How a Maryland shelter is helping sex trafficking victims heal from trauma and reintegrate into society
Each year, thousands of men, women, and children become victims of human trafficking, either in their home countries or overseas. Human trafficking is a heinous crime, yet various countries clandestinely engage in the illegal operations of flesh trade, every year in substantial numbers.
In 2018, reports by the Human Trafficking Hotline and Polaris Project said that on a global scale, the US was ranked among the worst places for human trafficking. Trafficking of people was not illegal until 2000 when the passing of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act made it a federal crime. In the US, the predominant form of human trafficking is for the purpose of sexual exploitation.
There are various reasons for a person getting trafficked. For one they could be tricked into it because of a promise of better economic opportunities. MEA WorldWide reached out to Jeanne Allert, CEO and Executive Director of The Samaritan Women, a non-profit organization that provides shelter care for victims of sex-trafficking, who highlighted the specifics revolving around trafficking in the US.
"Poverty is certainly an area of exploitation," Allert said. "It's an area of vulnerability and so people can be inducted into sex trafficking just on the motive of getting themselves out of poverty or through falsified claims of achieving the wealth or comfort or stability"
The internet is another channel for recruitment and induction into sex trafficking. Children, particularly pre-teens and adolescent girls who are being neglected by their families may resort to the internet and are likely to meet people who are more than willing to spend time with them under the guise of a romance. There are even websites that promote sugaring, like the sugar daddy and sugar baby business, which is at the higher end of the spectrum. The dollar value around that is much higher with privacy and secrecy clouding these exclusive businesses.
"We understand that it is a supply-and-demand business. And so where we see centers of affluence is where we can anticipate more trafficking to occur because there's more discretionary income, there."
Various studies have also found that between 90 to 95 percent of victims of trafficking have also been abused as children, which renders them vulnerable to other forms of exploitation. According to a 2019 report from the National Foster Youth Institute, 60 percent of the trafficked children in America come out of the foster care system or have been a part of it.
Years of research and data compilation have helped outline the hotspots and necessary protocol to rescue victims as well as put an end to sex-trafficking rings. While law enforcement may rescue these victims from several more years of bondage, the survivors of trafficking harbor trauma and pain from their experiences in the trade and immediately require care and medical help. However, the trauma endured by victims of sex-trafficking is unlike any other and they can only seek help from those care services or shelters that calibrate to their needs. Besides, there is a scarcity in shelter programs across the country that serve this population of victims.
As of March, the research compiled by TSW Institute for Shelter Care has found that there are about 132 agencies across the country. 16 states don't have any shelter care provisions for sex-trafficking victims, and 12 states only have one. The average number of residents at each of these shelters depends on the number of beds available and Allert pointed out that there are just under 1100 beds in total, across the whole country. The research has identified that 49 percent of these shelters take minors, while 14 percent take men and boys that are survivors of sex-trafficking, as per Allert. However, she said that at the moment, there's a dire need for shelters that take exploited women who have custody of their children, which is also a very hard demographic to place.
Furthermore, she spoke to MEAWW about her organization that is dedicated to ensuring that the victims of sex-trafficking who go through their portals get the care and help that they need to reemerge as independent individuals. The Samaritan Women is concerned not only with sheltering programs and resources to rehabilitate victims, but it also conducts regular research and puts forth suggestions to tackle the problem through its Institute for Shelter Care.
The Samaritan Women was established in 2007 and is based in Baltimore, Maryland area. It initially created an open-ended residential program for female survivors of domestic sex trafficking, which meant that victims could seek help from the organization for indefinite amounts of time. It provides a wraparound service and comprehensive care, ensuring that these victims have everything that they need because, in the best sense, these women are starting their lives from scratch. "We spend a great deal of energy and resources attending to their medical needs, mental health needs, relational needs academics, vocational, spiritual. It’s kind of all of that stuff," Allert explained.
Since then, the shelter has come a long way, even going as far as to amend their program to independent living with supportive services. The average stay for women in this program is approximately two years; however, they come and go depending on their recovery progress. "I think it's important for people to understand that depending upon the severity of their wounding and their trauma, healing is going to take a lot longer," said Allert. "If you've got somebody who, she's 21 years old and she's been raped by her family since she was five — she does not have a lot of resources to draw from. She is in many ways starting life all over again."
One of the key aims of their rehabilitation facility for survivors of sex-trafficking is reintegrating them into society. According to Allert, however, the biggest barriers the women face are in the areas of employment. Being rescued by authorities may add charges to their records and they might also have a history in substance abuse, which could make finding a job difficult. Furthermore, Allert said that acceptance from society is also another challenge that they face. "They're still stigmatized. There's a great deal of shame in having been a prostituted person and they have spent, oftentimes, years being separated from society. And so the socialization part is a lot bigger problem than we initially imagined it to be," she added.
There is an evident shortage in shelter care systems in the country, but Allert asserted that even those that don't provide professional care could help victims of trafficking in a myriad of ways. Firstly, she stated, it is important that we are well-informed and educated about what exactly is happening and what it really looks like. We must segregate the accurate information from the inaccurate. Another way a person can extend aid is by volunteering in the local shelter care systems in their area, or by donating to help them run their services smoothly. She also stressed on the need for more academicians in the field of research. "We would love to see, for example, more graduate students take this topic on as part of their field of study because then, you know five years from now, we could have much better numbers and have a much better understanding", she said about the minimal data available on sex-trafficking in the US.
In the wake of the raging coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping through the US and has crippled nations across the globe, a mandated lockdown and other preventive measures have been imposed to contain the spread of the COVID-19 disease. The crisis may also be a difficult time for victims of sex-trafficking who are unable to reach out to shelters for help with all public venues being shut down. However, the pandemic has also caused a significant decline in donations and charitable giving, and that could also be one of the reasons that they may not be taking in new residents.
"It is a tragic time, I would say for victim services because, with everybody being sort of sheltered-in-place, those who are living in dangerous households or dangerous situations are not even in a situation where they can get out to get help", Allert explained. "Some of the service providers are not taking because of the risk, you know, if somebody is perhaps infected, etc. So, yeah, it is a bit of a scary time right now." But victims can still reach out for help during this crisis — with there being 132 shelters across the country and a human-trafficking hotline that they can call on 1-888-373-7888.
The Samaritan Women's mission is also to groom future workers that want an active role in helping victims of sex trafficking, through their comprehensive mentoring program. The program comprising a three-year training period along with mentorship is pretty much akin to a university program. An individual or a group learns the ropes of operating a shelter program based on an intensive curriculum developed by TSW in collaboration with 15 other shelters across the country. After the initial eight-month training, they move on to building their own organization, inclusive of an autonomous board and staff, while also training their teams and putting together policies to build their programs.
"For the first two years of operation, knowing that those are oftentimes very tenuous years, we are alongside them as mentors. And so we meet with them virtually every week for check-in", Allert elaborated on the mentorship that TSW extends to its mentees.
However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the shelter had to make the unfortunate decision to suspend the 2020 program because they couldn't physically gather. But Allert assures that they will have two cohorts next year. In the meantime, however, the shelter will host a national webinar for anyone that wants to learn more about what the mentoring program entails, on June 23 from 10 am to 1 pm ET.