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Child Exploitation with Dr. Deaneè Johnson

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Child exploitation is an incredibly sensitive and difficult topic. It is vital to understand what resources are available to help the victims find healing.

Today’s guest is Dr. Deaneè Johnson. Dr. Johnson has been a key player in advancing the victim services field at the federal, state, and local levels for over twenty years. As an OVC Fellow, she has assisted with collaborating with the DOJ to identify a range of child exploitation programs available nationwide, illuminating the best practices. She was most recently the chief program officer at the National Center for Victims of Crime before building her own consulting business Ascent Connection and Consulting Solutions. She also serves on the National Steering Committee for the Vision 21 Linking Systems of Care for Children and Youth, the Advisory Board for Preparedness Without Paranoia, and the Charles County Board of Education Safety in Maryland.

If you know or suspect child exploitation, sexual abuse, or any other kind of child victimization, contact the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-422-4453. If you are looking for more resources as a victim of past child abuse, call Victim Connect at (855) 484-2846.

Show Notes:

  • [1:39] – Dr. Johnson began her interest in this field of child exploitation in 1999 as a volunteer mentor. During her undergrad courses, she was focused on child abuse.
  • [2:27] – After Dr. Johnson received her degree in Criminal Justice, she started her Master’s in Counseling. She counseled adolescent youth that were victim of sexual abuse.
  • [3:15] – Through her experience in counseling, Dr. Johnson felt that something was stirred inside her and she no longer felt that counseling was the direction she should take.
  • [4:13] – Deaneè was given the opportunity to build a forensic interviewing program in a rural community in Texas. She got her masters and transferred her focus to forensic interviewing but still didn’t understand her drive.
  • [5:19] – She put all her energy and education towards the children who were victimized sexually.
  • [6:28] – Throughout her experiences, Deaneè had a memory pop up and realized that she did not have memories from her childhood other than images from photos. She had been a victim of sexual abuse.
  • [7:49] – Deaneè decided to go for her doctorate in Child Development with the drive to apply it to child victimization.
  • [9:13] – Any child can be a victim. No statistic is going to be solid because it is such an unreported crime.
  • [10:34] – 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 10 boys will be sexually victimized before their 18th birthday.
  • [11:03] – There is no specific population or demographic that has higher rates of victimization than others.
  • [12:00] – There are ways to minimize the likelihood of child exploitation but Dr. Johnson does not like to use the word prevention.
  • [13:23] – Dr. Johnson is a chairperson on the Advisory Board of Preparedness Without Paranoia. She explains the education they provide.
  • [14:55] – We’re really uncomfortable talking about sex with kids in general and now add on talking about unwanted sex. That discomfort will show to our kids.
  • [16:00] – If a child goes to their parents with a disclosure, we want to make sure the child knows that what they have to say is important and that keeps communication open.
  • [17:27] – Believe the child who discloses. Whether or not the child is telling the truth is not the job of the parent at that moment. The job is to listen to your child and be there for them.
  • [18:30] – If a child has been victimized once, it increases their likelihood of being victimized again. They need to have someone they can talk to about it.
  • [19:50] – There are two different types of disclosures: active and non-active or accidental.
  • [21:49] – Disclosure will vary child by child.
  • [23:14] – Victimization from a family member that the child loves may not be something they think is inappropriate.
  • [25:11] – Dr. Johnson defines grooming and examples of what this could look like. Grooming is a slow process and creates a false sense of trust.
  • [26:38] – Grooming usually ends with threats if children disclose. It is a vicious cycle that continues with the kids feeling isolated and ashamed.
  • [27:57] – The process of isolating a child or adolescent looks different in each situation and relationship. Dr. Johnson describes a story of an experience with a teenager she worked with.
  • [30:01] – If you feel that there is something going on with a child you know, seeking help depends on the state you live in. Find out if you need to go to Child Protective Services and/or law enforcement.
  • [32:09] – Dr. Johnson shares the contact information for the National Child Abuse Hotline and what they will assist with.
  • [33:41] – She also shares the contact information for Victim Connect which is a resource for those who have been victimized in their own childhood.
  • [34:19] – Many rape crisis centers offer counseling free of charge. Dr. Johnson shares other ways to get resources for healing in tribal communities.
  • [36:41] – Dr. Johnson defines polyvictimization and how the cycle of abuse continues without intervention.
  • [38:39] – There is a trajectory of polyvictimization that all starts with the early onset to exposure to violence, trauma, or childhood adversity.
  • [40:36] – There is a higher likelihood that unaddressed trauma creates an adverse response. When you have individuals who do not have trauma addressed, their ability to cope and make good decisions decreases. 
  • [41:51] – The saying “hurt people will hurt people,” is somewhat true but not in every situation. Dr. Johnson describes it as unaddressed trauma and not the victimization itself that causes someone to hurt others.

Thanks for joining us on Easy Prey. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes and leave a nice review. 


Today, we’re going to talk about a topic—probably for a lot of people—challenging to talk about or challenging to listen to, and that’s child exploitation. Can you give me some background of how you got into this field? I know you’ve been involved in the field for about 20 years?

Right. I have been involved in the field of victim services for a little over 20 years now, specifically with child sexual exploitation and polyvictimization. It all started back in 1999. I was a volunteer mentor for adolescent sexual assault survivors way back in Huntsville, Texas, when I was working on my undergrad degree. I was working on my degree in criminal justice, and I was taking a child abuse class. I was interested in focusing my attention on child abuse, and I didn’t understand what it was that was drawing me into that field. I knew that that was definitely something that I wanted to do. After I got my degree in criminal justice, I went on thinking that I wanted to work specifically with adolescents who were sexually abused. I started my master’s degree in counseling and started a practicum at a rape crisis center, where I would basically counsel only adolescent youth who were victims of sexual violence, and that was the majority of my clientele. Although, I did have a lot of domestic violence cases as well as adult sexual assault cases too.

As I was pursuing my counseling degree, I realized I don’t know if counseling really is the direction that I wanted to go because it was stirring something else up inside of me and it was odd. I truly didn’t know what it was. In the meantime, when I was in Texas, I was approached by a children’s advocacy center that was fairly new in the area. The whole concept of forensic interviewing was a fairly new concept as far as having a neutral party to conduct their forensic interviews. The forensic interviewer is a neutral party that works with law enforcement and Child Protective Services that gathers information on whether or not a crime of child abuse has actually taken place. I was offered the opportunity to build a forensic interviewing program—in this particular children advocacy program served in a 12-county region in a very rural community in Texas, and I was all about it. I ended up getting my master’s degree and transferring over into becoming a forensic interviewer, and still did not quite understand where this drive was because I had that ember that was just burning inside me. There was something that was just burning inside me to where I was passionate about what I was doing, and the focus of what I was focused on, and that was specifically working with children who were victimized sexually.

I’ve put all of my energy, all of my education towards the research that I was doing with school. All of my education was towards understanding the child who was victimized. It was interesting because people would ask me how I liked my job, and I would say that it was fun, and people didn’t understand where I was coming from because they would say, “How dare you” almost. And it wasn’t that it was joyful, it was just that I embraced my job. I enjoyed the detectives that I worked with, the advocates that I worked with. The job that I had was my dream job in a sense that I felt valued. I was good at it and I still didn’t quite know what it was. I didn’t know what that burning ember was, and then something finally clicked. I can’t quite put a finger on when or where but there was a memory that popped up in that, I, myself was abused. I don’t have a lot of childhood memories. I would say from the time that I was five to nine, I can’t tell you anything about my childhood, the only thing that I remember are images from my family photo albums. If I don’t have a picture of it, I can’t describe my childhood from the time that I was five to nine. That was fairly troubling, but at the same time, it was also a—that was my burning ember, that was the driving force for me to continue on.

I wanted to know more about the children that were sitting in front of me. What was their development? What more did I need to know that I could do to help them through that healing process so they didn’t have the same experience that I did—not remembering a huge significant part of their life. I decided to go on and obtain my doctorate degree in child development. When I was going through the child development program, a lot of people immediately thought that I was working at a daycare or I had early childhood experience, learning, and teaching, and education wasn’t anything that I was interested in as far as a school system. I was applying for child victimization through the child development plans. That’s the journey that I went through to get to my experience of working in the field for so long on child exploitation and eventually understanding the implications of polyvictimization, that that’s just one piece of the puzzle to trauma.

Gotcha. We’ll come back to polyvictimization because I understand the concept and we’ll talk about it. I’m sure I’ll get clarity, but I’ve seen that happen in other types of situations. When it comes to child exploitation and abuse, was there a particular category or an indicator situation that was a common thread in being able to identify? Was the child more likely to be abused, or that something was happening, or they were being targeted?

It’s interesting because anybody can be a victim. Any child could be a victim. If you look at reporting rates or statistics that are thrown out there, no statistic is ever going to be solid because it’s such an underreported crime for various reasons, especially when it comes to males, especially when it comes to African-American males. As you go further on down the underserved population, it gets more and more difficult to identify those populations for abuse. The stats out there are pretty—I don’t want to say insignificant—but extremely difficult to say, “This is how many people have been abused.” You can say the respected numbers are one in four girls, and anywhere from one in six to one in 10 males will be sexually victimized before their 18th birthday—that’s a fairly common number that is respected in the field. And that’s not separated by any race, or culture, or diverse group. With that said, it’s not something that happens to just one category of people.

There are definite situations that can either increase vulnerabilities or risk factors, of course that could increase vulnerabilities. I am not one that likes to throw the word out of prevention. I know that that’s something that a lot of people, especially in the field, love to say about prevention programs. I might get in trouble for saying this, but I don’t like using the word prevention programs or prevention, because that means that we are taking responsibility for holding someone else accountable for their actions or work. We have some power behind preventing them from doing something to us or someone else. I take it as they’re always trying to minimize the likelihood or taking our own safety and security into our own hands, or doing some type of risk management of our own security, so to speak.

To me, it seems like this is a developing field also. In that, when I was a kid we were taught stranger danger. If any adult comes up to you that you don’t know, point at them, yell at the stranger, and run away. I’m not in the field, but it seems to be that we hear about a lot of the victimization that happens at the hands of family members whether they’re local family or an extended family, or friends of family. It’s not the random person walking down the street, grabbing little kids that they don’t know.

You’re exactly right, and it’s interesting. I’m the chairwoman of an organization called Preparedness Without Paranoia, and that’s actually one of the things that we talk about is preparing parents and children to be empowered to embrace their own safety and security, but also to teach this collective idea of if something were to happen, that it’s not this stranger is a stranger—stay away—it’s this emergency has happened. Any one of these strangers could help. It’s teaching communities, and families, and children.

Just like you would get into your car, you automatically put on a seat belt. If something happened, you have an automatic response built into you. Trying to teach communities if something happens, you have an automatic response of knowing what to do, whatever that thing is. And that includes what happens if a child is sexually abused. What happens if a child discloses to you that they have something going on. You have a responsible reaction or you are responding in an appropriate manner, because a lot of times what happens is adults are uncomfortable talking about exploitation. We’re uncomfortable talking about sex with kids in general. Now elevate it to the fact of unwanted sex. If we, as adults, are uncomfortable talking about these conversations that’s going to show, and those children are going to be uncomfortable having those conversations with you as well.

What are some of those automatic responses that a community should have with regard to—prevention is not the right word, but you talked about that automatic response of putting on a seat belt. What are some of those things that parents should be teaching their kids in terms of that automatic response?

One of the main things that we could teach our children—there’s a couple of things. If we’re talking about parents. If we’re talking about a parent, and a child comes to them, and it makes the disclosure and then we want to make sure that our response is one of such that we open the door for future disclosure, if needed. We don’t want to shut the child down. We want to make sure that the child knows that we want to hear what they have to say. We want to tell them that what they have to say is important. We want to let them know that there are people that are professionals that can listen as well if that would be more for a disclosure to a teacher rather than a parent. But if a child discloses to a parent, believe the child because children who disclose regardless of whether or not they’re telling the truth—that’s not the job of the parent at that moment in time. The job of the parent at that moment in time is to listen to your child, to believe your child and to be there for them. Because ultimately what will happen is the truth will eventually come out. But it’s not that at that moment, that’s not the time to decide immediately whether or not that child is telling the truth or not

Is that part of empowering the child, is by believing them? OK, let’s talk about this and also not feel shame about something that may have happened, but not feel that I don’t want to hear anything from you about this..

Right. You want to empower the child. Let them know that what they have to say is important, and what I mean by you want to open the door for any future disclosures in the future is if we immediately shut them down. This goes back to the whole concept of polyvictimization. The likelihood that if a child has been victimized once, that increases their likelihood of being victimized again. If that does happen, they need to know that they have someone that they can go to that believes them, that they can trust will actually do something about it. If they go to you the first time and you shut them down or you don’t believe them, or you treat them as though you don’t believe them, then they might not ever tell another soul.

They’re left to have to figure out how to deal with that on their own.

On their own. They may not tell for years, or they might not ever tell. That’s why when you hear people saying, “Why are you just now saying this 20 years later? Why are you just now coming out with this information?” These are some of the reasons.

It makes sense. For a situation where a child is not actively coming forward to say, “Hey, this is wrong or this happened or I need to tell you something.” Are there things that parents should be watching out for? Family members should be watching out for in terms of this is an indicator that something is not right or that something may have happened.

Sure. There’s different types of disclosures. There’s active disclosures, and that’s what we’ve been talking about. Those active disclosures are when a child actively tells you something: “Hey, this has happened to me and I want to tell you this.” There’s those nonactive disclosures or accidental disclosures, that often happens with the younger children—a lot younger. That’s usually when a child who is much younger and has an inappropriate knowledge of sexual contact or sexual behavior and is over-sexualized, and may be acting out in ways on the playground, or with their toys, or with their siblings or other children, maybe saying certain things. Those types of behaviors may start to show up in children who have either witnessed sexual acts or who have participated or have been forced to, rather, participate in sexual behavior as well. There’s obviously other physical signs that you may see in the genital areas, as well as STIs may come up in areas as well.

I know that TV shows like to show sudden shifts in the child no longer wanting to be around frandpa, let’s say, and Grandpa walks in the room and they start crying all of a sudden. Is that television drama or those sorts of things part of reality or adjacent?

It varies child-by-child. I mean, you have to realize that a lot of times, especially if it’s a family member that is perpetrating on a child. These are family members who this child loves. A lot of the interactions that this child may have with a family member may be very positive, and they may very well enjoy being around this person except for this small time, in this very unique situation in their mind.

The distancing themselves may not always show up for every case. It may be that they enjoy being around that person. It can be very confusing sometimes for the outside person looking in on a situation, and then we start to make assumptions, and we start to say, “Oh, it never happened. Look at them, they’re happy as can be.” You don’t really know. They’ve also received gifts due to grooming, they’ve received a lot of extra attention, and those hidden benefits, so to speak, that the rest of the family or people just didn’t know about. I would definitely say it would depend on each child’s situation.

That makes sense to me. Sounds like children just don’t necessarily know how to process something that happened, and may not even understand that it wasn’t appropriate.

Exactly. You’re also talking about human anatomy. It doesn’t always hurt. That’s something that’s really difficult for us adults to understand and it’s difficult to talk about. If we can’t verbalize these types of things and discuss them like grown adults, we start making assumptions again, and we then minimize what really happened to the children.

OK. Earlier, you mentioned grooming; can you tell the audience what grooming is and what it looks like?

Sure. Grooming is the process of when a perpetrator—whether it’s a perpetrator of child sexual abuse, whether it’s familial or non. It could be other forms of commercial sexual exploitation or even sex trafficking—it’s when they slowly begin the process before they actually perpetrate the sexual offense itself. It could look like, in the beginning, slowly spending more time with the child, providing gifts, whether it’s monetary or something of value to the child, and eventually, they may provide a lot of compliments. Eventually, it leads to sometimes isolation from family members, from friends. Then sometimes, it ends up going into this feeling of almost like a false sense of trust, then slowly testing boundaries of how far they can get with their intentions of actually perpetrating a sexual act on that child.

Once a sexual violation has been committed, and oftentimes it’s followed up with either threats or some type of extortion almost of, “You did this. If you tell, I’m going to expose that you did this. No one is going to believe you. This is going to tear your family apart.” All sorts of threats, and it could be really bad. That’s where you get a lot of children feeling blame for themselves, a lot of shame is involved, and it’s just a vicious cycle that continues.

That’s horrible that it just goes down that road. I definitely see that the whole concept of isolating happens in romance scams. Almost any type of scam, there’s always this element of separating the person from the people that would protect them, or that would watch out for them, or be aware that something is happening.

So gradual. It’s almost like you wake up, and it’s happened. You don’t even realize it until it’s happened.

I imagine it’s not the sort of thing where the person says, “OK, you need to never talk to all your friends and family ever again.” That might be where it gets to. What does that process look like, of isolation, in these types of situations?

It could look different. I can tell you from a teenager’s perspective. I had a teenage client, for example, where it started off as—this was an after-school coach. She had a boyfriend. The coach started to drive her home from practice, but she also wanted to hang out with her boyfriend as well. Slowly over time, the coach started to get more and more insistent about her spending more time with the coach. He would hold her after practice rather than allow her to go directly home, so she can then hang out with her boyfriend. Then, that is when the abuse took place, and then the threats of her not being able to participate in athletics, and those types of things were being sprung on her, so to speak.

Got you. If a family member or a friend suspects that someone is being victimized, what’s the best route in terms of helping them go straight to the police? I’m going to be wacky, get in their face and confront them. Obviously, that’s not beneficial. But if we think that someone is in that situation, or that situation is happening, how can we appropriately get the right resources involved?

It depends on your state. Some people are what we consider mandated reporters, and every state has a mandated reporter law. Those mandated reporters are typically school personnel, hospital personnel, mental health providers, law enforcement, etc. For those who are not mandated reporters, it actually depends on your state’s law. Every state is a little bit different. Some require you to go just to law enforcement, or not just to law enforcement, but just to Child Protective Services. Other states require you to go to both law enforcement and Child Protective Services. I would recommend looking up your state’s law to find out which statutory regulations you would fall under. Should I look up the national report line?

Yes, let’s include that. I know there are definitely programs out there.

I should know it off the top of my head.

As a good example, my wife works for a company, and part of the volunteer service that they do in helping people who may be victims of sex trafficking, that they’re putting abuse phone numbers on Chapstick and things like that where they can’t be seen. The perpetrator is not going to think to look at these personal items for phone numbers, but it gives the person an opportunity to have access to a phone number where they can get help.

You talked about mandatory reporting. Are there places where someone in the public can go to report something, like a national reporting line or something like that?

Yes. The national child helpline is the actual national child abuse hotline. If they want to contact them, they can call 1-800-4-A-CHILD, which is also 1-800-422-4453. They can also help them with guiding them through the whole process. Just let them know which state they’re in and they can help guide them through each individual state’s process.

I assume this is not just for people who think something is happening, but for people who have been a victim of an assault or something, that this is a good resource to go to for them.

Correct. There’s a couple of resources. This is a good one for abuse victims as well as anyone who needs to report abuse. Like I said, if they’re needing to report abuse, they can help them through that process. If they are abuse victims, they can call the child helpline. If they’re older adults and would like resources for their own abuse, maybe they need resources in their jurisdiction. They can also contact That is the VictimConnect Resource Center out of the National Center for Victims of Crime, and that phone number is 855-484-2846.

For people that have been a victim of abuse in their childhood, what pathways are there to their healing?

There’s plenty of options that are out there. There’s a lot of resources that are available through local communities. Many of the rape crisis centers that are available offer counseling services free of charge, that can help them through the process.

There’s also a lot of resources available through the tribal communities as well. A lot of people don’t realize that tribal communities have a very high percentage rate of child sexual exploitation. We’re trying to build those resources that are available to tribal communities too. To access those resources, they can go to the tribal resource center, and all of those resources are through the National Center for Victims of Crime.

The VictimConnect Resource Center can also guide people to those resources that are available anywhere in the United States. If you’re in the United States, Alaska, Hawaii, and you’ve been a victim of crime, they can guide you to your local resources, and that phone number is 855-484-2846.

Gotcha. Those are definitely people who’ve made it their mission to help people to get them the resources that they need, give them the care that they need.

Yes, absolutely. They deal with all victims of crime. Actually, the National Center for Victims of Crime, they’ve been around since 1984, or something like that. They’ve been around for 35 years and they’ve really helped victims and survivors of all crime types.

Great. I’m glad that those resources are available. Earlier you talked about polyvictimization. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that is?

Polyvictimization is when a person has been victimized multiple times, whether it’s the same type of crime by multiple perpetrators or a different crime. It’s multiple forms of maltreatment done to the same individual.

I definitely see that in people that are victims of phone scams, is once a scammer has conned this person out of, “Hey, your electric bill’s past due. Give us 500 bucks or we’re going to shut off the power.” Those scammers often sell the contact information to other scammers who then are like, “Hey, it’s your phone bill now.” Once someone has been a victim of one crime, these criminals just pass that information around to continue to further victimize the person, which is really horrific.

It’s interesting because once someone has a history of abuse, then it just increases the likelihood of more abuse happening. It just continues down this road or the cycle of abuse, and if there’s no intervention, then it’s hard to break that cycle.

That was the question I was going to ask is, does early intervention break the cycle of polyvictimization?

Yes. It definitely can. If there’s no intervention, then it absolutely increases the likelihood of more victimization. One of the things that I talk about is this continuum of risk for polyvictimization. It’s interesting because the whole trajectory all starts and begins with this early onset of exposure to violence, trauma, and childhood adversities, or what we had commonly referred to as the ACEs or Adverse Childhood Experiences, which was a really awesome study that was conducted by Kaiser Permanente.

We talked a lot about how this early-onset leads to an adolescent response. If we don’t have that intervention in between childhood and adolescent response, then your adolescent starts to develop their response and their young adult life really into the increased potential for online solicitation, commercial sexual exploitation, production of child sexual abuse images, and a lot of other forms of victimizations.

We talked about the cycle of abuse. Is there a higher likelihood of that person becoming an abuser later on in their life just because it’s been their childhood experience, or is that more of a myth?

What we talked about is trauma. It’s not so much of a higher likelihood. I don’t know what the statistics are, but what I do know is there is a higher likelihood that unaddressed trauma creates an adverse response. When you have individuals who do not get their trauma addressed, their ability to cope in life and their ability to make good decisions decreases. Oftentimes, we hear hurt people hurt people.

There may be a little, I don’t want to say truth, but there are explanations for behavior, there are no justifications for behavior. Because there’s plenty of individuals who have experienced victimization that do not go on to victimize. It’s not necessarily this that leads to this. But there is a very well-known understanding that unaddressed trauma really hurts people in general, whether it’s someone who is incarcerated. Because we do know that those who are incarcerated for many crimes have a very high rate of trauma, and that’s a whole other podcast. There’s a huge number of unaddressed trauma in the criminal justice system. Then, we also know that those who are victimized experienced trauma as well.

It sounds like one of the major underlying themes here is that we need to learn how to better deal with the traumas in our own lives, and the traumas in the lives of people around us, and help people find a pathway to healing from things that have happened.

I couldn’t say it any better.

Are there any other additional resources that you have for us, or if someone wants to get ahold of you, how can they do that?

If someone wants to get ahold of me, my email address is [email protected] They can look me up on my website at Other resources that are available—I spoke briefly about Preparedness Without Paranoia, which is a fantastic resource for parents and community members, and there are some really great resources available for children as well. That’s, and there’s an online magazine that’s available on there as well. Then, I mentioned a few resources on there for the National Center for Victims of Crime, and VictimConnect.

For everyone listening, we’ll make sure to link those in the show notes, put the phone numbers in there, we’ll also link to your site. I really like Preparedness Without Paranoia. I like that concept.

It’s wonderful.

It doesn’t help to go through life paranoid, but it also doesn’t help to go through life unprepared. It sounds like a really great balance of factors there.


Deanee, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today. I really appreciate your time.

Oh, my goodness. It has been such a pleasure, and what a great opportunity. I appreciate your time.

You’re very welcome.

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