How well-meaning efforts can be harmful to survivors of trauma


Written by Holly Austin Smith, author of Walking Prey.

PHILADELPHIA, April 21, 2014 — Human trafficking is one of those issues that cuts deep into the hearts of men and women across the globe, and many have vowed to take a stand against it.  As a survivor of child sex trafficking, I continue to be moved by the passion of advocates to prevent trafficking of persons and to protect victims.  Many advocates have volunteered their time, money, skills, and resources toward awareness events, educational projects, and fundraising efforts for service providers and other organizations; and I am deeply grateful for their sacrifices. However, those taking on roles of advocates must understand that survivors of trafficking and other forms of exploitation are under no obligation to do the same.

Just because a man, woman, or child has survived human trafficking or commercial sexual exploitation does not mean that this person is obligated to share that experience or sacrifice his/her time, money, expertise, or resources for the sake of raising awareness, educating or training professionals, or for any other reason even if that event or project is funded and carried out by unpaid volunteers.  Volunteers have been given the choice and opportunity to participate without pay, and survivors should be offered the same.

When a survivor is asked to share his/her story on camera or before a live audience, this person is recounting and thereby reliving that trauma again and again.  Therefore, a survivor is sacrificing not only his/her time, travel expenses, and work loss, but also he/she is potentially sacrificing his/her physical, emotional, and/or mental health.  When organizing an event or project and inviting survivors to share their stories, the organizer must, at a minimum, offer a survivor speaker/participant compensation for his/her travel expenses (and work loss, if requested); this can at least ease the difficulty of sharing such an experience.  Travel expenses include lodging, airfare, train tickets, bus passes, taxis, shuttles, parking fees, tips, car mileage, tolls, baggage fees, food, and any other fee associated with the effort to attend or participate in that event.

I must also stress to event organizers and project coordinators that survivors have more to share than just their stories; they have insight, expertise, and perspectives on the issue that need and deserve to be heard.  A survivor speaker/participant should never, ever, be pressured into telling his/her story; neither should the survivor ever be bullied into sharing more of his/her story or expertise than he/she is comfortable.  If the event organizer is paying that survivor speaker/participant for their time and expertise, then the level of participation should be negotiated according to that survivor speaker’s consulting fees and written into a contract.  This payment should not include those fees associated with travel expenses; again, travel expenses should be a mandatory minimum requirement for survivor participation.

Survivors often volunteer their time and resources in various ways to help the anti-trafficking cause as well as other causes that may not evoke as much physical, mental, and/or emotional pain or drain on them.  Nobody has the right to determine whether or not a survivor has done or is doing enough for the cause; and anyone who passes such judgment on a survivor is part of the problem.  If an advocate cannot afford to pay for a survivor’s travel expenses and work loss, then that advocate should seek other ways to bring awareness to the issue without a survivor’s story or participation.  If an advocate is seeking participation from a survivor speaker who requires consultation fees and that advocate cannot afford those fees, then that advocate should raise the money or find another way to bring survivor insight or expertise into the project.  There are books written by survivors, articles, and interviews online by survivors; survivor experts have often already sacrificed their time and resources to write down their ideas in an effort to further the anti-trafficking cause.  Advocates must be resourceful and creative in their anti-trafficking efforts.  Never, ever, bully or pressure or attempt to guilt a survivor into anything.  This is exploitation; this is exactly what we are trying to abolish.

I bring this up because, after years of working with compassionate and sensitive advocates, I have had a few limited but negative experiences in this regard.  Survivors must understand that they are not obligated to share their stories with anyone for any reason, and advocates must stand up for the rights of everyone, including survivors, even if it compromises their own anti-trafficking efforts.  Exploitation for the sake of preventing exploitation is not helpful to anyone.  Any contracts between survivor speakers and advocates should include clauses for those cases in which a survivor cannot or will not move forward with a project or event.

When it comes to collaborative projects in the state or community and any legislative efforts toward prevention of trafficking or commercial sexual exploitation and protection of victims through various services, I constantly advocate that survivors must be invited to the table – not to share their stories, but to share their perspectives and expertise for the benefit of greater society.  Without survivors, there is a very important piece of expertise missing from the conversation.  With that being said, it is often the case that survivors are employed outside this field of work and are therefore taking time unpaid from work to participate.  Survivors deserve to be paid for this time.

If the overseeing organization(s) is unable to pay survivor experts, then they should brainstorm ways in which to raise the funds.  Many community members, organizations, and agencies are willing to donate money toward anti-trafficking efforts; one way in which these funds can be used is to pay survivor experts for their participation in community, collaborative, and legislative efforts.  Again, just because a person has survived an experience of human trafficking or commercial sexual exploitation does not mean that this person is obligated to work without pay.  Be sure that, when working with survivors of any type of trauma or crime, that this relationship is collaborative, compassionate, and professional –not coercive or exploitative.

Survivor Snapshots


Here is a sampling of survivor updates this month:

Tara – Tara is doing well in school, however she is having a few struggles in her home life. She is looking forward to finish high school this year and moving to Nashville next year for college and to be closer to her ESTN family. While visiting with her this month we helped set goals for graduation and college preparation.

Adele – Adele started meeting with a volunteer to work on holistic nutrition plans. While Adele is very stable with a job and living conditions, ESTN is continuing to provide transportation and basic needs resources and helping her develop a case plan.

Maranda – Maranda is doing very well. She recently received approval for home passes with ESTN and her family and is excited to be able to be home for holidays as well as spend time with us outside the housing facility. She also has a mentor at the facility who is allowing Maranda to help in staff trainings and work towards her goals of motivational speaking. Maranda is still studying for her ACTs and is looking forward to college next year.

Jenny – Jenny has been doing very well in college and with her internship. She is truly beginning to find her voice and feeling empowered with the gifts and skills she has to offer others.

Isabell – Isabell is very excited to finally have a car, but is currently looking for a stable place to live. She enjoys spending time with the staff at ESTN and is also focusing on herself and her relationships with her children.

Leah – Leah relapse last month, but after three days she called Lizedny and Christine asking for help. They went to get her right away and brought her back home. Since then she has been working hard on her recovery. She knows that ESTN is here for her and is beginning to understand that we love her and will nver give up on her.  She got a good job and has been working to support herself. Unfortunately, Leah is also currently struggling with her health so we have been working to get her medical appointments and services.

Candice – Candice is a new young prevention case we are working with.  She is a sweet little country girl with a bubbly personality. She is working on finding her way in this big new city and enjoys having fun and spending time with staff. Candice will begin IOP next week and is focusing on recovery and making good choices.  She is becoming more transparent about her struggles and knows we love her and are here for her no matter what.

Survivor Snapshots

 Adele – Adele is a survivor we met this month. She is creative, resourceful, a talented musician, enjoys making documentaries and travelling and loves animals. We had a very special treat at the office one day while Adele was visiting. She told us she was a cello player and it just so happens that we have a cello at the office, so she ended up playing two impromptu pieces for us. It was amazing how her peace and calmness of mind was able to flow through the music and fill the staff with a wonderful tranquility.

Miranda – Miranda is a new survivor we introduced last month. She is making a lot of progress  even while having to deal with some bullying issues. She's doing a lot of reading and writing, including poetry, and recently took her ACT but wants to take it again later this year. She enjoys visits from our staff and her family.

Isabel – Isabel started a new job this month and is super excited about this opportunity. She recently moved into a new recovery house that is more structured and a better fit for her. She is doing very well and enjoying building relationships with the ESTN staff.

Tara – Tara is one of our teen survivors who is experiencing some struggles lately. While visiting with her this month, she met another of our teen survivors. It was beautiful to see them share and connect with one another and to see the comfort one girl who has been with us longer had to offer the newer girl.

Cori – as a new seventeen year old mom, Cori is struggling with day to day decisions. We're working together to live intentionally, making hour by hour choices that will lead to recovery and the meeting of her goals for herself and her child

Jesse – Recently, Jesse attended a cookery program that works with individuals in transition and teaches skills in the culinary arts.  He's very excited about this opportunity and feels like it will be helpful to be in a group with other men and develop a healthy support system.

Katie – Katie received two exciting pieces of information this month. She received more documentation as a result of her T-visa and is excited about the continuing promise of opportunities for her and her family. She also had a doctor’s visit earlier this month and found out that her baby is a girl.

Brenda – Brenda is back on track and got a new job closer to home.  She is working to become more self-sufficient and is saving up for a car. Brenda also wants to start back in her GED classes. Currently, we are working with her on budgeting and setting up a savings account.

Survivor Snapshots


Here is a sampling of our survivor updates:

Cori – Cori , age 17, delivered a healthy beautiful baby boy on July 9th.   She asked Shelia to be the godmother! Shelia was there to comfort Cori in the delivery room. Christine, Allie and Kamrie were also present in the hospital for support. Cori is adjusting to her life as a mother with the help of her own mother. ESTN staff have been supporting Cori and her mother get the assistance their family needs with housing, food , baby items , medical care and transportation to appointments. Earlier in the month we delivered a mattress set and air conditioners to make the home comfortable for baby, mother, and grandmother. 

Jesse – Jesse is a new client.  He was initially nervous to recall his trafficking experience but came to trust us. We learned that he and his wife were expecting their first child later that month and that he was concerned because if a shortage of work ESTN gladly helped Jesse’s family with rent to ease some of the stress while preparing for their baby’s arrival. Jesse’s wife delivered their beautiful baby girl on July 23rd! Lizedny and Kamrie enjoyed holding the baby when they visited the family in the hospital. 

Tara – Tara is a new teen survivor, at the age of 16 when Shelia and Christine first met her. She has a fun and feisty personality and is looking forward to her senior year of high school. Shelia and Christine talked to her about her dreams and goals over lunch one day  and she said she would like to work in forensics. We celebrated her 17th  birthday this month. Christine, Kamrie and Shelia took her shopping, and to lunch, thanks to generous birthday sponsors, Tara had a great time shopping at Rue 21 and lunch at her favorite place, Chili’s!

Jenny – Between two summer courses, work, and numerous dental appointments Jenny's had a busy summer! ESTN staff have with her during her dental visits which are scary for her.  She’s getting ready for her fall semester at school which will include an internship. Jenny also got a chance to talk with another survivor find peer support  during a vulnerable time. 

Katie – Katie is being tutored by an ESTN volunteer for English and reading/writing skills.  During the first meeting she made a list of short term and long term goals, including her desire to be better equipped to help her children with their school work. Katie is going through some ups and downs emotionally, as is expected with trauma victims. She is currently pregnant and expecting her baby early next year and our staff is working to help her find resources and the self-care she needs to heal. 

Lauren –  Lauren was referred to ESTN by law enforcement in a sting that took place this past month.  The sting uncovered a trafficking ring of which Lauren was a part.  Later in the month Lauren courageously testified in court against her traffickers. Lizedny was in court with her that day and it was a comfort for her to not only have someone from our organization present, but to know that an entire city rallies behind her. Because of the support she found through us she can have closure, safety, and hope for a future.

Survivor Snapshots

Jenny is working this summer and enjoying a break from school. She really looks forward to her equine therapy sessions.

Brenda came home for Father’s Day to spend time with her dad. During that time she also visited with her ESTN family. She plans on returning to the area to live at home and find work in a few weeks.

Katie enjoyed a much needed vacation out of town! She is working toward her goal of taking literacy classes and writing her own book.

Emma had a great birthday with her daughters! Thanks to wonderful donors she got to give her girls a big treat: a weekend at Opryland hotel, a nice restaurant meal and going to the movies.  Emma is on summer break from school and continues to work hard to turn her life around, rebuild relationships with her children and to plan and save for her future.

Cori was released early from her facility and was able to be home for the birth of her little boy. The ESTN team is looking forward to being able to work more closely with her to help her meet her personal goals and to learn to meet her baby's needs.

Sonya is continuing to do well and has started back to school.

Lexie has been distant from the ESTN team recently as she grapples with the psychological damage of her trafficking. She knows we are here for her as soon as she is ready again.

Callie wants to be supportive of her terminally ill mother but this added stress is taking its toll on her. She is getting emotional support from the ESTN team as well as assistance on some legal issues.

Avery is a new labor and sex trafficking survivor seeking help with housing and employment as well as dealing with the great trauma he endured. ESTN linked him to legal services and therapy and is working with him to set goals and rebuild his life. He has been proactive about obtaining employment andit looks like he'll be starting work this week!

Survivor Sweet Spots

  • Jenny’s equine therapy is going well. She loves her time with the horses and is exposed to a therapy that is opening the doors for reassociating triggers.Bad memories are becoming good ones!
  • Julie currently faces some very tough decisions about her next steps but enjoys expressing herself through the arts.
  • Brenda decided to move out of town. While the team feels this is not the best decision for her currently, we continue to pray for her safety while she is away, and are glad she is staying in touch.
  • Katie is completely moved into her new home and now enjoys spending time with her family and relaxing.
  • Emma purchased birthday presents for her children from her own hard-earned money. She continues to see her children consistently and works on developing her relationship with them.
  • Cori received a stove, refrigerator and a bed for her new home. She is enjoying time with her family.
  • Sonya continues to live at home with her son, is doing well and is now contemplating giving back by partnering with ESTN.
  • Mark is a new labor trafficking survivor seeking counseling. Our case managers are assisting his lawyers as they prepare a legal case for him.
  • Lexie is a new referral. She's endured much domestic violence and was on the verge of being trafficked by her husband. She's out, safe and starting a new life.
  • April struggles to commit to recovery. It's frightening but ESTN is ready to stand by her once she makes the decision.
  • Callie tries to be supportive of her mother who is terminally ill, while dealing with her own trauma.
  • Linda relapsed but recognizes that ESTN’s doors are always open. Her case managers continue to partner with her.

It is important to keep in mind that most trafficking survivors continue to be the victims of trauma. Healthy trust and good decision-making must be learned as we endeavor to model the brand of true love so lacking in a victim's experience.

We Are Family

ESTN Familyby Laura Courtney

Last week, one of our survivors made a simple picture of stick figures and doodles representing all of us who work here at ESTN.  For a simple two minute drawing, however, she was able to capture three truths of who we are and what we do.

First, we here at End Slavery Tennessee are a family.  We are led by a passionate mother (and that is both figuratively and literally in this case) who binds us all together with a heart full of love and compassion and a desire to empower again young girls who have been victimized.  We may disagree and some days maybe even fight with one another, just as all siblings do, but we share a common thread that overcomes these obstacles and we are filled with a care for both the survivors we work with and each other. 

Second, our family is large and diverse.  ESTN is made up not only of our office staff, but also of our volunteer groups, all the donors who support this organization, and our survivors.  So much of what we do is because of the volunteers who enable such things to happen.  Generous individuals from all over, some even outside the Tennessee state, give of their time and resources to help support the victims of human trafficking and give love to all our survivors, just as all families are to do.  Our donors support us as they give of their own wealth and earnings, and work to provide for our survivors and immediate needs without a regret in their hearts.

Most importantly, our survivors are who bring us together.  All that we do is with the purpose and goal of restoring and raising up victims and survivors of human trafficking. We are bound by this single passion and strive towards this goal each and every day.  They are our core. As a family tree, these survivors are the roots that join us together and give us our own courage and bravery.  The office wall that reads “Welcome to the Family” is not simply for our staff and new volunteers, but for the survivors who meet with us and are looking for love, acceptance, and hope.  

The Most Powerful Weapon

In the fight against trafficking the most powerful weapon we have is prayer!! In fact, it's the most powerful weapon we can use against any form of evil.

I must admit, though, that there are times I get so overwhelmed by the idea of young children being used as sex slaves that I just don't know what to pray. That is when I remember Romans 8:26-27...

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will. (NIV)

During my prayers for the victims (or as I call them, "innocents"), I also pray for those who work to set the prisoners free. I pray they will have wisdom and discernment. I pray for their safety. I thank the Lord for their willingness to go into potentially dangerous places to rescue the women and children.

I also include in my prayers those who work with the innocents after they are rescued. I thank the Lord for their abilities to help these dear ones to be restored to wholeness.

There are others involved in trafficking I pray for sometimes, but they are the hardest ones of all for whom to find the words...the perpetrators. I'll be honest; I do not want to or like to pray for them and I don't pray for them as often as I pray for their victims. But, maybe to some extent, they are the ones who need the most prayer. If the Lord changes their hearts and attitudes, then there will be fewer women and children who become victims of this horrendous evil.

I believe with all my heart that prayer can and does change things! Sometimes not as fast as we like, but everything is in God's timing! So, pray, pray, pray!! It's a powerful weapon!


This post was originally published at Nana's Notes