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PREP Program Helps Counter Sex Trafficking in Houston

A young person wearing a red hoodie.

Recognizing the high incidence of human trafficking in Houston, two and a half years ago, a nonprofit organization, The Center for Success and Independence (TCSI), partnered with the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department (HCJPD) on a program to counter the trafficking of adolescent girls and young women. Starting with an initial donation from the Harris County Sheriff’s office, TCSI also received a Competitive Personal Responsibility Education Program (C-PREP) grant from the Family and Youth Services Bureau’s Adolescent Pregnancy Prevention (APP) Program to provide evidence-based teen pregnancy prevention services that incorporate education on adulthood preparation subjects. The partnership with the Sheriff’s office and the C-PREP grant enabled TCSI, a youth-serving residential treatment center, to create the GIFT (Girls Inspiring Future Triumphs) Program to serve HCJPD’s female residents, ages 12 to 17, who are at risk for or victims of trafficking and other traumas.

Marylou Erbland, PhD, TCSI’s clinical director, said that identifying potential trafficking victims has become an important priority in Houston in recent years. Yet, Erbland said, “kids are being identified, but now what happens? They needed help.”

The GIFT program takes place at the Harris County Juvenile Probation Youth Village residential facility. The six- to nine-month program has a capacity for 24 girls. Erbland highlighted that the GIFT program incorporates different interventions and treatment techniques to prepare participants for successful independent living.

Participants spend approximately 12 to 15 hours a week in group therapy and also engage in individual and family therapy. GIFT also offers substance abuse treatment, pregnancy prevention, anger management, social skills, and independent living programs. As a participant progresses through GIFT, a behavior management level system gives her the opportunity to practice new skills and actions while earning additional privileges, such as a two-hour dinner pass with her family.

The GIFT program also incorporates dialectical behavior therapy, which, Erbland explained, supports the participants in learning emotional regulation, healthy-relationship building, and coping and mindfulness skills.

“They love mindfulness; they tell us how wonderful it is to be able to focus on the present moment and feel more relaxed. Their lives have not been very relaxed,” Erbland said of the participants.

In addition, a psychoeducational trauma group focuses on helping the survivors of trafficking understand trauma, develop the coping skills to talk about the trauma they have experienced, and recover from it.

Erbland emphasized that GIFT’s strong family program is instrumental in creating change for the participants and their families. Having the girls work together with their families supports the ultimate goal of a successful transition back to the community to a safe and supportive environment, either in the family home or in a safe housing alternative.

Through GIFT, said Erbland, TCSI is using gender-specific interventions that address the participants’ vulnerabilities to being trafficked and their individual needs. TCSI is building a support system for these girls, helping them develop strong identities and practice the skills to take care of themselves.

Erbland stressed that overall success for a GIFT program participant may mean achieving an educational goal, securing a job, using coping skills, developing a strong support system, attending recovery meetings, or finding a stable home environment. For instance, one participant recently received her GED after struggling to attain this educational goal in other programs.

Success is also measured by program statistics over the last two years. Of the 105 participants served by GIFT, 77 percent were successfully discharged from the GIFT program, and 84 percent reported a reduction in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder as measured at post-testing.

“Success is different for everyone,” said Erbland. “Our program provides the help girls need to develop skills they will carry through their lives.”

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