The following post was written by Stephany Powell, Executive Director of Journey Out, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that provides the critical tools and support necessary for women to help victims of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking break free from a life of abuse and violence and rebuild their lives. During Human Trafficking Awareness Month, we’re amplifying the voices of trafficking survivors and those working on the front lines of trafficking.
Regardless of the age of a sex trafficking victim, stories often become fixated on the notion of the “rescue” — but what happens after that? We in the human trafficking community shy away from this term because it doesn’t give merit to the process that is at play when a trafficking victim exits the Life. Because I can “rescue” you, I can temporarily give you clothing and a roof over your head. But what I have not eliminated, are those thoughts and memories in your head that you deal with every night. What I have not eliminated, are the multiple victimizations you may have experienced in your lifetime.
We can’t talk about the here and now with a heroic mindset. We have to think of the years of healing and in terms of sustainability.
Barriers to A Sustainable Recovery
In some cases, it may take 6-7 attempts to exit the Life before a permanent exit occurs. This happens for the same reason it takes multiple exits for domestic violence victims — the emotional bond to the trafficker. Sometimes they become frozen in their thought process. They understand the dysfunctional place they were in and they know how to navigate that, but when they come out of the Life, they don’t understand how to maneuver the outside world. It’s supposed to be safe. It’s supposed to be predictable. But when it becomes unpredictable, they get scared and retreat into a world that they know how to maneuver.
For example, let’s say Journey Out takes a client to get government assistance. When we get there, the girl is excited: okay good, I’m going to get food stamps, I’m going to get section 8 housing, I am on the path. And then the process happens.
First of all, you get into a long line. Then, you get to the person at the window who acts like they really don’t want to be there (and may or may not be rude). They hit you with: but do you have your birth certificate? Do you have ID? Now, we’ve got to go back to get them a birth certificate and an ID. Then we go back to that government assistance building and wait in that long line again. Sometimes the bureaucracy will deflate them to the point that they don’t want to do it anymore. It’s just like going to the DMV and waiting in that long line to register a car. Nobody wants to do it, but we know we have to do it because we know that this is part of car ownership. This is frustrating, but imagine what it’s like for someone that anticipates the end of that line to be something that sets them on a road to sustainability — and it gets knocked down.
3 Resources Essential to Sustainable Recovery
Survivors need more than support groups to exit a lifestyle they have become trapped in — they need support services.
1. Mental health has to be the foundation to help build survivors towards their healing process.
It’s very important for any organization, nonprofit, or bureaucracy working with victims to really understand the mental health aspect of recovery. Not only is it important to know how to relate to these victims, but understanding the medical and psychological processes that may be involved is key to the healing process.
There are numerous reasons why a focus on mental health is core to recovery. Those working with victims need to understand complex trauma — you’re working with at a victim who: (1) may or may not see themselves as a victim and (2) has experienced multiple victimizations. Regardless of whether they are on the street or if they are being advertised online, they likely have a history of child abuse. They could be victims of robbery, they could have witnessed murders, they are victims of assault, they are victims sometimes of rape or domestic violence. When you look at the statistics of women in general who have been victims of molestation, it’s staggering. 80% of Journey Out’s clients were victims of child molestation. Even if the survivor is 30, if those issues haven’t been addressed, the effects of this type of abuse alone are still there and still having an impact.
At Journey Out, we see clients that are bipolar or schizophrenic. We don’t know if mental health issues are the result of their victimization or if they already had an issue that made them very vulnerable. There is a huge intersection between the grooming process and mental health that needs to continue to be explored by psychologists and social workers in order for us to really have a good grasp on how to help these victims.
When you think of it in terms of sustainability, that’s when we have to think of things like counseling and therapy. They need to build the tools to fight those psychological demons in their head resulting from the things they’ve seen and been through.
2. Residential programming that puts the survivor at the center.
Those coming out of the Life need to not only have a place to live, but a program that really thoroughly understands this victim, regardless of the number of attempts to exit. These programs need to understand that survivors may not be overly thankful to receive help or able to express it because of all of the trauma and the lack of trust. You’re dealing with a very complex individual who has gone through numerous varieties of trauma, that can have a lasting effect.
3. Access to education and work experience
I can’t tell you how many times we will have clients that say “all I want is a job”. That is it. Some of them will say “all I want is a job”, but they may have a sixth grade education. Or they may have gotten to 10th or 11th grade, but didn’t graduate. Or they may have never had a job before and therefore have no work experience. We really need the business community to align with the fight against human trafficking and the continued sustainability of these victims. We need those that have the knowledge to be able to support the development life skills and help them become employable.
Support for a sustainable recovery
If you believe that the girls and women caught up in sex trafficking deserve an opportunity for a chance out and a new beginning, we hope you’ll consider getting involved. Supporting our mission means safeguarding the health and well-being of women of girls who are victims of sex-trafficking. The result of your help and our services means that these women, who often have a history of abuse; can go on to lead healthy lives.
We have been carrying out this mission for 36 years with the support and assistance of community members and partners. There are a number of ways our community can provide support for Journey Out drop-in centers, programs and mental health support. We hope that you will also consider contributing directly to our work. Please go to our website, journeyout.org, to see how you can make a difference, your support could save a life.
Dr. Stephany Powell’s unique insight into the world of sexual exploitation and trafficking gained through her thirty years with the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), coupled with her passion for education and her heart for community, make Dr. Powell an unparalleled choice to lead Journey Out into its future. In addition to her LAPD tenure, Dr. Powell is a Doctor of Education in Organizational Leadership and utilizes that singular combination in a number of ways. She created and facilitated Team Building and Executive Leadership workshops based on positive change dynamics for the Fire and Police departments. Additionally, she is an Adjunct Professor of Behavioral Science at the University of La Verne and the Los Angeles Trade Technical College. Dr. Powell also founded a consulting business specializing in organizational leadership, conflict resolution and team building to create positive organizational change.
Most important, Dr. Powell uses her considerable skills and insight to educate the community about the complex and often misunderstood world of sex trafficking and to create positive change for its victims.