From child refugees to survivors of sex trafficking, Adriana McKinnon takes action amid life’s toughest moments
Adriana McKinnon, LPC, brings a unique background to the role of President and CEO of the Youth Center of Texas. McKinnon joined writer and editor Jennifer Lloyd to talk about Adriana’s commitment to serving her community and how her experiences shaped her journey to help survivors of sex trafficking.
Q: Both your life experiences and your advanced degree and licensure in counseling make you unique among nonprofit CEOs. As a first-generation college graduate in a Mexican American family, can you share more about how your background continues to shape your priorities?
A: I’ve been here in Texas for 18 years, but I grew up in Florida with my three sisters. I am the first one and the only one in my family to have gone to college. My mom never had the opportunity to go to school because she’s one of 11 children and had to work. My dad went to school through fourth grade because he also had to work. He became a heavy equipment mechanic.
So, education was essential to me because it was, for me, an alternative to generational poverty. Long-term, coordinated and robust systems of care for rescued survivors are needed. However, ensuring that each survivor becomes an independent and self-sufficient member of society is vital. That’s why we emphasize educational achievement and re-entry into the workforce in our framework of services.
Q: Your journey to gain the education you need in your current leadership role must have taken a lot of persistence. Can you share how you were able to make those strides?
A: I married my husband very young, at age 19, and started studying at Coastal Bend College, a community college in Beeville. Then, my husband passed away when my daughter was an infant. I decided to return to school the same year my daughter started pre-K and finished my associate degree. I transferred to the University of Houston-Victoria and earned my bachelor’s in psychology. Those were, without a doubt challenging times. Often, I would feel overwhelmed with the pressure of becoming a college graduate and also being a good parent to my daughter. Both were equally important to me. Thanks to a strong support system made of close friends, church family and my professors, I was able to do it.
Q: When did you discover your passion for social services?
A: For my very first interaction with social services, I became an advocate for CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) of the Coastal Bend in Corpus Christi while I was still studying for my undergraduate degree. For several years with CASA, I served on different cases advocating for children who experienced abuse and neglect. I was heartbroken and in disbelief when hearing the stories of each one of those children in foster care, each story moved me and encouraged me to become an advocate and speak on their behalf about the hard realities of the foster care system. I knew I had to go deeper when I found out that the vast majority of children in foster care have experienced sexual abuse and domestic violence. I had to do something.
Q: You’ve dealt with some of the most challenging aspects of humanity, from end-of-life work in your first job as a night caregiver with a Hospice organization to your role today with the Youth Center of Texas. How did you come to dedicate your life to this work?
A: Personally, I have not experienced physical abuse, neglect or sex trafficking. But I was compelled to help because I feel privileged to have access to education, especially in bilingual counseling, where there is such a great need.
Q: When did you first begin assisting human trafficking and sex trafficking survivors?
A: I started working at the Women’s Shelter of South Texas in Corpus Christi in 2013 as a victim’s advocate and held many positions there over the next six years. I think I did each one of the jobs available at that agency. I did case management. I did prevention and education. I did legal advocacy. I did housing. I did sexual assault response. And that’s when I first interacted with human trafficking victims because I am bilingual, and my first language is Spanish. People immediately feel better when you speak their language. There is an immediate connection. For no other reason than that I could communicate with them, I became an unofficial advocate to work with the survivors of human trafficking at the shelter who were coming across the border from Mexico, Central America and South America.
At that time, I didn’t have a counseling degree or a lot of experience. Still, I was able to communicate with them and connect them with legal aid organizations, which would offer pro bono services to help the women get special visas as victims of crime and, eventually, green cards through the Violence Against Women Act. I would be a companion to them in immigration court and translate for them. As I helped these women through the legal process, which can take up to two years, I learned about all the legal remedies for survivors of sex trafficking and human trafficking.
The reason I was compelled to help goes back to my own privilege. I realized that not everybody has the same privilege if they migrate into the country. People have been victimized, abused and exploited. That’s also why I went to college to earn my bachelor’s in psychology because I have always wanted to understand why some people treat others so horribly.
Q: Throughout your life, you’ve seen a need and then worked to fill it. Did you decide to pursue an advanced degree in counseling to help in a different way?
A: At the Women’s Shelter, we had no Spanish-speaking counselors. I could advocate for the women, but who would do the clinical work to address the survivors’ trauma? So, I decided to go to Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and get a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling.
Here’s the thing: We can say, “Hey, there are no resources. There are no options for this person. There is a great need.” But I think we can also do our part, right? We cannot just spend the next 10 years saying, “Well, there are not enough bilingual staff. There are not enough counselors. There are not enough resources.” We need to create those resources too.
Q: What was it like transitioning from the Women’s Shelter in Corpus Christi to helping undocumented children in Victoria?
A: I was wrapping up my counseling studies and taking my licensing exam when I was offered a job in Victoria to open an emergency shelter. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement funded the shelter to serve undocumented or unaccompanied children coming across the border.
I took the job because it was another opportunity to serve my people, the Spanish-speaking survivors. Also, 90% of those kids were either sex trafficking or human trafficking victims. Within my first 90 days, we opened 64 beds in the facility. Then the COVID-19 pandemic began, and we shut down operations due to the pandemic.
Q: Fast-forward to 2021. What did you hope to accomplish when you became President and CEO of the Youth Center of Texas?
A: Realistically, we cannot ask the girls who have experienced sexual exploitation and sex trafficking and are just turning 18 to just go on with their lives. They’re struggling with mental health, complex trauma and complex PTSD. We cannot give our survivors a plate of food and a bed to sleep in and not address mental health. It is not effective. We can do better than that.
I came into the Center, in part, because I wanted to provide evidence-based counseling services for survivors. The Center did not have in-house, on-site counseling services at that point. We were referring clients to all kinds of different places for counseling. That’s not effective. Also, not many counselors are trained to work with survivors of sex trafficking. It’s a specialized field. So, I was the counselor for our residents for my very first year as CEO, in addition to my other duties. Now, we have counselor interns at the Center, whom I supervise.
Q: The 18- to 24-year-old women who receive assistance at the Center are survivors of both childhood sexual exploitation and commercial sex trafficking as adults. Can you discuss the difference between these two forms of victimization?
A: Minors cannot consent. So, no matter the circumstances, that’s childhood sexual exploitation. With minors, there may not be a monetary exchange. These kids are being sexually exploited for a plate of food, for safety, for a couch to spend the night. The number one commodity for sexual exploitation is shelter. There’s no money exchanged in that. When it comes to adults, it can be sex trafficking if it involves transportation, harboring, violence, threatening, kidnapping, moving across state lines, all kinds of different scenarios. The survivors we are currently serving are all victims of childhood sexual exploitation.
Fast forward to when they are adults, they have been revictimized by sex trafficking. That may be the only thing that they know how to do to survive, so they will do it. Sex trafficking is a multibillion-dollar criminal enterprise. It’s difficult to prove and prosecute traffickers because it’s a transient crime. Often, adult survivors are labeled as sex workers, prostitutes, escorts, when, in reality, they may not have consented to engage in those commercial sex acts.
Q: As someone unafraid to help people in their most difficult moments, how do you continue to affect change and maintain your hope for the future?A: Because of one reason: Healing is possible. I strongly believe counseling can help a survivor in the healing journey. People can make seemingly impossible changes possible if they receive mental health services. There is hope for all those victims of sexual violence, a horrific crime that can shatter them in a million pieces. But there is a journey they can take in working toward healing. That’s why I wake up every morning and keep working because I know it can happen. It’s a long process. Nevertheless, we must continue doing it.