is their safety net?
The last one I want to mention is any recognition that the purchasers of sex, the buyers, are exploiters just like the pimp is. And many of the buyers tend to be educated white guys with credentials – judges, lawyers, businessmen – who only in a few places, notably Seattle, Washington, and a few others, are they being targeted as part of the problem. Which kind of makes basic economic sense – you address the demand and maybe you can affect the supply.
CSC: Do you see any areas that there’s particular opportunities or momentum to make headway on a few of those issues that you mentioned?
Let me start by saying that these problems are not court problems exclusively. They’re not law enforcement problems, juvenile justice problems, exclusively. They are instead community problems, and I think the way to make headway is to engage the community and we don’t, as court persons, we don’t have to do it, we can get things started along with other professionals. We have an awareness and are working on this, but until and unless our communities see it as an issue that they want to get involved in, for the right reasons, not for their own fame and glory but to to actually be a resource to exploited children and to be involved in addressing the demand side and the supply side.
CSC: How long is your term for on the committee?
According to the information that we got it’s for five years, and it can be renewed.
CSC: Looking back five years from now, what would you hope to see?
I would hope that court professionals, not just in juvenile court arena but in the adult arena, adult criminal, and even and maybe especially divorce court family law, that there would be a heightened awareness in all of the professionals who work in those arenas with families and kids, to be educated on what an appropriate response is, to be educated and aware of how we identify in a non-retraumatizing way, and how we develop long-term, sustaining resources and relationships for the victims. Because it’s not a one and done, it’s a long-term process, and to have folks who are engaged for the long term, not just the quick game that’s over with and on the next challenge.
CSC: Is there anything else you think is important to that you would like to add or would like readers to know?
We can’t talk about preventing sex trafficking without talking about how we deal with young people in a better way. I think at the foundation of the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act is “how do we normalize an already vulnerable child’s experience in foster care for example – how can they be as normal a kid as the kid they go to school with who’s not in foster care?” How do we encourage that individual capacity, and we all learn, as my dad used to say, from making mistakes and making bad choices, because that’s how we learn what bad choices are and what good choices are. But our juvenile justice system and our child welfare system tends to put these kids in a bubble sometimes and stand over them and wait for a gotcha rather than pull back like we would with our own kids and say “ok, you have the foundational principles, you have some basic teachings, but you’re going to make mistakes just like I did.” And again my dad used to say, it’s not a sin to make a mistake, it’s a sin to make a mistake and not learn from it. And our system very frequently frowns upon mistakes, and when mistakes are made the kids pay for those mistakes by another term of probation or incarceration in a juvenile prison, or getting kicked out of foster care and then ending up in the juvenile justice system.
We need to learn how to do that differently, hear the voices of the kids and give them credit for being knowledgeable about their situation and being the experts for what works for them.
Interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Carl Finer is a freelance writer focusing on education, community development, running, and child welfare.