By Megan Richardson, See the Triumph Guest Blogger
Human Trafficking has become a much publicized topic within the past few years, and while many people are starting to know more about it, it’s hard to know exactly how to engage in the movement other than by donating to an organization that helps survivors. Gary Haugen of International Justice Mission is quoted as saying “Nothing happens just because we are aware of modern slavery, but nothing will EVER happen until we are.” Knowledge is power, and just like with the dynamics of domestic violence and sexual assault, the more you know the more capable you are to help survivors walking through your doors.
If you work at a domestic violence/sexual assault shelter, you may have worked with a “trafficking” survivor without even knowing it. Trafficking survivors are experiencing sexual assault and domestic violence regularly, so how are they any different? There are many complicating factors to keep in mind when working with survivors of trafficking including the following: identifying survivors, challenges to rehabilitation, understanding complex trauma and utilizing trauma informed care.
Because of the covert nature of human trafficking, it is rare for a victim to self-identify. This is mostly because victims blame themselves, thinking they have consented to doing this type of work. Traffickers target vulnerabilities, and frequently use a victim's history of sexual abuse or neglect by convincing them that they can take back control of their trauma by making money off of sex – an act that has previously caused them so much pain. By targeting vulnerable populations, victims then take ownership of the decisions being made and believe what is happening to them is an empowering choice. Once a victim is initiated into “the Life,” it becomes very difficult to get out. Pimps can earn up to $632,000 per year by selling four young women or children, meaning they have a lot to lose if someone leaves. Therefore, clients also do not self-identify out of fear due to threats of deportation, violence, or attempts at keeping their family safe from retribution.
Survivors also often view their situation as temporary, and have been taught to mistrust law enforcement or other agencies that are in place to keep them safe. Identifying survivors can be complicated, but not impossible. Red flags that might arise in working with a client could consist of any involvement in sex work, underpayment in promised work, confiscation of legal documents, different work than promised, and working to pay off a debt. It can also be important to keep in mind that women can be traffickers too! Within the trafficking culture, there is room to move up in ranks, so it possible a woman who is a trafficker now has been in the business and has her own experience of abuse from an early age.
Because the issue of trafficking has become so sensationalized, many people are quick to take action, but just as quickly surprised at certain challenges to rehabilitation that arise. We like to think that once someone is rescued from their pimp, they will resume a normal lifestyle without complications, and fail to think victims could possibly return to such a violent and life threatening lifestyle, much like in cases involving domestic violence. Many survivors have gone through a “turning out” period with their trafficker involving intermittent violence and mixed message that create trauma bonds similar to the Stockholm Syndrome, where victims experience empathy and sympathy towards their perpetrators. Through this established loyalty, they may have been conditioned to believe that everyone else is against them. Relapse is high and likely due to the psychological control exerted over them, and reflects the traumatic bonds established early on in the relationship. Other challenges typically presented in a clinical setting include problems engaging in a trusting relationship, sexual confusion, resistance, and difficulty adhering to rules and structure.
For survivors of Human Trafficking, a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) just is not enough. Trafficking survivors have often experienced complex trauma including early childhood abuse and then continued interpersonal trauma for prolonged periods of time. The difference between someone in a shelter for domestic violence is that they may be seeking safety from one person in the community, while a survivor of trafficking is likely to have been violated by many. It’s probable that a trafficking survivor has been perpetrated by their pimp, their buyers or “johns,” and/or people appointed by the pimp to help inflict punishment. Even if a pimp is incarcerated, there are often additional networks of people that are likely and capable of causing significant harm to the client, therefore, causing experiences of poly-trauma, from multiple abusers. Having been exposed to such complex trauma, clients can present in a state of either hyperarousal or hypoarousal, and might seek services for a variety of psychological disorders including, but not limited to Substance Abuse Disorders, Attachment Disorder, Somatic Disorders, Dissociative Disorders, Mood Disorders, Personality Disorders, Anxiety Disorders, and more.
When working with survivors, just as with other clients, it is important to be non-judgmental and respectful, recognizing the strengths within them that have helped them to survive. Trauma informed questioning can assist in establishing a safe and trusting relationship. What would it mean to say something like “every couple has problems – what are some things in your relationship you don’t like.” versus “have you ever been abused?” Particularly with trafficking clients, it can help to address emergency and basic needs first, and present opportunities for choice, such as “would you like something to drink?” Be up front about who you are and your goals for speaking with them, while asking for permission for things like taking notes or closing the door. Setting appropriate boundaries for the client will become necessary, while also making sure to take care of yourself, as this can be very difficult work.
There are immigration remedies available for survivors of trafficking and many organizations ready to take action and offer support to service providers. For additional resources and information, I recommend you contact The Polaris Project, your state-level Coalition Against Human Trafficking, World Relief, and/or Shared Hope International.
Megan Richardson currently works as a Crisis Intervention Therapist and Advocate. In this role, she mostly works with survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and trafficking, offering individual and family counseling, group treatment, and advocacy services including 50b restraining order and immigration remedy assistance, safety planning, and ongoing support. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) with her Master’s and Educational Specialist Degree in couples and family counseling. After graduating from UNCG, she worked with a non-profit organization in the Philippines assisting survivors of human trafficking, and offering training opportunities to those working closely with survivors.