Police found the 13-year-old in a raided house. Once in safe custody, she agreed to enroll in a recovery program for trafficking survivors. But when it came time to head over to the center, the young woman didn’t answer her phone.
Tina Frundt, executive director of Courtney’s House, a shelter for trafficking survivors in Washington, D.C., recognized this about-face; as a survivor herself, she’d lived it.
“I knew she was testing us,” Frundt says. “You have to test people when you’re in the life.”
The girl had worked with other organizations before, and when she started ignoring their calls, they’d just hold back and call her in a week, Frundt says. Courtney House, on the other hand, was proactive and went straight to the victim.
“I said, ‘You said you were ready,’ and she agreed,” Frundt says. “We went [to the program] together, which showed we were listening to her.”
Building trust is the absolute first step in helping someone leave and recover from exploitation. Because the experience of being trafficked is so specific and intense, survivors often feel they can only be understood by people who have shared it. That’s why Frundt and others maintain that having survivors on staff is of utmost importance for organizations that work with victims of commercial sexual exploitation.
“It’s like AA to me,” says Noel Gomez, co-founder of Seattle’s Organization for Prostitution Survivors, referring to the Alcoholics Anonymous recovery program. “People go there because they were alcoholics and they want to be with other alcoholics. It’s the same thing for women who have been in the life. They need a support system of survivors who have gone through the same emotions and are going through them still.”
The First Step to Recovery
Having survivors on staff is especially important at the earliest stages of working with victims, when they are just emerging from abuse, says EleSondra DeRomano, founder and executive director of the anti-trafficking agency Stars Toledo. She worked with 177 young women that police recovered in a Toledo, Ohio, prostitution sting and convinced 11 to take the stand against the abusers.
Their testimony led to jail time for the criminals.
DeRomano says fellow survivors are often the only ones who can connect with women just emerging from abuse, who often are unwilling to tell their stories to police and others.
“Survivors are the stepping stone to get them to talk to the Ph.D.’s, the trauma people, the law enforcement,” DeRomano says. “They will trust us, and they’ll try [to take our advice]. But if they’re forced, they won’t want to go. I still, when I’m backed into a corner, will get defensive.”
She adds that many trafficking survivors have had to overcome a host of problems, including addiction and sexual trauma. “If you’re truly trying to help [a young woman who has been trafficked], she’s going to be in the middle and a whole circle around her. There can’t be enough people around her, trying to help her,” and survivors should be closest by.
Staff Survivors Need Support Too
For trafficking survivors to be able to serve victims well, they have to be able to give adequate support. Every trafficking survivor’s recovery process is ongoing, so allow them to move forward at their own pace, anti-trafficking advocates say.
For example, at Courtney’s House, where all direct counseling services are provided by trafficking survivors, counselors have been through extensive counseling themselves. They’ve also lived for five years without going back into an abusive situation.
Gomez of the Organization for Prostitution Survivors says, “Some of our staff are survivor leaders who’ve received special trainings. Our goal is to get survivors to that point, if they want to, since it helps them feel they’re doing good with their lives.”
But not every trafficking survivor is ready or willing to be a confidante for people in early recovery. There are other ways they can be effective as allies, Gomez and Frundt say.
“Some might be better on the board, or in community outreach,” Frundt says. “Learn what their skills are and respect that they don’t want to tell the world about their experience.”