Trauma-Informed Approach for Survivors of Human Trafficking

Human trafficking.  It’s a term we’ve all heard, but really don’t want to talk about.  In recent years, the concept of human trafficking has shifted from being seen as an international human rights issue to something that is not only happening within the US, but right inside of our schools.

Recently, we hosted a webinar on the topic of human trafficking and child exploitation. If you have attended one of our webinars in the past, you know we focus a great deal of attention on trauma informed care.  For individuals that have experienced traumatic events, such as violence and victimization or physical and sexual abuse, the impact of re-experiencing that trauma through the use of restraint and seclusion can be devastating.  Survivors of human trafficking have inevitably experienced a great deal of trauma.  Working with these individuals involves taking all of this into consideration including identifying triggers and using trauma informed approaches.

We were honored to have as one of the presenters Deanna Wallace of ICE/Homeland Security Investigation (HSI).  Her presentation reminded us that human trafficking crosses all barriers, including socio-economic, race and gender.  Often traffickers target kids that feel lonely, have few friends, are disconnected from family and have a history of sexual or physical abuse.

Children can be easily drawn into this world because, at first, it can be empowering.  The trafficker or “pimp” often will make the victim feel special, buy them gifts, take them places and give them a general sense of belonging.  But ultimately, the trafficking survivors are left with permanent psychological, physical and emotional scars.

That’s why it is important for those of us working in a classroom to spot the signs so that we can either help extract a child from a trafficking situation or recognize the past trauma so that we may create a supportive recovery environment. According to Ms. Wallace, it is important to look for changes in:

  • Personality – Is a child that was once outgoing now more introverted?  Or conversely, is a child that was once very quiet now exhibiting more aggressive, sometime promiscuous behavior?
  • Family dynamics – Is a child talking more about someone new in their family?  A new favorite uncle or a “daddy?”
  • Friends – Often when a child gets involved in human trafficking, their friends find out and begin to back away from the relationship.  Look for changes in the friends with whom a child is spending time and/or activities in which they are participating that seem out of character.
  • Social media – Has there been an increase in the child’s social media activity?  Very often, traffickers find their victims via social media. Be alert of an increased focus on Facebook, Instagram and other social media venues.  Monitor your child’s posts to see if there are pictures in which he or she is looking more provocative than usual.
  • School grades – Inevitably, a child involved in trafficking is not as concerned or committed to their classroom. Grades will begin to fall, assignments unfinished and there will be frequent absences from school.
  • Involvement with school counselor or criminal justice system – Because of these changes, including truancy and other issues, it is common that a school counselor will be involved. Sometimes, even a representative from the criminal justice system will become engaged. A child may begin to get in trouble in other ways before the trafficking is detected.

If you think you have spotted a child in need of help, call the National Missing and Exploited Children’s 24-hour help center at 800-THE-LOST, your local police or the HIS tip line at 866-DHS-2-ICE.

The webinar also featured the director of Grafton’s Loudoun County Youth Shelter, Rachael Reeder, LCSW.  Rachael sees a number of youth that come into the shelter traumatized by their experiences with sex trafficking.  This type of residential treatment environment can be challenging, however, often leaving the youth feeling trapped and powerless, similar to the way they felt during life as a trafficking victim.

Rachael recommended a number of key factors to successful therapy:

  • Emphasize building self-esteem and empowerment
  • Engage victim in the decision making process
  • Provide leadership opportunities
  • Help them develop valued social roles
  • Offer alternative therapies that do not force verbalization of trauma experience initially such as music, art, equine-assisted therapy, drama or yoga

It is essential to be aware of the power dynamics and barriers to trust in order to prevent re-traumatization.  Childhood trauma can affect cognition and behavior for decades, leading to symptoms similar to those of veterans returning home from war.  Victims of trauma are four times more likely to become an alcoholic and fifteen times more likely to commit suicide.

Long-term effects of childhood trauma can inhibit academic success also.  Students with repeated exposure to traumatic events are nearly three times more likely to repeat a grade, have low literacy and enter the school-to-prison pipeline.

By understanding the physical and psychological abuse, you can easily see why having an experience with restraint or seclusion can be so detrimental to their recovery.  I am proud that Ukeru can be part of the solution for giving these survivors a second chance.

The webinar on using a trauma informed approach for survivors of human trafficking is archived here.