CW Specialist, CPS unit, awarded for contributions to protect survivors of human trafficking
#HopeHeroes: Child Welfare Specialist and her CPS unit awarded for their exceptional contributions in their work to protect survivors of human trafficking
Recently, Monica Di Santo, Child Welfare Specialist (CWS) II, was recognized by Ascension St. John Hospital in Tulsa with a Medals4Mettle award for going above and beyond the call of duty for human trafficking victims. She works with a specialized unit in Child Welfare (CW) Child Protective Services (CPS) assigned to the Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC). They were all presented with a team award honoring them as a group of child welfare specialists who provide safety, shelter and support for victims of abuse and neglect. The members of this team include Bridget O’Brien, CWS III, Toni Reed, CWS II, Emma Scott, CWS II, and Amanda Deiter, CWS II. Their child welfare assistant is Joni White. Leah Sukovaty, CWS IV, has supervised this team for four years. Sukovaty said, “This award means a lot as it shows the hard work this unit does day in and day out.”
Both Sukovaty’s unit and their protocols are highly-specialized. They are the only unit in Tulsa County who handle trafficking cases, and they have worked at least ten such cases in the last year. Their other areas of specialty include cases involving child deaths, near death incidents, sex crimes against children by a person responsible for the child, failure to thrive, severe physical abuse, active drug labs and/or Munchausen by Proxy. They are also the only unit in Tulsa County who are on-call 365 days a year, including holidays.
Sukovaty’s unit works extremely closely with local and federal law enforcement and is housed with partners in a Multi-Disciplinary Team (MDT). Many of their cases result in criminal charges, and the specialists on this team are often called to testify as expert witnesses. Bridget O’Brien, CWSIII, who is a member of the team and a Medals4Mettle recipient says, “With our jobs, it’s very important to work with other agencies and people to ensure safety.” She’s been with OKDHS for about 15 years and been on the team for the last two years.
Emma Scott, a member of the unit and Medal4Mettle recipient, says the most rewarding part of her job is “seeing families and communities come together for the kids in their lives. It’s so rewarding to be part of the solution to getting kids the safety and/or resources they need.”
Sukovaty is incredibly proud of her team and says they don’t receive enough credit for the hard work that can go into these types of cases.
“There isn’t enough praise I could give them for their dedication to this job,” said Sukovaty. “I am lucky to work and supervise some of the best in Tulsa County. These cases can take up a lot of time during work hours, but there is also a lot that has to be done after hours. These girls can experience some pretty heavy trauma and direct stress, but handle it with grace and honor.”
Sukovaty describes one worker on the team, Monica Di Santo, as the type of worker who does not like attention for a job she is very passionate about. During two years of supervising Di Santo, Sukovaty says, “I have learned more from Monica about teenagers and the process of these trafficking victims than I ever knew during my 13 years working for OKDHS. Monica is always making sure she follows policy and is very diligent that her work reflects the information she receives. She advocates hard for the teenagers and trafficking victims/survivors who need more programs to support them. She loves working with teenagers and really has a true caring soul for them. Monica knows so many resources out there for them and strives to make a difference in each one she meets.”
Di Santo has been with OKDHS for almost 10 years in CPS and Permanency on the dual status (DS) docket, which is a specialized docket for youth in custody and on juvenile probation or in custody of the Office of Juvenile Affairs. When she worked the DS docket, she saw children run away and get lured into trafficking. The docket team decided it would be best for the members of this team to have specialized training in trafficking in order to better serve the victims, work on prevention and learn how to investigate it. When Di Santo worked in Permanency, she ended up with about 10-13 victims on her caseload.
She explains, “They are not just victims of sexual assault, they are victims of chronic abuse, domestic violence, physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual. Often, they suffer from Stockholm Syndrome and have no idea how to live without the trafficker controlling their lives. They become so vulnerable and have to learn how to address their basic needs on their own again. When working with our victims, you have to be gentle and go slow. More often than not, their lives have been threatened, or they have actually come close to dying, and they are scared for their lives.”
She continues, “Many times, it is necessary to place the youth where their traffickers cannot find them and provide them with immediate protection. This is harder than people realize. I would never want to be the reason a child became even more victimized because we went too fast and pushed the child into disclosing before they were ready to do so.”
Di Santo was nominated by Sara Gadd, Human Trafficking Program Manager from Ascension St. John Hospital, because she passionately advocates for human trafficking survivors. She works closely with community partners and law enforcement when there is an identified victim and has made very close relationships with those community partners when trying to get the best outcome for these victims.
Di Santo has received specialized training in order to work efficiently with these very complex cases. She recently worked on a case where everyone believed the potential victim was a child. Through diligent work in an effort to identify the victim, Di Santo learned that this person was actually a vulnerable adult with extreme special needs. Due to her diligence, the legal guardian was located and it was discovered that they had been looking for this vulnerable adult. Di Santo assisted the hospital in getting all the accurate information so the guardian could make contact.
Gadd and Di Santo have been working together for several years with trafficking victims and have a very good working relationship. Di Santo had no idea Gadd nominated her. She said she was a little shocked. Gadd said she nominated Di Santo because, “Monica Di Santo thinks outside of the box when it comes to providing care. Even with the limited resources that Oklahoma currently has for minor victims of human trafficking, Monica works diligently to provide trauma-informed care to each child she works with. These are often very complex and difficult situations. However, we have witnessed Monica display both wisdom and dedication on several occasions as she tirelessly sought ways to ensure the patients she works with have the resources they need to find safety.”
Di Santo said, “Honestly, I am very humbled by this. I love these kiddos and want to be the person helping get them safe and teaching them how to stay that way. When a kid asks for help, I want to be the person to provide that help.”
Even Di Santo’s District Director and Deputy Director attended the ceremony. David Clifton, the Region 5 Deputy Director, was not surprised by this award. He said, “I’ve always known Monica to go above and beyond for all victims of abuse and neglect.” Betsy Lambeth, District Director of District 14, Tulsa County 72D, wants Di Santo to know she appreciates Di Santo’s passion for working with a population of the youth OKDHS serves who have faced such difficult circumstances.
Di Santo says her team is amazing! “I could not ask for a better supervisor than Leah. She asked the unit to attend the ceremony to support me and knew how nervous I was about doing it. I actually asked Leah if the committee could just mail me the medal and skip the ceremony. Since I was unsure how much room was available, I told Sara Gadd my whole unit would like to attend. Sara said they would make room.”
Gadd told her boss, Ron Tremblay, Chief Mission Integration Officer at Ascension St. John, that Di Santo's unit would also be attending the ceremony to support her. Gadd told him she was excited people were going to hear about some of the good OKDHS does and decided to do something special to honor them as an entire unit. He spoke to the Medals4Mettle founder about the unit coming and said it is sad the community does not often recognize them for their hard work. When Medals4Mettle found out the entire unit would be attending in support of Monica, they wanted to give them all an award for their work in keeping children safe.
On the night of the ceremony, the team only came knowing they were there to support Di Santo and not that they too would be receiving an award. After she received her award and all other awards had been passed out, Gadd asked the team to come to the stage. One of the CWSs on the team, Toni Reed, who has been with the unit for seven months and in CPS for 11 years, said, “I was shocked that our team received the award. This job can be a thankless one, so it is really nice to be recognized for our hard work and dedication.” Reed continued, “Working with this team is amazing. It just so happens we are a team of all women. The cohesiveness of this team is like none other I have ever experienced.”
Di Santo said, “It was pretty amazing and gratifying to see these people who put up with me and assisted me in this work being recognized. The team award was given for work that goes unnoticed. We are an amazing team and always support each other. I have turned down applying for (CWS) III positions because I will not leave my unit right now. If one has a (child) removal, we treat it like the whole unit has a removal. My unit provides emotional support for me when needed, and my supervisor always has my back. My team is always willing to step up and go with a worker if they are going into a potentially dangerous situation. Our unit is on call every day of the year, and it is exhausting. If that person is getting slammed with referrals, someone will step up and assist.”
Medals4Mettle is a national 501(c)3 organization. Its mission is to “unite endurance athletes with all compassionate human beings to create a new internal network of compassion: kindness without borders.” Finishers’ medals from marathons, triathlons, half marathons and triathlons are donated by endurance athletes and restrung with M4M lanyards to recognize individuals who are running a unique and difficult race, often with an unknown finish line. In the midst of the pandemic, Medals4Mettle also awarded marathon, half marathon and triathlon finishers’ medals from runners to those who courageously risked their own lives to support and care for those affected by COVID-19. When they were told about CW’s human trafficking heroes, Medals4Mettle decided they would like to help honor their service. This was the first ceremony recognizing human trafficking heroes.
Do you have a #HopeHeroes story you would like to share? Email it to HopeHeroes@okdhs.org.