It’s August, summer vacations are ending, and many students are returning to uncertainty and challenges due to the pandemic. But on top of this, “Back to School” means even more when your education was interrupted by exploitation and trafficking.
A report from a Love146 social worker: Survivors of child trafficking live in lots of different settings, and I go where they go. One of my youth is living in a group home that only offers a certain generic shampoo, and as a black girl it leaves her curly hair dry and brittle. Imagine having a bad hair day – everyday – while you’re trying to do some really really hard emotional work, like recover from sexual assault and trafficking. Love146 makes sure needs are met so youth can focus on the huge task of reclaiming their lives. Sure, sometimes that has high price tags, but last week, just $8 got her some ethnically appropriate shampoo. And it was a big deal.
The education of youth is often interrupted by their exploitation. For children in our Survivor Care, re-engaging with school is like trying to climb a hill while carrying a heavy weight. The hill has typical steps and obstacles that everyone has to learn how to master. Like showing up on time. Like learning how to ask for your own makeup work. The kinds of things that every teenager has to learn how to do. Love146’s role is to make sure that the weight of exploitation and recovery doesn’t ultimately pull students backwards or prevent them from making that climb.
What does justice look like for the youth in our care? For one youth in our survivor care program, justice includes having the person who trafficked and abused her convicted, sentenced, and publicly admonished by a judge.
Many say they can’t relate to others their age; they date older men, and explain to me that since they’re more mature they need to be with more mature men. They see other children their age as “kids,” whereas they themselves are “adults.”
I’m in this sticky position where I need to acknowledge the fact that they have been through more than any child should have to go through, and yet encourage them to be a child. To put down that burden of “adulthood,” and to experience childhood. They deserve to be children.
At Love146, we cultivate a long-lasting relationship that models healthy boundaries and allows the youth to “dig” when they feel safe, trusted, and valued. Youth then allow us to bear witness to their stories in their own time, in their own way. They are in control, which is one of the most important things we can restore to their lives.
I open my email and begin reading the details about another youth coming into our care. I’m infuriated that another kid has experienced this. Infuriated that another adult thought it was okay to use a child as a sex object. Infuriated that all the adults who should have protected this child, have failed her so horrifically.
Suddenly, all of her usual sarcasm and joking disappeared. Jade began to share that the hurtful things that she’d heard from the people raising her. She just wanted to feel at home somewhere, but they made her feel like she was “more than they could handle.” That moment was so heavy — she just sat there, brave and silent, with these feelings of rejection, waiting to see how I would respond.
We had people over for the Super Bowl last weekend. We had a Patriots themed party for goodness sakes, with Patriots plates and napkins and cups and banners. But really? I had this persistently surreal moment and all I could keep thinking is: It’s a game. It’s not real life.
I met with a high-risk youth so we could talk and do some safety planning. She made clear that she wasn’t going to cooperate, that there was nothing I could say that would matter to her. That is, until I mentioned sexual assault, how it was never the fault of the person who got hurt. Then, something happened that surprised both of us.