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Providing Hope and Healing to Survivors of Human Trafficking

January is National Slavery & Human Trafficking Prevention Month. Human trafficking is a pervasive issue that impacts millions of children, youth, and adults every yearand youth in foster or Residential care are at heightened risk. In fact, the National Foster Youth Institute recently estimated that 60 percent of child sex trafficking victims have had at least one foster care placement.  

“Human traffickers intentionally target vulnerable children and youth,” said Sarah Tunning, LMHC, CWCM, Executive Director of One Hope United’s Florida Programs. “It’s imperative that we find stable, long-term placements for foster youth, where they will have the supportive relationships they need to avoid the people who wish to harm them.” 

Read below to learn more about human trafficking, and the steps One Hope United takes to help survivors find hope and healing.

What is Human Trafficking? 

The Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as “the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act.” Traffickers might use violence, manipulation, or false promises of well-paying jobs or romantic relationships to lure victims into trafficking situations. 

Children, youth, and adults are trafficked every day, right under the eyes of their friends and neighbors, in every community in America. Some signs and indicators of human trafficking may be surprising, while others are easily identifiable. 

Youth in the child welfare system are especially vulnerable to human trafficking for many reasons. After experiencing trauma or abuse, they have negative, warped perceptions of how they should be treated, or what they deserve. Traffickers may lure their victims with words of love and affirmation, and expensive gifts. When they later become physically violent or are ready to coerce their victim to provide labor or services, their victim often is emotionally and financially reliant on their trafficker and feels there is no possible way for them to get out. 

Identifying signs of human trafficking 

According to hopeforjustice.org, there are several indicators of human trafficking: 

  • Houses or flats with too many people, all picked up or dropped off at the same time 
  • People who seem scared, confused or have untreated injuries 
  • Few or no documents, or someone else in control of their documents/passport 
  • Low or no pay 
  • Limited freedom of movement and dependency on others
  • Note: Those affected are unlikely to self-identify as a ‘victim’ and may not realize or accept they are being controlled 

Preventing human trafficking

One Hope United’s Case Managers and staff take proactive measures to protect foster and Residential youth from traffickers. Staff at OHU’s Residential programs in Illinois have even collaborated with law enforcement in the past to help break up human trafficking rings. 

OHU staff shared that youth are at increased risk of being trafficked when they go on run from their foster or Residential placement. Staff members said that many young people in Residential homes are teenagers who have had very little structure for most of their lives. When they enter the child welfare system, much of their freedom and independence goes away. In this new restrictive environment, they begin to grapple with painful memories and emotions, which triggers a desire to run. OHU staff members work to help youth understand that although they have responded to difficult situations in the past in the best way they knew how, by running, that response is no longer necessary for their safety.

Melissa Y. M. Webster, M.S., LCPC, Executive Director of Residential and Day School Programs, said, “When we know youth have a secret, we listen to them, and try to show them they are safe with us. Consistency and support from staff are the biggest factors in preventing youth from going on run.

“When a youth returns from run, we tell are so glad they chose to come back – now let’s talk about what we can do to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Providing hope and healing to survivors 

When a youth returns to foster or Residential care after being trafficked, staff go through a debriefing process with them, which includes a medical assessment, and an independent investigation conducted by the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS). 

In the weeks and months after a youth has returned to OHU after being trafficked, staff engage them in therapy, as well as conversations that happen organically when youth are ready to share their thoughts and feelings with staff. Jessica Perry, Director of Residential Clinical Services at OHU’s Centralia and Lake Villa campuses, shared that she and her team use a therapeutic technique called “unconditional positive regard” to help youth understand that what they went through wasn’t their fault – it was the fault of their abuser. She said, “We never want youth to feel ashamed or judged. We are always there to provide immediate attention and support, whenever youth need it. We meet them where they are emotionally, and work to help them understand that they deserve so much better. They deserve to be safe.” 

Jessica concluded, “If a youth is only in our care for a short period of time, at a critical phase in their development, we owe them all the support and love we can give them.” 

If you suspect someone is being trafficked, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888, or text 233733. Anti-Trafficking Hotline Advocates are available 24/7 to take reports of potential human trafficking.

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