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Trends in Behavioral Healthcare: Join the Conversation – Human Trafficking 101 for Service Providers

The Danya Institute is pleased to present this regular series of orignal articles on trends in the field of behavioral healthcare.  Our latest article is by special guest author Denene Yates, founder and Executive Director of Safe House of Hope in Baltimore, Maryland.

Human Trafficking 101: A Guide for Service Providers

Twenty seven million are enslaved today.  That is more than at any other time in history! Human trafficking is modern-day slavery; and it happens everywhere in the world – including in our own neighborhoods. According to the last United Nations report, human trafficking is the second largest organized crime in the world, grossing over $33 billion last year. That is more than the profits of Apple, Nike, Reebok, and Google combined.  Human trafficking is victimization involving labor and sex. A victim need not be physically transported from one location to another (as implied by the term “trafficking”) in order for the crime to fall within these definitions.

Examples of labor trafficking in Maryland include the work of migrants, debt bondage, domestic servitude, crab picking, the work of those in the chicken industry, and the use of unpaid labor in the hotel and food service industries.

The federal definition of sex trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining a person under the age of 18 for the purpose of a commercial sex act as induced by force, or fraud, or coercion. Examples of force, fraud, or coercion include beatings, sexual assault, confinement, false or deceptive employment, false marriage/
promises, lies, coercion via direct or implied threats to family, coercion via direct or implied threats of criminal process or deportation, and drugs.

Commercial sex acts may include prostituion, stripping, and pornography.  The profile of sex trafficking victim is complex. The majority are teens who have been victims of some type of abuse – especially sexual abuse within the home – who are runaways or “throwaways” who have been recruited into “the life” by a pimp or madam. (“The life” and “the game” are what victimized teens and their abusers call teen sex trafficking in the United States.)

In Maryland, the average age of children entering prostitution is 12. The pimp “breaks them in” through rape or violence, and sometimes they have already been “turned out,” a term used for the first time a victim is put out for prostitution, by a parent or guardian.  Traffickers often use drugs to better control and coerce victims; therefore many of these victims have chemical dependency issues.  Many of these victims got ensnared in this life because they were looking for “family” – sadly many of these girls refer to their pimps as “boyfriend” or “daddy.”

Pimps exploit this situation and keep their girls “in line” through a combination of love and fear, a process known as “trauma bonding.”  Similar to Stockholm Syndrome, this phenomenon makes victims extremely loyal to their abusers/kidnappers.  Furthermore, traffickers isolate their victims and may even use threats against the victim’s children or family. Continued physical and mental abuse by the trafficker and buyers causes mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, and depression.

Many service providers may have already unknowingly had sex trafficking victims as clients. These sometimes difficult clients will not share their whole life readily and are especially ashamed of their life in prostitution. How can we help these victims?  Teen sex trafficking victims refuse to see themselves as victims and may refuse help. Victims of trafficking have been brainwashed to believe that “the life” is their own choice and that they are owned by their trafficker. Thus they may have an attitude of mistrust of anyone who is outside of “the game.” Therefore service providers need to approach these victims with a great deal of understanding and patience.  Sex trafficking victims need more extensive attention in the beginning of their recovery. Strength-based advocacy, wherein a service provider concentrates on the strength of the client and their ability to adapt and survive under extreme conditions, is a must. The strengths perspective emphasizes the individual’s capacities, talents, competencies, possibilities, visions, and hope.

Key concepts include empowerment, resilience, and membership to a viable group or community.  Important sources of strength are personal and cultural stories, narratives, and lore. Therefore, it is wise to begin to empower these victims by helping them set small, attainable goals – such as, taking a shower each day, eating at least two meals a day – and then having them text the service provider once they have completed an agreed upon task.

Another critical step to these victims recovery is to have multiple service providers collaborate to create and implement the client’s service plan. Advocates must build trust and respect with the victim in the first few weeks, and the client must believe that the providers will be available for them through their struggles.  In order to provide the best level of care it is critical that all providers involved on a particular case communicate with one another while the client is present.

Sex trafficking victims are accustomed to playing the game and may use their skills to play service providers against one another. Most of these clients have lost all sense of hope and do not believe they have any future or that they could ever live a healthy, productive life.  Thus they may respond to efforts to help in a manipulative or destructive manner. Thus clients need to know that each person on the team is working together for the sole purpose of helping him/her secure a better future. The client must always have a buy in to his/her future and be included in every decision.

Advocates and providers should never make any false promises or unsure plans. These vulnerable clients will stop accepting services if they feel lied to or played by the system.  This holistic approach has been implemented by the Safe House of Hope (SHO Hope), a non-profit organization in Baltimore which provides services to former and current sex trafficking victims. SHO-Hope trains volunteers to conduct community outreach initiatives in areas known for prostitution, such as distribution of free condoms, or offering free health screenings, to help break the isolation these women often feel. SHOHope also operates a drop-in center located in Southwest Baltimore, 901 Hollins Street, near Hollins Market which provides clients with the space to be valued, nurtured, and to become part of an accepting community. As our clients realize their intrinsic value we offer healing to grow and dream again. We support and empower our clients to attain their goals and change their lives. Finally, SHO-Hope maintains a 24-hour talk/call line that also refers women to the drop-in center and other local available services.

Most recently, SHO-Hope has piloted a program which brings sex trafficking victims together with volunteer host families who received special training and continual support, to provide victims with new, healthy support systems so that they can grow and begin to dream again. To date, five host families have been paired with five survivors of sex trafficking, with some of the clients only remaining with their host family for three weeks while others have remained with their family for nine months. All five victims have successfully matriculated back into the community – some have returned to school (both high school and community college) and others have gotten legitimate jobs; most importantly, all five survivors have reported no desire to return to the life of prostitution, and all plan on keeping in contact with their host family after moving out.

Copyright 2012, Denene Yates. Article may be reproduced with acknowledgement and permission of the author.