Sex Trafficking Re-entry Programs Must Involve the True Experts: Survivors

A dozen foster parents surround the table at the mandated Foster Care Child Sex Trafficking class, listening with perked ears to the class leader. She is a survivor of early childhood sex trafficking. The leader continues, noting signs of trafficking, many of which she experienced herself.

Amidst a continual onslaught of questions from attendees, the leader teaches the parents safe ways to interact with their previously trafficked foster child, including being careful to ask before physical touch to respect the child’s former non-existent boundaries.

Parents are taught potential triggers of the flee/fight/freeze response. In the world of psychology, the leader’s words are all clinically correct, but again, the leader has more than education; she has personal experience, having experienced the foster care system and the unexpected terror of being confronted with well-meaning hugs.

This was a true example of yet another experiential expert sharing her heart, knowledge, wisdom, love and grace to persons desperate for any real help.

I am a school psychologist, anti-child sex trafficking advocate and educator. I also run a therapeutic day treatment program for emotionally disturbed children and work carefully and caringly with the parents of these wonderful kids.

I have undergone years of training to earn two graduate degrees so that I can successfully do this work on a daily basis. I am a researcher and strongly value education and training. Yet, whom is our education about? What is our training for?

Answer: The children who struggle. The children who have lived through child trafficking. The survivors who have lived through incredulous horrors and personally incurred more strength and resilience than we could ever possibly teach or write about. And these last are the true experts. They have been refined by fire. And if they boldly come to a class or group, I listen.

Therefore, I was shocked to learn that the researchers featured in the April 11, 2018, article, “Life After ‘The Life’: Putting Families Back Together After Children are Trafficked,” indicate that they do not believe Survivor-Leaders (Experiential Experts) should help co-lead their Parent Skills Training Class for parents of children victimized by child sex trafficking. Dawn Blacker and Brandi Liles, who run the UC Davis program, hold that only clinicians and parents ought to lead the Parent Skills Class.

Do they not see the value of the experts’ particular insight? At the very least, the survivors represent something the parents desperately need: Hope. Hope that their child who has undergone heinous acts can heal, live successfully, and even be a leader like the expert standing before them. Why would Blacker and Liles cast aside the expert’s special knowledge as well as the hope and empowerment the expert represents?

The researchers opine that survivors lack the clinical knowledge to assist. I have worked with many sex trafficking survivors. They go to in-depth therapy, more than most would ever wish to attend. They captivate. They heal. They are able to tell families who are being reunified with child trafficking survivors the perils of the child’s previous world as well as what may be the child’s current feelings, fears and needs — or how to ascertain them.

No college degree can shed such a bright light — a spotlight — on the heart of a child who has endured child sex trafficking.

Can it actually be possible that the UC Davis researchers, who devote their time trying to help parents of child victims, are they themselves not victim and survivor-centered?

The researchers are attempting to provide a worthwhile service. As an advocate and clinician, I am grateful. But I do hope they remember this important point: A book is great. But nothing compares to having the live person whom the book is about standing there in the center of the room.

Danett Williams is a consultant member of the S.H.A.D.E Movement: Survivors Healing, Advising and Dedicated to Empowerment

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