Before being trafficked, most victims of trafficking have already suffered from multiple traumatic experiences, including adversity, maltreatment, and violence. These experiences, combined with circumstances such as poverty and marginalization, contribute to their vulnerability to commercial exploitation—whether sex, labor, or both. As victims of criminal exploitation, they are then subjected to additional layers of severe trauma.
In a study of 204 commercially sexually exploited youth served by Oakland’s Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting & Serving Sexually Exploited Youth (M.I.S.S.S.E.Y.), most of them had run away from home, had been arrested as minors, and had been raped. In a study of 113 commercially sexually exploited minors in Alameda and Contra Costa counties by WestCoast Children’s Clinic, most of them were suffering from depression and most of them had survived child abuse or neglect.
Other common traumatic and adverse experiences those vulnerable to, victimized by, or overcoming from human trafficking in the United States are foster system placement, childhood sexual abuse, dating violence/rape, witnessing domestic violence and addictions in the home, and exposure to drug use, criminal activity, assault, and and commercial sexual exploitation in their homes and/or communities.
These traumatic events (threats to life or bodily harm or close encounters with violence or death) produce extreme stress that overwhelms the ability to cope. They result in feelings of complete helplessness and intense terror, prompting a hyper-arousal response of defense (fight or flight) or to disassociate (freeze and surrender).
The outcomes of toxic stress are neurological/medical, cognitive, social/behavioral, and emotional. Childhood trauma has been linked to chronic diseases in adulthood as well as significant social and emotional problems. Studies have also revealed that most sex trafficking victims experienced trauma bonding (Stockholm Syndrome) and suffer from PTSD.
So best practices among individuals, agencies, and organizations serving those affected by human trafficking include an understanding of the effects of trauma and the implementation of trauma-informed practices and programs. In fact, failure to address trauma properly can result in victims’ resistance to help exiting exploitation, failure to engage in treatment services, withdrawal from service relationships, increase in symptoms, re-traumatization, greater likelihood to relapse, and/or poor treatment outcomes.
Therapy for victims and survivors to achieve mental health stabilization through self-care during the onset of “feeling flashbacks”—attacks of panic and terror due to past traumatic experiences—is a fundamental step. Another critical step is to address the devastating mental health consequence of their complex trauma, which is often the destruction of basic life assumptions that one is safe from harm, one is a good and decent person, and the world is meaningful and just.
For experts in the field, helpful information and models to guide this recovery include Stages of Change matched with appropriate processes of change, inventory of Adverse Childhood Experiences and its ramifications, 7 Precursors to Change and developing them, and Solution-Focused Brief Therapy.
A training session reviewing human trafficking trauma, its effects, and models for exit and recovery will occur from 1-6 p.m. on May 31 in Cornerstone Fellowship at 348 N. Canyons Parkway, Livermore, CA. Registration is free for those with an account on Cornerstone’s website. Those preferring to register through Eventbrite can do so here. This registration method charges a fee for the training: $15 or $10 for students.