Q&A: Mollie Ring from the SAGE Project on Helping Victims of Commercial Sexual Exploitation

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A young woman standing with her back to a wall.

While concrete numbers are hard to come by, experts agree that commercial sexual exploitation of children and adults is on the rise. And study after study supports two things: 1) that a high percentage of homeless youth have been sexually abused prior to becoming homeless and 2) once on their own, they become vulnerable to further sexual assault and exploitation.

We spoke with Mollie Ring, who coordinates direct services for victims of human trafficking and leads outreach, training, and public education efforts for the Standing Against Global Exploitation (SAGE) Project, a nonprofit organization working to end commercial sexual exploitation. We asked Ring how youth workers can help victims of sexual exploitation.

NCFY:  How do you help young people open up about their experiences?

Mollie Ring: Have someone on the staff who identifies as a peer do the initial outreach. It’s a lot easier to engage someone when you’re able to say, “You can’t tell me that I don’t know what you’ve been through because I do.” Staff may need to share a little of their own experiences, so the youth realize, “This isn’t something I need to be ashamed of.”

The greatest barrier is shame. It’s a challenge to break through. Young people have been stigmatized by family members, peers, and by society. Let them know there’s nothing to be ashamed of, no one’s judging them, that you do want to hear. The key to reaching a lot of these youth is finding ways to let them know they can safely disclose this information, and their needs will be met.

NCFY: How do you find peer staff?

Ring: Look within your existing client base. Help young people build skills to help others. Be sure you give them some time between being a client and being a staff member. They will also need a case manager who can help and support them. Collaborate with local mental health providers or clinicians outside the organization if you need to.

NCFY: What can you do to prevent young people from returning to the streets?

Ring: It’s always a challenge. These kids are survivors. If they want to go, they’ll go. Young people often have no idea how psychologically manipulated they are. The traffickers may own 90 percent of a child’s mind. We’re trying to flip that.

There are usually layers of trauma. Almost all of them have experienced some form of sexual abuse prior to the situation they are in. They were traumatized before human trafficking. A lot of these youth don’t see themselves as having a future, living past 18.

What’s going to keep a kid in a shelter is helping them to see the value of healthy alternatives and how healing can be freeing. Offering a safe bed won’t be enough. You need to engage youth in other activities, get them employment so they don’t lose the freedom they had financially. Talk them through the pros and cons.

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