Primary Sources: How Can Residential Treatment Help Sexually Exploited Girls?

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Photograph of three young women in a dormitory room.

"Residential treatment for sexually exploited adolescent girls: Acknowledge, Commit, Transform (ACT)" (abstract), Children and Youth Services Review, Vol. 33, No. 11, November 2011.

What it's about: Young people who have been sexually exploited often run away from a residential treatment program and return to the streets.They may also lack engagement in the program, behave aggressively and abuse substances. The authors of this study wanted to know what administrators at Germaine Lawrence, a residential treatment facility for adolescent young women in Massachusetts, did to prevent these situations.

Why read it: The proportion of young women who prematurely left the treatment program at Germaine Lawrence dropped from 65 percent to 15 percent after staff at the facility started using used ACT (Acknowledge, Commit, Transform), a program for sexually exploited adolescent girls living in group homes. To be admitted to ACT, youth must acknowledge the need for change and be ready to adjust to group-home life.

Biggest take aways for youth workers: Each ACT participant meets regularly with a mentor who is a survivor of sex trafficking. The mentor helps the participant feel more engaged in treatment and supports her emotionally after she leaves the program. Participants also receive individualized discharge planning and meet weekly with a therapist who involves the girls’ families, if possible. Culturally competent treatment, such as making services available in Spanish or other languages reflected in the community, is crucial to the program’s success. The authors suggest that youth workers do the following when working with sexually exploited young women:

  • If possible, designate a separate group-home program specifically for sexually exploited youth, adjacent to a larger residential facility. This allows young people to move slowly to group-home life, and to move to and from a more restrictive setting as needed.
  • Strive to create a warm, homelike environment, with rules and consequences but more freedom than regular treatment facilities. For example, ACT residents receive a small monetary incentive to participate in group activities and do their chores. Allowing them to earn and access their own money helps them to learn necessary life skills.
  • Educational groups may help young women to acknowledge sexual exploitation or at-risk behaviors. Including relapse prevention as part of the program can help young women successfully leave the life of sexual exploitation.

Additional reference: Germaine Lawrence also uses the My Life My Choice group-counseling program to reach adolescent girls who have not yet acknowledged that they are being exploited and those who are vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation. The groups are led by an adult survivor and the ACT program director.

Listen to NCFY's "Voices from the Field: Rachel Lloyd" podcast, in which the founder and CEO of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, or GEMS, in New York, explains why runaway and homeless youth providers are so well-suited to combating sex trafficking.

(Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB or the Administration for Children and Families. Go to the NCFY literature database for abstracts of this and other publications.)

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