Research | Response Magazine

The art of mending lives: Helping human trafficking survivors heal from trauma

On a surface level, survivors of human trafficking need what everyone needs: safety, freedom, and basic human rights. But when you look at the lingering effects of a multi-faceted and complex trauma — physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual — their needs for healing become more complex.

As a small boy, Maikaru dreamed of becoming a magician.

Born to a mother who had been kidnapped and trafficked for sex as a teenager, he and his younger siblings were forced to work making crack cocaine. Traffickers used violence, abuse, and threats to keep them hostage. Maikaru dreamed that the powers of magic tricks might give him the ability to escape.

He was freed at the age of 10. Now Maikaru, who prefers to go by one name, is a young professional who just completed his master of arts in management with an emphasis in social and sustainable management at Seattle Pacific University. His journey was not as simple as a magician’s sleight of hand.

“For some reason, I knew to seek professional help,” he says. “Me and my siblings were essentially feral children. We kind of knew what this ‘ABC’ meant, but we didn’t know there were 26 of them.”

On a surface level, survivors of human trafficking need what everyone needs: safety, freedom, and basic human rights. But when you look at the lingering effects of a multi-faceted and complex trauma — physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual — their needs for healing become more complex. Healing from such harm can take years.

The Research Gap

Professionals who offer treatment to trafficking survivors must not only work with individuals’ deep and complex trauma, but they also face a lack of high-quality research to guide them.

An illustration of a butterfly in an upside-down wine glass by Anna and Elena Balbusso
Illustration by Anna and Elena Balbusso

Stacy Cecchet PhD ’12, whose Seattle Pacific dissertation focused on child sex trafficking survivors, points to a study from Georgetown University that found 46 percent of research on human trafficking was empirically based, and only 12 percent is peer-reviewed.

“We have no scientific confidence in the accuracy of our data, and we’re basing policy off of that,” she says. “That’s terrifying to me.”

Cecchet used her clinical psychology dissertation to interview and analyze the narratives of survivors who were trafficked as children into prostitution — research she published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychological Trauma. She argues that, while there are parallels between child sex trafficking and child sexual abuse, we can’t assume that trafficking survivors need the same treatment.

“In addition to rape and sexual assault, these women survive torture; they survive the threat of being killed on a daily basis,” she says, “and on top of that, they are treated like social pariahs.”

She finds value in existing practices, such as trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy, that she uses in her clinical practice as a pediatric psychologist. But she is also working to develop an evidence-based, residential treatment program that will include counseling, group therapy, and education. The program will also connect survivors with medical help, addiction treatment resources, job assistance, and creative therapies — with the goal of meeting the unique needs of sex trafficking survivors.

Safety First

Nancy Murphy ’90 takes a trauma-informed, safety-first approach to helping women and children at Northwest Family Life Learning and Counseling Center, where she is executive director. Their shelter, Penny’s Place, provides housing and help to survivors of domestic abuse and human trafficking.

“We’ve been able to listen to the survivors’ voices and ask them what they need,” she says. “The first goal is safety. Sometimes safety means a place to lay their head, sometimes it means protection from harm.”

For one trafficking survivor, safety meant buying a cake every day. “Her emotional trauma was so deep — she was from another country, and she didn’t know anybody and didn’t want to know anybody — but she identified so much with having a treat, so she bought a cake, and she didn’t really eat them,” Murphy says. “When she left the shelter, there were dozens of cakes.”

Because Penny’s Place is a very small shelter, Murphy and her team can address individual needs that might not fit within a larger shelter program.

“We stay with them until they are ready for a change,” she says. They work on a safety plan, including physical and emotional safety. And only then do they begin therapy.

“After people are safe, then they tell their story. The storytelling has to be really natural and not a requirement for help,” she says.

Breaking the Cycle

Yet the need for therapy is vital. Psychologist Gladys Mwiti, a Kenya-based trauma expert who visited SPU’s campus this spring, has seen how damaging untreated trauma can be, working with survivors of trafficking in war and violent conflict.

“For a person who has experienced more and more traumatic events without any help to deal with the impact, their resilience can wear out,” she says. “Some people can begin to identify with the abuser. For this reason, some women who become traffickers were themselves abused multiple times in their development.”

In extremist groups like Boko Haram and the Lord’s Resistance Army that engage in trafficking, Mwiti sees the tragic and dangerous results of untreated trauma: “Some of the generals leading perpetration were themselves, once upon a time, abducted as children.”

Even in the midst of suffering, she encourages survivors to find hope and strength, asking them questions like, “What made you survive? What are the values instilled in your community that helped you to survive?”

Gina Scarsella, a doctoral student in clinical psychology in SPU’s School of Psychology, Family, and Community, asks similar questions in her current research. In interviews with sex trafficking survivors, she hopes to find out what role, if any, positive emotions such as gratitude play in survivors’ resiliency.

“Does that buffer the effects of trauma?” she asks. It’s too early to tell, although she says she’s noticing in her interviews with survivors, “People get good at telling their stories.” But she hopes to discover whether listening for the good, not just the bad, can make a difference.

A Hopeful Future

In Maikaru’s case, deciding where and when to tell his story has been something he’s been very deliberate about.

“I didn’t want to tell my story for sympathy,” he says. “I wanted to wait.”

He attended a Seattle school for homeless kids, First Place, and he had treatment with a psychologist and psychiatrist. A mentor he met there stayed in contact over the years, and encouraged him to pursue his interests and apply to college. He was put into the foster care system, but was able to stay with his siblings, and stays in contact with family members and former foster parents. Many of those relationships were,and are, a source of strength. So was discovering and pursuing his own interests.

“The arts have been part of my therapy,” he says, “I’m very theatrical.”

His creativity comes through in a short film, “Maikaru,” shot and directed by a former coworker, which tells about his journey through suffering to a hopeful future. Dance and expression form a part of the film’s storytelling, which won “Best Short Documentary” at the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival.

“I’m telling my story to help change others,” he says.

With his new master’s from SPU he hopes to find a role where he can bridge business and the arts and use his project management skills. That’s not so far, he says, from his childhood dream of being a magician — a project manager is someone who “disappears” and orchestrates things behind the scenes.

His advice to other survivors of trafficking: “Ask for help,” he says. “Be proud that you are a human being. You deserve to be happy and be who you are.”


Learn more: Watch the short film about Maikaru.

Editor’s note: This article was first published in the Summer 2015 Response magazine.

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