Can an Adapted Group Therapy Model Help Female Victims of Commercial Sexual Exploitation?

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Young women sitting together.

Putting the Pieces Back Together: A Group Intervention for Sexually Exploited Adolescent Girls” (abstract).  Kristine E. Hickle and Dominique E. Roe-Sepowitz. Social Work with Groups, Vol. 37, No. 2 (2014).

What it’s about:  Researchers Hickle and Roe-Sepowitz wanted to know whether Putting the Pieces Back Together, an adapted group intervention originally for female prisoners who had been abused, could help adolescent girls who had experienced—or were at risk of—sexual exploitation. They conducted a pilot study with10 young women, each of whom had been trafficked, had engaged in survival sex (i.e., trading sex for resources like shelter or food), or had a history of abuse.

Why read it: All young people face some risk of commercial sexual exploitation. Youth are more likely to be victimized, however, if they are homeless, involved in the child welfare system, or have a history of abuse and neglect at home. Unfortunately, many of these young people don't even realize they are being exploited. While there is a need for treatment options, there are very few interventions that target teen girls who have experienced sexual exploitation, the authors write. Putting the Pieces Back Together harnesses the group approach found to be effective in other youth interventions, Hickle and Roe-Sepowitz claim, and reduces cost by helping multiple youth at once.

Biggest takeaways from the research: The researchers identified four parts of Putting the Pieces Back Together that were instrumental to helping sexually exploited girls move through their recovery. These include educating participants about domestic minor sex trafficking, providing opportunities for youth to help and support each other, using dialogue as a tool for reducing feelings of stigma and shame, and developing skills to deal with powerful feelings. Study participants provided positive feedback about how these aspects of the program helped them heal, feel less alone in their journey, and talk about their sexual exploitation in a safe space.

Additionally, Hickle and Roe-Sepowitz offer the following lessons to other organizations thinking of implementing a group model like Putting the Pieces Back Together: 

  • Frontline staff such as case workers, social workers, and therapists need to know how to identify young women who have been trafficked, have traded sex for resources, or are at-risk of either form of sexual exploitation. Correctly identifying victims, in turn, can help staff members make appropriate referrals to their intervention.
  • Group members need a safe place to discuss the traumatic experiences associated with their exploitation, even if they are receiving treatment for issues like substance abuse or self-harm. One participant, for example, said that she shared things with her fellow group members that she had not spoken about with her therapist.
  • Agencies should bring on a skilled group facilitator, as well as a co-facilitator who is a sex trafficking survivor. Knowing that one of their adult leaders has gone through a similar experience will help group participants feel more comfortable opening up, the authors write.

Hickle and Roe-Sepowitz recommend that agencies use Putting the Pieces Back Together to meet the needs of youth in their programs who have been sexually exploited. They add that the treatment model would be particularly useful at drop-in centers that serve runaway and homeless youth, juvenile justice programs, and residential programs like substance abuse treatment centers and group homes.

Additional references: Look for more articles about sex trafficking and related interventions in our research library.

Get a better understanding of Putting the Pieces Back Together by reading the author manuscript online. 

Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, the Family and Youth Services Bureau, or the Administration for Children and Families.

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