Life After ‘The Life’: Putting Families Back Together After Children are Trafficked

For child sex trafficking victims, everyday activities like social media and cell phone use bring vulnerability and concern.
When a child or teen has been sex trafficked, everyday activities like social media and cell phone use bring a new level of vulnerability and concern. (Photo: 123rf.com)

On Monday nights, a small group of parents gathers on the campus of the University of California-Davis. Each would give anything not to be there.

What binds this group together is among every mother and father’s deepest fears.

They are the parents and caregivers of sex-trafficked kids and teens. They’ve come together to try to make sense of what’s going on in their family, and what they need to do to set things right and keep their kids safe in the face of new, confusing behaviors and changing family dynamics.

“In general, teenagers can be pretty difficult to deal with,” said Dawn Blacker, one of the two UC Davis researchers who developed the program. “The trauma of commercial sexual exploitation brings a whole new layer of challenge.”

Human trafficking is a 32-billion-dollar-a-year global industry, one of the most profitable criminal activities just behind drug trafficking and currency counterfeiting. More than 100,000 American children are involved, according to California’s Department of Health and Human Services.

The walls are beginning to close in on exploiters, as seen by the federal government’s recent seizure of Backpage.com, a known internet backwater notorious for advertising sex with minors. The hope is that this will help stem the dark corners available to child sex traffickers, and ultimately curb the practice. But it makes the need for plans to help victims return home all the more important.

The Parenting Skills Group, developed and led by Blacker and fellow UC Davis researcher Brandi Liles, is designed for parents and caregivers who are embarking upon or already in the process of reunifying with children who have been commercially sexually exploited.Educating parents around this complex issue and the trauma it causes is paramount to successful reunification, according to social workers and anti-trafficking advocates.

Still in its first year, the group is aimed at equipping these caregivers with the knowledge and tools to help them understand the psychological implications of surviving sexual exploitation, reintegrating the exploited child into family life and preventing their return to exploitation.

Psychoeducation and Peer Support

Blacker and Liles lead the Parenting Skills Group through a six-session course that blends education with support. The Sacramento County Probation Department, which funds the skills group, approached the researchers last spring and asked them to develop the curriculum.

“We know that other people have open support groups, where caregivers can just come and talk, which can be very helpful but at the same time not very useful in giving parents skills they can use,” Blacker said.

The first two sessions offer “psychoeducation,” which combines education about the issue with coping strategies. These sessions focus on learning about sexual exploitation, trauma and the trauma triggers both for exploited youth and the caregivers themselves.

Dr. Dawn Blacker (left) and Dr. Brandi Liles blend psychoeducation with peer support to help prepare parents to reunify with kids who have been sexually exploited. (Photo courtesy of Drs. Blacker and Liles)

Sessions three, four and five are geared toward behavioral parenting strategies with a particular focus on key issues that can be especially problematic with exploited youth, such as running away and Internet safety.

In the final session, parents learn about vicarious trauma and secondary traumatic stress that can affect parents and detract from their ability to be supportive, present caregivers.

Secondary traumatic stress (STS) refers to emotional duress that comes from hearing about the trauma of another, according to the Parent-Child Interaction Therapy Training Center. It can lead to chronic exhaustion, hopelessness and becoming numb to stories of trauma. Vicarious trauma goes deeper, causing people to question their innermost beliefs about the way life and the universe work.

“They become so overwhelmed that they give up without knowing they’ve given up,” said Sarai Smith-Mazariegos, executive director of S.H.A.D.E., a Bay Area nonprofit composed of survivors of sexual exploitation.

Mindfulness and self-care are emphasized throughout the curriculum to help give parents the tools to manage these emotions, Blacker said.

Participants shared some of their experiences with the researchers via a feedback form. Several reported that learning about trauma triggers was useful in helping them understand their children, and others said the group made them feel less isolated and that they learned from hearing what other parents were going through.

Liles expressed gratitude that the parents were willing to participate at all.

“It takes a lot of courage and vulnerability to put yourself out there to strangers and be willing to learn,” she said.

The Road to Reunification

Commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) can take many forms. It can involve prostitution, stripping or pornography. It can occur at the hands of a third-party exploiter who forces or coerces the young person into performing sexual acts in return for money or material goods, protection or providing basic necessities like shelter and food. Some third-party exploiters use fear and abuse to influence the youth. Other times, the exploiter plays the role of the loving boyfriend, but isolates and manipulates emotionally immature adolescents into exploitation.

Sexually exploited children are often charged with crimes like prostitution and adjudicated through the juvenile justice system when they are apprehended by law enforcement. More recently, a paradigm shift has led some jurisdictions toward the decriminalization of these youth, who are now considered victims and are served by the child welfare system.

Shifting CSEC cases from the juvenile justice system to the child welfare system provides exploited youth and their families with supportive services and programs not typically available through probation departments, including parenting skills programs and family reunification efforts.

S.H.A.D.E.’s Smith-Mazariegos explains that, in Alameda County, the first step of a CSEC case is a team decision-making meeting (TDM), which brings together the youth, parents, social workers, mediators and advocates to discuss what dynamics in the home led to the exploitation and what interventions are needed.

Thanks to recent legislation, SB 855, many other California counties use an approach similar to TDM, called the multidisciplinary team (MDT) approach, which involves an inter-agency collaboration between the county child welfare, probation, mental health and public health departments.

“They’ll look at how did this happen, what wasn’t the parent providing?” said Smith-Mazariegos. But unless they’re involved in the exploitation, it won’t be looked at as the parent’s fault, she said.

If the exploitation occurred at the hands of a parent or caregiver, the child will be immediately removed from the home, and reunification is not an option.

During the TDM, a safety plan will be made for the child that includes a placement plan if out-of-home care is deemed necessary, as well as programs and services for both caregivers and youth to complete. If the child is placed into a foster home, the parents must be able to prove there is no negligence.

Many of the parent participants in the UC Davis program have been referred by child protective services and are mandated to complete the program as part of their reunification requirements.

Caregivers usually have at least a year, sometimes a bit more, to complete the court-ordered steps needed to reunify and prove their fitness to parent. But with the kind of trauma exploitation causes, this timeframe can be problematic.

“Sometimes the therapeutic process doesn’t coincide with our court timeline,” said Aisha Lusk, a protective services supervisor with San Francisco’s Family and Children Services Department. “You can’t rush therapy, especially with the trauma the parents, as well as the children, are going through.”

‘Not an Overnight Experience’

Because of the unique challenges faced by both the youth and their caregivers, the reunification process for CSEC victims has to be treated very differently than that of other families in the child welfare system, according to Dianna Greene, a supervising children’s social worker in a specialized CSEC unit in Los Angeles County’s Department of Children and Family Services.

Commercial sexual exploitation can change a young person’s worldview, relationship with money and work, and hinder her ability to form trusting relationships, she said. Plus, the lifestyle often includes staying up late and using drugs and alcohol.

“It’s really hard for youth to come back and live what they would call ‘the square life,’” Liles said.

Trying to rush victims’ healing process could actually be counterproductive, explains Jakki Bedsole, director of programs for MISSSEY, a Bay Area nonprofit serving exploited and at-risk youth.

“Pulling away from exploitation is not an overnight experience for most people. It can happen, but that’s not always the case,” Bedsole said, explaining that, despite the harm being done, CSEC victims often form “trauma bonds” with their exploiter and believe that person is the only one who understands them and will protect them and meet their needs.

“If the young person sees the person we see as the perpetrator, the exploiter, as somebody that’s supporting them, they might not then see us as somebody that’s supporting them,” Bedsole said. “And they might see us as somebody who’s keeping them from safety.”

Russell Wilson, a human trafficking expert with S.H.A.D.E., said that CSEC victims don’t actually require significantly more work than youth who have not been exploited, they just require a better understanding of their circumstances and how that will affect their behavior and needs.

Without this knowledge, “[Parents and caregivers] feel trapped and lost and unable to confront these issues,” Wilson said.

Learning From Experience

The advocates with S.H.A.D.E. said that the UC Davis program sounds promising, but there are a few adjustments that they as survivors of trafficking feel are important. Namely, including having a survivor of sex trafficking help lead the group.

“There’s going to be a different connection, a different understanding,” Smith-Mazariegos said.

Dianna Greene, the L.A. County social worker, said that connecting caregivers with “parent partners” who have been through the reunification process before can be helpful, too.

Blacker said she sees how groups led by survivors could be helpful, but she said it might be better for the purposes of the UC Davis program to have a parent or caregiver co-facilitate the group rather than a survivor.

“For a skills group, I believe that you need skilled clinicians, as some of the parents have their own trauma histories and/or other mental health issues on top of other things to deal with,” Blacker explained in an email to The Chronicle of Social Change.

For now, the two co-creators are running the sessions themselves in order to facilitate a sort of feedback loop, fine-tuning the program based on input from participants.

Blacker and Liles recently wrapped up their fourth round of the program. Through those four groups, they’ve worked with approximately 15 caregivers.

“What we are seeing, particularly with the situation where the youth is being returned to the parent, there’s still a need for family therapy and collateral sessions,” Blacker said.

In San Francisco, newly reunified families are eligible for 12 months of family maintenance services. What is offered varies case-to-case, but programs include individual and family therapy, parenting classes and wraparound services with community partners like Huckleberry House, Lusk said.

For now, the UC Davis group is limited to families in Sacramento County, and there are no current plans to replicate it elsewhere. Liles said before that happens, there needs to be funding for effectiveness research and program evaluation.

“If the program is found to be effective, dissemination efforts should be the next focus,” she said.

Blacker and Liles said they’re also in the very early stages of discussing the possibility of developing a complementary program for CSEC victims themselves.

“There are a lot of barriers to coming home,” Liles said. Learning about what you’re going through and what to expect “is a good starting off point.”

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Sara Tiano
About Sara Tiano 43 Articles
General assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change

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