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When will we begin to take child sex trafficking more seriously?
Regan Williams, co-founder of Seen and Heard, wants adults to listen to children.
- Regan Williams, CEO of Seen and Heard, is on a mission to help foster youth develop necessary social and career skills through the performing arts.
- Williams says 300,000 American children are commercially trafficked every year.
- Children in our society are ignored except when they're famous or sexualized, which is part of the reason sexual abuse is not covered.
Between Jeffrey Epstein and George Nader, there's been a lot of talk about child sex trafficking and child pornography in the news lately. If the media properly covered these topics, we would always be talking about how children are abused. Sadly, the reason we're discussing it now is due to these men's links to the current administration. Better that than nothing, however.
Some people do talk about these topics often; they just aren't heard all that much. Regan Williams, the CEO and co-founder of the nonprofit, Seen and Heard, has made taking care of and raising awareness of foster youth a focus of her life. Having known Regan for a number of years, it is refreshing to watch someone so fully try to create a better world for the underserved, especially as those in need are children.
They need our help. As you'll read in our conversation below (listen to our talk here), 300,000 children in America are trafficked for sex every year; the global number is in the millions. Sadly, foster youth are a prime target for traffickers.
Organizations like Seen and Heard are essential for helping to raise children to be empowered adults. The nonprofit teaches social and career skills through performing arts. As Williams mentions below, most foster youth have experienced trauma, often physical abuse or sexual trauma. Acting and role playing offer them opportunities to cooperate and collaborate while thinking critically and creatively. No child deserves abuse from the worst of us.
Pictured: The Goodsky children, who have spent more than 1,000 days in foster care.
Photo By Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via Getty Images
Derek: You've worked with foster youth for a long time and you've also cared for three foster daughters. What are the biggest challenges you've had?
Regan: The things that pose the largest challenges I've experienced really have to do with behavior. Usually when a child is removed from their home, there's been a significant amount of trauma or neglect. You're almost always going to be getting a kid that has some pretty significant behavioral challenges, like reactive attachment disorder or fetal alcohol syndrome or drug exposure in utero.
It affects how they can learn and it also affects how to correct or discipline them. Traditional disciplinary measures just don't work with kids that have experienced trauma or have learning delays or disabilities or mental health issues. So you have to have proper training.
Derek: You started a nonprofit, Seen and Heard, which develops character through performance art training. Why did you choose that direction to work with foster youth?
Regan: Both my husband and I have backgrounds in performing arts. We noticed that our training really is a transferable skill set. There are a lot of services being provided for foster youth as far as jobs training. There are a lot of life skills-style training, yet there seems to be [a lack of] professional skills for a lot of transitional-age youth.
This is basically for kids between the ages of 16 and 21. You could provide employment or a college education scholarship for these young people, but the likelihood of them retaining their job or completing their education is more unlikely. That's because when kids are bounced around from home to home or living in a group home environment, they really have created a lot of maladaptive behavior over the years to protect themselves or get their needs met. Receiving constructive criticism or collaborating with others are skills that haven't had a chance to take root.
We found that a performing arts education — for example, improvisation or scene study, creating a character, working with a scene partner — are directly applicable to a workplace environment. Even a skill like mindfulness is something that actors really have to build before they can take on a role or enter into the life of the character. You have to empty out and focus on your breathing. You have to be present in your physical body. That skill is tremendously hard for young people who have experienced trauma because their default is to escape, lash out, fight, flight, or freeze. We're building on EQ or soft skills through the performing arts.
The Epstein case is not an outlier. Child sex trafficking is 'pervasive' in the U.S.
Derek: On your site, you write that there are 61,000 youths in foster care in California, which is almost the same number as homeless people in Los Angeles County. I know these are two disparate populations, but at the same time, you can argue that both of these populations don't have anywhere they can call home. I wonder why, with all of the focus on homelessness, do you think that foster care is not something as a culture we talk about nearly as much?
Regan: Oh man, that's such a good question. I've asked myself that over and over. By and large children are invisible unless they're put on a stage or they're commodified or sexualized. In addition, no kid is going to want to put on a t-shirt that says "I'm a foster kid." They're hard to identify because they're not identifying themselves. When you have a population of homeless people in Los Angeles, it's visible. You see it everywhere. Foster youth technically have a place to live, but there's a difference between home and shelter.
Derek: Speaking of sexualization, you initially reached out to me about having this talk with the Jeffrey Epstein case in the news. Do you think now that we're going to start hearing more about sex trafficking and take it more seriously?
Regan: There are 300,000 American children every year that are involved and being commercially trafficked...
Derek: Sorry to interrupt, but this is beyond sexual abuse. You're talking commercially trafficked?
Regan: Yeah, I's a lot. It's a $150 billion a year industry globally, just under drug trafficking. It's a very, very lucrative industry. It's such a common thing to have a child be sexually molested. Of the three girls that we brought in when we were fostering, two had experienced some form of sexual abuse or molestation. I'm not sure what the statistics are as far as how many youth that are in foster care have been sexually abused or assaulted. I'm sure that number is very high. Nobody talks about that.
What's so fascinating about Epstein is that, "Oh, so now we're going to start the conversation about trafficking," when people don't understand that there's been thousands and thousands of young people — for the most part, women with a median age of 11-15 — and this has been going on for quite some time.
Fortunately, there's been legal changes. Senate Bill 1322 prohibits law enforcement officers from arresting minors for prostitution. Still, people aren't talking it very much. I wonder if it's because these are poor communities; these are black and brown girls, sometimes boys as well, but for the most part girls, and because Epstein is a high-powered, wealthy individual.
Derek: When the Epstein case first reopened, there were members of Congress that were trying to place the blame on the victims. This isn't uncommon, but I think it was especially unsettling because it was children. For a while you heard the media reference them as "young women." How does that make you feel?
Regan: It's hard to put into words because so often young women aren't believed. It's just heartbreaking when I hear things like that. It's even tougher for young women that do not have a support system. Hopefully, the women that have been assaulted and abused by Epstein have that kind of support system.
There are a lot of foster parents where, if an allegation is made against them by a youth, the Department of Children and Family Services absolutely takes that seriously. We'll make an unannounced visit to make sure that everything is in order. But it's so sad that when you have a situation where abuse is happening and a social worker comes out and removes a child (and has evidence that there has been abuse and neglect), if that young woman does not want to go home because she's being abused by an uncle or a father or older brother, she has to testify. In many cases, a family member or relative is in that same courtroom when she is expected to testify.
Derek: We've talked over the years extensively about religion and hold different views in terms of the metaphysics of religion. But I really appreciate the moral and ethical aspects, how they're instilled in cultures and societies. When you're seeing what's happening, say with Epstein or the border crisis, where people espouse religiosity in their personal lives but then don't follow up with their moral obligations, what do you think about that?
Regan: The first thing that comes to mind is something that Jesus said. He had a bunch of little children gathered around him and his disciples were saying, "Let's get these kids out of here, they're wasting our time." Jesus really valued children. He said we as adults need to come to God with a sense of wonder, desire, belief, all those things. What he said is just profound to me: "Whoever causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for him to have a millstone tied around their neck and dropped into the ocean." I know it sounds vengeful, but it gives me so much comfort to know that Jesus took that so seriously.
Unfortunately, it happens more often these days in this administration. People talk one moment about a Christian principle or an idea and then the very next statement might be just shocking because oftentimes we do not see justice.
Derek: I want to ask an extremely difficult question, but it's one that I've thought about because there are organizations that exist for adults who are attracted to children but don't want to be. If you look at the advances we've had in our understanding of genes, we might find that there's a certain genetic composition or brain chemistry of people who are attracted to children. These organizations are saying, we're trying not to be stigmatized here, we're looking for therapeutic resources.
Regan: I'm not sure what the statistics are, but I would say the vast majority of people that perpetrate sexual crimes against children were themselves abused as a child. I almost see that as a generational epidemic. If your uncle or father molested you, you have a higher likelihood of molesting when you become an adult. That's not universal, but I do believe that that's one of the factors to consider.
Another factor is pornography. There are women that are 18 that play far, far younger. We sexualize children in role play or fantasy. Unfortunately, there's plenty of child pornography out there. There is a certain aspect of building an appetite for viewing pornography with younger and younger subjects.
I feel like it's nature and nurture that we're dealing with, but as far as rehabilitation, I am all for that because I'm on the other side of it. I'm mostly concerned with advocating and caring for young people that are coming out of the system. Most of those young people have had a history of sexual abuse or physical abuse. I haven't really paid a whole lot of attention to the other side, but to take a first pass at it, I would say we should be providing services for people that are wanting out of the trap.
"Deepfakes" and "cheap fakes" are becoming strikingly convincing — even ones generated on freely available apps.
- A writer named Magdalene Visaggio recently used FaceApp and Airbrush to generate convincing portraits of early U.S. presidents.
- "Deepfake" technology has improved drastically in recent years, and some countries are already experiencing how it can weaponized for political purposes.
- It's currently unknown whether it'll be possible to develop technology that can quickly and accurately determine whether a given video is real or fake.
After former U.S. President William Henry Harrison delivered his inaugural speech on March 4, 1841, he posed for a daguerreotype, the first widely available photographic technology. It became the first photo taken of a sitting American president.
As for the eight presidents before Harrison, history can see them only through artistic renderings. (The exception is a handful of surviving daguerreotypes of John Quincy Adams, taken after he left office. In his diary, Adams described them as "hideous" and "too true to the original.")
But a recent project offers a glimpse of what early presidents might've looked like if photographed through modern cameras. Using FaceApp and Airbrush, Magdalene Visaggio, author of books such as "Eternity Girl" and "Kim & Kim," generated a collection of convincing portraits of the nation's first presidents, from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant.
Modern Presidents George Washington https://t.co/CURJQB0kap— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611952243.0
What might be surprising is that Visaggio was able to generate the images without a background in graphic design, using freely available tools. She wrote on Twitter:
"A lot of people think I'm a digital artist or whatever, so let me clarify how I work. Everything you see here is done in Faceapp+Airbrush on my phone. On the outside, each takes between 15-30 mins. Washington was a pretty simple one-and-done replacement."
Ulysses S Grant https://t.co/L1IGXLI3Vl— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611959480.0
"Other than that? I am not a visual artist in any sense, just a hobbyist using AI tools see what she can make. I'm actually a professional comics writer."
Did another pass at Lincoln. https://t.co/PdT4QVpMbn— Magdalene Visaggio (@Magdalene Visaggio)1611973947.0
Of course, Visaggio isn't the first person to create deepfakes (or "cheap fakes") of politicians.
In 2017, many people got their first glimpse of the technology through a video depicting former President Barack Obama warning: "We're entering an era in which our enemies can make it look like anyone is saying anything at any point in time." The video quickly reveals itself to be fake, with comedian Jordan Peele speaking for the computer-generated Obama.
While deepfakes haven't yet caused significant chaos in the U.S., incidents in other nations may offer clues of what's to come.
The future of deepfakes
In 2018, Gabon's president Ali Bongo had been out of the country for months receiving medical treatment. After Bongo hadn't been seen in public for months, rumors began swirling about his condition. Some suggested Bongo might even be dead. In response, Bongo's administration released a video that seemed to show the president addressing the nation.
But the video is strange, appearing choppy and blurry in parts. After political opponents declared the video to be a deepfake, Gabon's military attempted an unsuccessful coup. What's striking about the story is that, to this day, experts in the field of deepfakes can't conclusively verify whether the video was real.
The uncertainty and confusion generated by deepfakes poses a "global problem," according to a 2020 report from The Brookings Institution. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense released some of the first tools able to successfully detect deepfake videos. The problem, however, is that deepfake technology keeps improving, meaning forensic approaches may forever be one step behind the most sophisticated forms of deepfakes.
As the 2020 report noted, even if the private sector or governments create technology to identify deepfakes, they will:
"...operate more slowly than the generation of these fakes, allowing false representations to dominate the media landscape for days or even weeks. "A lie can go halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on," warns David Doermann, the director of the Artificial Intelligence Institute at the University of Buffalo. And if defensive methods yield results short of certainty, as many will, technology companies will be hesitant to label the likely misrepresentations as fakes."
Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.
- People have been digging up limestone and gypsum from below Paris since Roman times.
- They left behind a vast network of corridors and galleries, since reused for many purposes — most famously, the Catacombs.
- Soon, the ancient labyrinth may find a new lease of life, providing a sustainable form of air conditioning.
Ancient mining areas below Paris for limestone (red) and gypsum (green).Credit: Émile Gérards (1859–1920) / Public domain
"If you're brave enough to try, you might be able to catch a train from UnLondon to Parisn't, or No York, or Helsunki, or Lost Angeles, or Sans Francisco, or Hong Gone, or Romeless."
China Miéville's fantasy novel Un Lun Dun is set in an eerie mirror version of London. In it, he hints that other cities have similar doubles. On the list that he offhandedly rattles off, Paris stands out. Because the City of Light really does have a twisted sister. Below Paris Overground is Paris Underground, the City of Darkness.
Most people will have heard of the Catacombs of Paris: subterranean charnel houses for the bones of around six million dead Parisians. They are one of the French capital's most famous tourist attractions – and undoubtedly its grisliest.
But they constitute only a small fragment of what the locals themselves call les carrières de Paris ("the mines of Paris"), a collection of tunnels and galleries up to 300 km (185 miles) long, most of which are off-limits to the public, yet eagerly explored by so-called cataphiles.
The Grand Réseau Sud ("Great Southern Network") takes up around 200 km beneath the 5th, 6th, 14th, and 15th arrondissements (administrative districts), all south of the river Seine. Smaller networks run beneath the 12th, 13th, and 16th arrondissements. How did they get there?
Paris stone and plaster of Paris
It all starts with geology. Sediments left behind by ancient seas created large deposits of limestone in the south of the city, mostly south of the Seine; and gypsum in the north, particularly in the hills of Montmartre and Ménilmontant. Highly sought after as building materials, both have been mined since Roman times.
The limestone is also known as Lutetian limestone (Lutetia is the Latin name for ancient Paris) or simply "Paris stone." It has been used for many famous Paris landmarks, including the Louvre and the grand buildings erected during Georges-Eugène Haussmann's large-scale remodelling of the city in the mid-19th century. The stone's warm, yellowish color provides visual unity and a bright elegance to the city.
The fine-powdered gypsum of northern Paris, used for making quick-setting plaster, was so famed for its quality that "plaster of Paris" is still used as a term of distinction. However, as gypsum is very soluble in water, the underground cavities left by its extraction were extremely vulnerable to collapse.
Like living on top of a rotting tooth: subsidence starts far below the surface, but it can destroy your house.Credit : Delavanne Avocats
In previous centuries, a road would occasionally open up to swallow a chariot, or even a whole house would disappear down a sinkhole. In 1778, a catastrophic subsidence in Ménilmontant killed seven. That's why the Montmartre gypsum quarries were dynamited rather than just left as they were. The remaining gypsum caves were to be filled up with concrete.
The official body governing Paris down below is the Inspection Générale des Carrières (IGC), founded in the late 1770s by King Louis XVI. The IGC was tasked with mapping and, where needed, propping up the current and ancient (and sometimes forgotten) mining corridors and galleries hiding beneath Paris.
A delightful hiding place
Also around that time, the dead of Paris were getting in the way of the living. At the end of the 18th century, their final destination consisted of about 200 small cemeteries, scattered throughout the city — all bursting at the seams, so to speak. There was no room to bury the newly dead, and the previously departed were fouling up both the water and air around their respective churchyards.
Something radical had to happen. And it did. From 1785 until 1814, the smaller cemeteries were emptied of their bones, which were transported with full funerary pomp to their final resting place in the ancient limestone quarries at Tombe-Issoire. Three large and modern cemeteries were opened to receive the remains of subsequent generations of Parisians: Montparnasse, Père-Lachaise, and Passy.
The six million dead Parisians in the Catacombs, from all corners of the capital and across many centuries, together form the world's largest necropolis — their now anonymized skulls and bones methodically stacked, occasionally into whimsical patterns. The Catacombs are fashioned into a memorial to the brevity of life. The message above the entrance reads: Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort. ("Halt! This is the empire of Death.")
That has not stopped the Catacombs, accessible via a side door to a classicist building on the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, making just about every Top 20 list of things to see in Paris.
An underground economy
However, while the Catacombs certainly are the most famous part of the centuries-old network beneath Paris, and in non-pandemic times draw thousands of tourists each day, they constitute just 1.7 km (1 mile) of the 300-km (185-mile) tunneling total.
Subterranean Paris wasn't just used for mining and storing dead people. In the 17th century, Carthusian monks converted the ancient quarries under their monastery into distilleries for the green or yellow liqueur that still carries their name, chartreuse.
Because the mines generally keep a constant cool temperature of around 15° C (60° F), they were also ideal for brewing beer, as happened on a large scale from the end of the 17th century until well into the 20th century. Several caves were dug especially for establishing breweries, and not just because of the ambient temperature: going underground allowed brewers to remain close to their customers without having to pay a premium for real estate up top.
Overview of the Paris Catacombs.Credit: Inspection Générale des Carrières, 1857 / Public domain.
At the end of the 19th century, the underground breweries of the 14th arrondissement alone produced more than a million hectoliters (22 million gallons) per year. One of the most famous of Paris' underground breweries, Dumesnil, stayed in operation until the late 1960s.
In that decade, the network of corridors and galleries south of the Seine, long since abandoned by miners, became the unofficial playground for the young people of Paris. They explored the fantastical world beneath their feet, in some cases via entry points located in their very schools. Fascinated, these cataphiles ("catacomb lovers") read up on old books, explored the subterranean labyrinth, and drew up schematics that were passed around among fellow initiates as reverently as treasure maps.
As Robert Macfarlane writes in Underland, Paris-beneath-their-feet became "a place where people might slip into different identities, assume new ways of being and relating, become fluid and wild in ways that are constrained on the surface."
Some larger caves turned into notorious party zones: a 7-meter-tall gallery below the Val-de-Grâce hospital is widely known as "Salle Z." Over the last few decades, various other locations in subterranean Paris have hosted jazz and rock concerts and rave parties — like no other city, Paris really has an "underground music scene."
Hokusai's Great Wave as the backdrop to the "beach" under Paris.Credit: Reddit
Cataphiles vs. cataphobes
With popularity came increased reports of nuisance and crime — the tunnels provided easy access to telephone cables, which were stolen for the resale value of their copper.
The general public's "discovery" of the underground network led the city of Paris to officially interdict all access by non-authorized persons. That decree dates back to 1955, but the "underground police" have an understanding with seasoned cataphiles. Their main targets are so-called tourists, who by their lack of knowledge expose themselves to risk of injuries or worse, and degrade their surroundings, often leaving loads of litter in their wake.
The understanding does not extend to the IGC. Unlike in the 19th century, when weak cavities were shored up by purpose-built pillars, the policy now is to inject concrete to fill up endangered spaces — thus progressively blocking off parts of the network. That procedure has also been used to separate the Catacombs to prevent "infiltration" of the site by cataphiles.
Many subterranean streets have their own names, signs and all. This is the Rue des Bourguignons (Street of the Burgundians) below the Champs des Capucins (Capuchin Field), neither of which exists on the surface.Credit: Jean-François Gornet via Wikimedia and licensed under
The cataphiles, however, are fighting back. In a game of cat and mouse with the authorities, they are reopening blocked passages and creating chatières ("cat flaps") through which they can squeeze into chambers no longer accessible via other underground corridors.
Catacomb climate control
Alone against the unstoppable tide of concrete, the amateurs of Underground Paris would be helpless. But the fight against climate change may turn the subterranean labyrinths from a liability into an asset — and the City of Paris into an ally.
The UN's 2015 Climate Plan — concluded in Paris, by the way — requires the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050. And Paris itself wants to be Europe's greenest city by 2030. More sustainable climate control of our living spaces would be a great help toward both targets. A lot of energy is spent heating houses in winter and cooling them in summer.
This is where the constant temperature of the Parisian tunnels comes in. It's not just good for brewing beer; it's a source of geothermal energy, says Fieldwork, an architectural firm based in Paris. It can be used to temper temperatures, helping to cool houses in summer and warming them in winter.
One catch for the cataphiles: it also works when the underground cavities are filled up with concrete. So perhaps one day, Paris Underground, fully filled up with concrete, will completely fall off the map, reducing the city's formerly real doppelgänger into an air conditioning unit.
Cool in summer, warm in winter: Paris Underground could become Paris A/C.Credit: Fieldwork
Strange Maps #1083
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meconium contains a wealth of information.
- A new study finds that the contents of an infants' first stool, known as meconium, can predict if they'll develop allergies with a high degree of accuracy.
- A metabolically diverse meconium, which indicates the initial food source for the gut microbiota, is associated with fewer allergies.
- The research hints at possible early interventions to prevent or treat allergies just after birth.
The prevalence of allergies arising in childhood has increased over the last 50 years, with 30 percent of the human population now having some kind of atopic disease such as eczema, food allergies, or asthma. The cause of this increase is still subject to debate, though it has been associated with a number of factors, including changes to the gut microbiomes of infants.
A new study by Canadian researchers published in Cell Reports Medicine may shed further light on how these allergies develop in children by examining the contents of their first diaper.
The things you do for science
The research team examined the first stool of 100 infants from the CHILD Cohort Study. The first stool of an infant is a thick, green, horrid-looking substance called meconium. It consists of various things that the infant ingests during the second half of gestation. Additionally, it provides not only a snapshot of what the infant was exposed to during that time, but it also reveals what the food sources will be for the initial gut bacteria that colonize the baby's digestive tract.
The content of the meconium was examined and found to contain such varied elements as amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates, and myriad other substances.
A graph of the comparative, summed abundance of different elements in a metabolic pathway after scaling to median abundance of each metabolite. The blue figures are those children without atopy, the yellow ones show the data for those with an atopic condition. Petersen et al.
The authors fed this information into an algorithm that used this data, along with the identities of the bacteria present as well as the baby's overall health, to predict which infants would go on to develop allergies within one year. The algorithm got it right 76 percent of the time.
A way to prevent childhood allergies?
Infants whose meconium had a less diverse metabolic niche the initial microbes to settle in the gut were at the highest risk of developing allergies a year later. Many of these elements were associated with the presence or absence of different bacterial groups in the digestive system of the child, which play an increasingly appreciated role in our overall health and development. The findings were summarized by senior co-author Dr. Brett Finlay:
"Our analysis revealed that newborns who developed allergic sensitization by one year of age had significantly less 'rich' meconium at birth, compared to those who didn't develop allergic sensitization."
The findings could be used to help understand how allergies form and even how to prevent them. Co-author Dr. Stuart Turvey commented on this possibility:
"We know that children with allergies are at the highest risk of also developing asthma. Now we have an opportunity to identify at-risk infants who could benefit from early interventions before they even begin to show signs and symptoms of allergies or asthma later in life."
A model for early childhood allergies
Petersen et al.
As shown above, the authors constructed a model of how they believe metabolites and bacterial diversity help prevent allergies. Increased diversity of metabolic products in the meconium encourage the development of "healthy" families of bacteria, like Peptostreptococcaceae, which in turn promote the development of a healthy and diverse gut microbiome. Ultimately, such diversity decreases the likelihood that a child will develop allergies.