My first contact with a (known) victim of human trafficking occurred back in 2010. I was familiar with her case because I had spent the weeks before our meeting brainstorming with the Probation department on ways to help her. I had some background, I had some (very limited) resources, and I had some semblance of a plan, but what I didn't have was a face.
As she sat in my office, on her eighteenth birthday, she filled in some of the gaps that were missing from her file. For example, she had spent the past four years working as a prostitute, but she assured me that it wasn't a big deal. Her drug-addicted mother had introduced her to the life when she was twelve. As she shared portions of her story, I remember thinking about how much she looked like Tinkerbell. She should have been getting ready for prom or graduation, not trying to figure out how to live without her pimp (which incidentally was our goal, not hers).
I remember feeling powerless as I handed her a $25 gift card for groceries - especially when I knew she could have easily earned hundreds of dollars in one day (whether she was able to keep it or not was a different story). I remember the ache in my heart when she told me that she missed her pimp, because even though he beat her, he could be sweet. Sometimes he would give her a flower; he even took her to the beach once.
We were absolutely unprepared to help her and I knew it. So what did I do? As soon as she left my office, I prayed … and then my staff and I went into social worker mode. We looked for more resources. We tried to find better counseling and a whole bunch of other things we thought might help; but ultimately, we knew we were over our heads. We also knew that she wasn't going to wait around for substandard resources.
On my way home that night, I had one of many conversations with God. I got mad, I cried and I grieved for her lost childhood. I also grieved because she longed for a man who seemed to view women as little more than profitable Kleenex. So, was I surprised when she ran away and went back to her pimp several days later? No, but I was surprised at how many Tinkerbells we discovered after that - and let’s not forget about the Tianas, the Jasmines, the Mulans, and the Pocahontases. In fact, there were so many that we started collaborating with other agencies for help:
We spread the word and educated people about human trafficking and sexually exploited children in our communities. We also rallied behind Prop 35 and saw it pass with an overwhelming amount of voter support. It seemed like we were doing quite a bit at the macro level, but at the micro level … it didn’t seem like we were really helping the kids. By the way, I say kids for two reasons:
It was overwhelming at times, and it was frustrating to see so many young people trapped in that lifestyle, but I was optimistic.
So where are we four years later?
Earlier this year, a colleague discussed her attempts to help a young victim of sexual exploitation. There were some differences between her client and the young adult who sat across from me back in 2010, but there were also some frustrating similarities. My client didn't have long-term housing or ongoing services. She ran back to her pimp within a week, leaving behind her clothes and some documents. Her client had housing and supportive services that included a Life Coach. She ran back to her pimp after a year, leaving behind her 1 year old child.
So what’s the problem … what are we doing wrong?
Earlier this week, I attended a training by Melissa (Missy) Bradley-Ball entitled, Restoring Life After Sexual Trauma – Treating Adolescents, Adults and Couples. The entire seminar was informative, but I had a light bulb moment during the last 20 minutes. She used some of Dr. Jim Fogarty’s work on Emotional Manipulation and provided a diagram of how victims tend to be ensnared:
She then discussed Primary vs. Secondary Trauma and how we often confuse the two – even when we know better. In our case, we were providing services that attempted to address the Isolation and Assault, but those were Secondary Traumas. The Primary Trauma usually occurred during the Grooming Phase. That was when they became attached to their abuser. That was when they usually lost faith in their ability to judge right from wrong. That was when their defenses were removed, and that was when the betrayal happened.
I realized that the resources we provided weren’t necessarily substandard, they were just incomplete. Victims of sexual exploitation need specialized counseling, or some other form of assistance, that can help them deal with the emotional manipulation that occurred when they were being groomed. If that area isn’t addressed, they’ll likely return to their abuser - or find another one to take their place.
How would you know if someone were targeting your child? What about your sibling, niece, nephew, cousin or neighbor? There are no easy answers when it comes to human behavior, but I remembered something this week. If I don't take the time to observe (and guide) the young people in my life, there are some pretty wretched people out there who would jump at the chance to do it for me.