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“We get calls everyday from these new organizations asking for help in dealing with survivors. I don’t think many of them know what they’re letting themselves in for.”

Living the Life: Limited Support for Adult Trafficking Survivors

Mary Annette Pember
2/24/16

WARNING: This is part of a series of stories to be published over the next few weeks that contain potentially trauma-triggering material.

Mary G., whose story as a sex trafficking survivor in Duluth was told by ICTMN in 2012 (Native Girls Are Being Exploited and Destroyed at an Alarming Rate), had terrible problems convincing the administrators of her Section 8 housing to allow her daughter Hope to live with her. Hope, also a trafficking survivor, has convictions for prostitution as well as assaulting an officer during a mental breakdown. Federal housing programs usually don’t admit tenants with histories of drug use or violent crime. Hope was sex trafficked by a brutal pimp from age 14-20. For three years, she cycled in and out of mental health institutions before Mary G. was able to convince authorities to allow Hope to live with her, only to find that housing rules prevented Hope from staying. Eventually, however, Mary G. was able to appeal the decision. When ICTMN connected with Mary G. recently, we found that Hope is now living with her and trying to recover.

RELATED: Surviving for the Love of Hope

Hope is fortunate. During ICTMN’s search for effective solutions to the problems of rehabilitation of sex trafficking survivors in Indian country, the most immediate dilemma faced by most women was finding a safe place to stay, or a place that would have them without placing potentially onerous demands on their psychological state.

None of the women profiled in this series (see Living the Life: Little Girls Don’t Daydream of Being Prostitutes) have ever been asked if they were forced to exchange sex for housing or survival during any of the social, mental or health intake processes. Instead, medical professionals asked about Hope’s and Naivara’s (Battle at Home: Traditional Spirit v. Addiction Spirit) physical symptoms and prescribed cocktails of pills to take away their pain and anxiety. Hope receives visits from a home health care worker who dispenses medication and encourages her to apply for jobs; her mental health counseling focuses on getting her involved with job training. But Hope is utterly broken. She sits in her mother’s living room chain-smoking cigarettes; her gestures suggest she is wrapped in cotton. She wears a look of bewilderment, as though trying to recall something important but very far away.

Far too few social workers, sexual assault advocates, health care professionals and law enforcement personnel are trained in trauma informed care when it comes to sex trafficking. An example of trauma-informed mental health care would be to ask clients what has happened to them rather than ask what’s wrong with them. Indeed, despite extensive medical literature affirming the role that trauma plays in health outcomes, doctors have been slow to incorporate use of the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) measure to determine the impact of trauma on their patients.

Vednita Carter, founder of Breaking Free, a Minneapolis based non-profit organization that helps women escape prostitution, suggests changing the wording of the medical and social service intake processes. “Rather than directly asking if clients have been prostituted or involved with sex trafficking, they should be asked if they’ve ever had to exchange sex for things, food or a place to stay,” she said.

“Social workers and others serving this population have to have a deep understanding of the impact of sex trafficking on the human spirit,” said Sarah Edstrom a certified sexual assault advocate at the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center (MIWRC). Organizations also need to be equipped to deal with the needs of trafficking survivors.

Since the release of the federal strategic action plan on services for victims of sex trafficking and the funding focus of Department of Justice on services for trafficking survivors, many programs have emerged seeking to help sex trafficking survivors. Advocates who have long-term experience working with trafficking survivors, however, express concern that many of the new programs and organizations may not be prepared to deal with the needs of their clients. “We get calls everyday from these new organizations asking for help in dealing with survivors. I don’t think many of them know what they’re letting themselves in for,” said Carter “Many of the faith based organizations have a heart to help but they have trouble dealing with the women’s attitudes and drug addiction problems. Sobriety takes a long time.”

“Most survivors have addiction problems. Every trafficking survivor I’ve ever interviewed said she had to be inebriated in order to go through with the sex act,” noted Kevin Koliner, South Dakota Asst. U.S. Attorney.

“Once she comes down from the drugs, all the painful memories will come back and she won’t know what to do. The only thing that has worked is self-medication with drugs and alcohol,” noted Carter.

Most shelters or treatment programs won’t allow intoxicated clients to remain; women may be asked to leave if they show up high. And then the cycle begins again. Edstrom, who coordinates a trafficking survivor support group at MIWRC, recalls a client who testified against her pimp, who had kidnapped and brutally raped her for several days. “She had testified in court against the pimp and showed up high at group,” Edstrom recalled.

“It seemed inhumane to expect her to refrain from using the only coping mechanism she knew,” said Edstrom, who does require that clients refrain from using or possessing drugs on the premises of MIWRC. She thinks some of the programs may have unrealistic expectations regarding the recovery process for trafficking survivors. “It takes more than some hygiene products and improving their self-esteem to start a new life. These women are so wounded that their spirits are almost inaccessible. They haven’t been allowed to grieve for what they’ve lost and all that’s happened to them,” said Edstrom.

“We have to deprogram them, in a sense. At Breaking Free, we teach our clients about the dynamics of prostitution. We reassure them they can talk about what has happened to them without being judged. They learn that this was something that was done to them; prostitution is about supply and demand and it’s a multi-billion dollar industry,” said Carter.

“Recovery from sex trafficking requires long-term care. Generally, social service agencies try to push people through but there is no quick turnaround. In serving these clients, we are building from the ground up,” said Nigel Perrote of PAVSA, Program for aid to Victims of Sexual Assault in Duluth, Minnesota.

“First they need to get sober,” he noted. After that comes the work of learning how to live sober. “Living sober means learning how to parent, gain job skills as well as getting and keeping a job.”

Mary G. described Hope’s inability to cope with the challenges of everyday life. “When Hope first came to live with me she would freak out when we ran out of toilet paper. For years she’d lived in hotels or institutions where it was always there; she didn’t know how to buy toilet paper,” Mary G. reported.

“We need wide systemic changes in social services in order to address the deep, basic needs of trafficking survivors,” Perrote noted.

Of her family’s work towards healing, Mary G. said, “Me and Hope together, maybe we can do it. We can be like one strong person.”

Sadly, survivors without strong moms like Mary G. will still have to rely on a system that is still too slow to come to terms with the reality of the experiences of women who are trying to leave ‘the life.’

Upcoming: Can new funding, shelters and tailored programs provide the model for successfully helping trafficking survivors in Indian country?

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