In the fight against child exploitation, there is often a prevailing narrative of dramatic rescues. However, it is important to question the underlying assumptions that this type of intervention is always or even often needed as well as the efficacy and responsibility of such interventions. This article aims to shed light on why “rescues” are often not the only or best path to freedom, and how they can even lead to harm both for people being “rescued” and larger efforts to combat human trafficking.
Does Love146 “rescue” children?
As an organization, Love146 does not kick down doors or forcefully extract children from exploitative situations, which is what most people think of when the term “rescue” is used. These intervention operations are typically not within the purview of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and have come to be viewed negatively among many working in the anti-trafficking movement.
When it comes to assisting those directly impacted by trafficking, Love146’s focus is on supporting children who have been trafficked in short- and long-term healing and helping them rebuild their lives free from victimization. Some of the specialized services Love146 offers youth include counseling, safety planning, crisis intervention, education/employment services, support with basic needs and intensive case management. Love146 also is invested in effective prevention education efforts, so that we reach children before vulnerability is exploited.
Good Intentions Can Cause Real Harm
“Rescue” operations, especially those that are not done by law enforcement, and that do not immediately connect children to long-term supports and services can cause real harm and trauma, and can make children more vulnerable. In the few cases where children are being physically held and cannot escape their trafficking exploitation, we understand the visceral desire to have someone go in and remove those children from the harm that is being done to them. Unfortunately, over the years, we have seen organizations do this with really negative outcomes for the children they have encountered. The truth is that when children do not receive appropriate aftercare, the consequences can be dangerous, even lethal.
We have seen children re-exploited because the issues that made them vulnerable to trafficking exploitation (e.g., poverty, family rejection, etc) still exist in their lives. We have seen children feel like they no longer belonged in the “real world” because of what has happened to them and because they lacked the services and supports necessary to understand and address the trauma, and find a way forward. We have seen children self-medicate with drugs, attempt and sometimes succeed in committing suicide.
While “rescue” missions may provide the immediate feel good relief people who confront this issue often seek, they obscure what is really needed to address the issue of human trafficking: The investment in prevention, in reducing risk and vulnerability, and the long-term commitment to survivor care support and services.
The Myth of Grateful Victims
Contrary to common belief, when these “rescue operations” do occur, children are not always “happy” and “grateful”. For many victims, the experience of a “rescue” can be disorienting and anxiety-inducing, and additionally traumatic. Children often do not understand who the people coming in and swooping them up are. They don’t understand that the people who just entered their lives are “good”. They often live in fear of law enforcement, some of whom may have victimized them, and find it difficult to trust strangers. Their traffickers may have threatened that if they ever leave something bad will happen to their families. In some cases, children may have formed emotional bonds with their traffickers, as well as with any other children who were exploited with them.
Even as an organization that does not abruptly enter a child’s life we struggle to build trust. We have said to a survivor, “We’re here to help.” and they have skeptically replied: “Last time someone said that, it didn’t turn out so well.” It is vital to understand that removing a victim from a trafficking situation can disrupt what is familiar and predictable, creating uncertainty about their future.
The Spectrum of Exit Opportunities
While law enforcement operations that extract children from their exploitation are sometimes necessary and can be effective when needed, this is often not the case, and there are numerous ways for individuals to find opportunities to exit exploitation. Many of the children under our care have not been physically removed by law enforcement but have instead been connected to organizations like Love146 or child welfare agencies through caring adults who noticed something was wrong and sought help. Sometimes, survivors even reach out for help themselves. By equipping adults, parents and professionals with the necessary education and training, we enable them to identify and appropriately respond to children at risk or currently being exploited. And by providing youth information and skill building on human trafficking through prevention education we empower them to seek support if they find themselves or their peers in vulnerable or exploitative situations.
The truth is that when youth do need to be physically removed from their exploitation, that needs to be done by trained law enforcement who do it as part of their professional jobs. It also needs to be done in collaboration with NGOs, like Love146, so that the children who are removed are provided with appropriate and long-term support and services.
A Relational Approach
The process by which children victimized in trafficking come into our care is often more relational and less dramatic than a traditional “rescue operation.” It can take several days or even weeks or months for a youth to transition from being suspected or identified as victims to entering our care. Typically, caring adults notice signs of exploitation and reach out to organizations like Love146 or child welfare agencies.
Once identified and referred, children are often understandably skeptical of us and the services we are offering. Many of the children we work with think they will be judged for what has happened to them, believe and in many cases have been told that what happened to them was their fault, and feel like they will forever be defined by what they experienced. It takes a while for our staff to build a trusting relationship with these children, for them to accept that we will not judge them, and for them to accept that they are more than what has happened to them. Their stories of what has happened to them often come out in drips, over-extended periods of time, and we work hard to not only address those trauma but help them to realize that their story also comprises their future, a future they can build.
It is crucial to recognize that the movement from victim to survivor is not work that we as professionals do; it is the work survivors undertake themselves, and the term and focus on “rescue” centers us, and minimizes the efforts of the survivors.
The Problem with the Word “Rescue”
The word “rescue” is loaded with some inherent power dynamics and saviorism. It often disempowers survivors by overshadowing their agency and the immense effort they invest in overcoming their traumatic experiences. While some individuals may prefer this language, it fails to acknowledge the critical role survivors play in their own recovery. At Love146, we strive to create an environment that empowers survivors, honors their resilience, and respects their autonomy.
Redefining our focus on and perspective of the term “rescue” is essential in the fight against child exploitation. By adopting a client-centered approach that acknowledges the many roads to freedom and survivors’ agency, we recognize their inherent value and celebrate as they take ownership of their healing journey. It is through trusted relationships, professional training, and collaborative efforts that we can make a lasting impact and create a safer world for vulnerable children.