Some arrive with bulging bellies after being kicked out by their pimps. Others are newly pregnant and were picked up by police as they worked on the streets. But however they arrive, young women who have been trafficked are a regular presence at maternity group homes.
Their trauma and its effects can pose obstacles to a program’s effectiveness, and also make these young women feel unworthy of motherhood. But a child can also be very motivating for trafficking victims, provided that treatment helps them overcome their emotional trauma.
“The baby makes them want to do better,” says Raquelle McGriff, program manager for Through the Storm Outreach Ministries in Kingstree, SC. “We try to redirect [their anxiety], reassure them that it’s a fresh start. The bad experiences don’t have to repeat themselves.”
Jennifer Stracick, executive director of Alpha House of Pinellas County, a maternity group home in St. Petersburg, FL, says that in 2013, nearly 40% of her residents had endured trafficking. But few of them knew the experience by that term.
“Sometimes they call it ‘being sexually abused,’ and once you dig in you discover exactly what’s been happening,” says Crystal France, director of Every Woman’s Place in Muskegon, MI, whose staff is trained to pick up on signals during intake interviews. “Or maybe they say they were ‘around prostitution.’”
At Alpha House, Jennifer Stracick says that trafficking victims sometimes act out sexually. They may have loud, overtly sexual conversations on the phone within earshot of other residents, or talk in detail about their sexual behavior at group therapy meetings. “It’s frustrating because you’re dealing with an environment full of women and babies,” says Stracick. “People in the house don’t want to deal with that” as they adapt to young motherhood.
In general, these behaviors stem from the fact that trafficking can skew a victim’s view of sexuality and intimacy. Every Woman’s Place serves only pregnant girls who have been homeless, but even relative to that population, France says that “the whole idea of family and love and relationships is distorted” among the formerly trafficked clients. The program’s therapy services focus on “reconfirming that [their exploitation] wasn’t their fault,” says France. “They blame themselves.”
Raquelle McGriff recalls one Through The Storm client who was particularly worried about being a good mother. “She kept saying, ‘Not every parent is good,’ and I realized she was trying to tell me that her own mother had facilitated her trafficking.” That’s why McGriff and her colleagues focus on helping trafficking victims rebuild a sense of trust with a core group of people in their life.
When appropriate, they work to reconnect clients to their baby’s father. But in the case of trafficking victims, who very often either became pregnant by their abuser or can’t pinpoint him altogether, it can be hard. “Often they don’t trust the father, and push them away so they can’t hurt the child,” McGriff says.
Luckily, the group setting of a maternity home can help young victims feel they have a family again. When someone shares a traumatic experience in a group therapy meeting, other girls might relate, or be inspired by their friend’s commitment to their baby. Best of all, they can gain confidence in their ability to mother and support someone else in a difficult time.
“It can be therapeutic to console or help each other,” says McGriff. “It shows them that they do have an instinct to love.”