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.

Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images
  • 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.

Regan Williams

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.

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