Education is like a weapon that protects a person.
— A 13-year-old in our Survivor Care program
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.
It’s August and summer vacations are ending. For most students, the start of a new school year is part of a comfortable, familiar cycle. But “Back to School” means even more when you’ve been gone for more than a routine summer vacation.
Among the kids returning to classes will be students who are being, or have been, trafficked or exploited. These students often have a different experience of school than their peers. They may feel different from other kids. The dark side of the world they have seen makes them feel older, separate. Many have a long history of trauma and sexual abuse. They may be fearful of being found out and bullied or outcast. School can feel like a hostile or defeating environment, and it’s common for the children we work with to have long stretches in which they don’t show up for class. These challenges can be stumbling blocks, but children in these situations can still be successful, especially if they have the support they need.
Education is a major focus of our Survivor Care. Only 41 percent of the children who come into our care in the United States are regularly attending school. By the time they move forward from our services, 75 percent are regularly attending school.
Just as students are starting a new school year,
so are we.
We have learned to be fierce advocates for the children we work with: We’ll be navigating Planning and Placement Team (PPT) meetings and assisting in the development of Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for our youth. We’re practiced at getting educators to adapt to the needs of youth who have been affected by trafficking. We go to parent-teacher meetings. We are always available, cheering, supporting, helping to get the youth we work with through those difficult moments when it would be tempting to close the books on school.
Committing to our students gives them the space and support to help them succeed. Feeling more confident in school has been a factor in students being able to break off relationships with those who were involved in their exploitation. At some point they start giving us clues that they are becoming more self-sufficient: fewer absences, fewer distressed phone calls, more reports of good grades and achievement, healthier relationships and support. And we are able to back off (we call this transitioning from “active care” to “sustained care”) keeping in touch as needed through things like text messages.
Some time ago, the we got a call from the guardian of a survivor that had been moved from active to sustained care. They asked us to join a PPT meeting at the school because the guardian had experienced many difficult PPT sessions. We prepared ourselves for a tough meeting and off we went. When we got there the guidance counselor told us that the student was like a different child this year —more mature, more engaged in school. She had good friends. She was passing her classes.
We could see right away that she was proud of herself. She had even started to think about what she might want to do after graduation.
Last year, nine youth in our care reached the top of the hill and graduated from high school — and one graduated from middle school! This year — the sky’s the limit.