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The Mystery of Return:
Why some trafficked survivors go back

by Linda Burkle, Ph.D, I-MHR CSWM
Divisional Director of Social Services,
The Salvation Army

Human trafficking

The term human trafficking is relatively new, introduced in this century to define modern day slavery. By now most of us have some awareness, albeit vague, about this travesty ensnaring an estimated 27 million. According to The National Human Trafficking Resource Center, trafficking of persons has now exceeded weapons and drugs as the most lucrative business globally generating an estimated 32 billion dollars annually, half coming from industrialized countries. There are several varying definitions of human trafficking, as codified by the United Nations, the U.S. federal government and most state governments. Since the definition of trafficking is addressed in a previous article, I will not delve into that here. All definitions refer to the use office, fraud or cohesion for the purpose of commercial exploitation of another. Although human trafficking can be for sex, labor or harvesting of human organs, I will focus on sex trafficking.

Before "human trafficking”

In the mid-late 1970s, I had the privilege of working in a juvenile justice system as a probation officer and State Youth Authority Representative. It was then that I worked with teens classified as delinquents, that is, they committed offenses which would be crimes for adults. A number of teen girls, often runaways, were charged with prostitution. As such, they were referred to as "prostitutes" or worse. It was commonly accepted that these girls, typically runaways but in reality "throw-aways," were prostituting as a matter of personal choice. They were often viewed with pity, disdain and/or ridicule; marginalized in the male dominated systems of justice and corrections. However, as defined today, these delinquents, "bad girls," would now be considered victims by their status as minors-even if they will-fully participated.

Later in the 1980s, I served as the director of a group home for pregnant and parenting young women, ranging from age 11 to 22. Several of these young ladies had various experiences with prostitution resulting in pregnancy. Typically a family member, even a mother, boyfriend or husband, benefitted from the prostitution of these young women. One eleven-year-old mother had both a mother and grandmother involved in prostitution. For her, getting to "have sex with her older boyfriend" was a reward for good behavior. Another older teen's boyfriend arranged "dates" for her as a fast way to earn money so they could get married and have their dream home. Still another young woman in the early twenties told me that her husband had her prostituting, walking the streets. Tragically, he had convinced her, verbally or otherwise, that if she loved him, she would "turn tricks" to support them. While this concept was foreign and abhorrent to me she defended him, stating that he demonstrated his love by giving her a cell phone so she could call him if things went bad. Why would a victim 0f trafficking consider this as an act of love? I pondered why someone who was in reality a perpetrator, a trafficker— typically controlling, abusive and perhaps even brutal-— was viewed so differently by the very person being repeatedly "sold" and exploited.

In 1993, I realized a childhood dream of traveling to Africa, Nigeria to be precise, with medical doctors and nurses on a short-term medical mission trip. That was my first foray into international humanitarian work, which has become a personal passion. Over the years, I have traveled to over 20 countries working in various venues, often with women who have been traumatized by violence, poverty, sexual exploitation and trafficking. Many were victims of human trafficking, although that specific vernacular did not come to prominence until 2000 when President George W. Bush spearheaded the legislation aimed to address international trafficking to the U.S. I will not focus here on.my international experiences, but rather on the domestic human trafficking that is endemic in our country. While we might expect such occurrences in countries wrought by economic instability, violence and abject poverty, many of my contemporaries have a hard time acknowledging the realities of trafficking in the U.S.

Human Trafficking Defined and Codified

"The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TPVA) of 2000 was the first comprehensive federal law to address trafficking in persons. The law provides a three-pronged approach that includes prevention, protection, and prosecution; targeting international trafficking. The TVPA was reauthorized through the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) of 2003, 2005, 2008, and 2013." [The National Human Trafficking Resource Center]. The first legislation focused specifically on people who were trafficked from one country to another to be used for commercial sex and/or labor. However, as victim services developed, it became profoundly clear that domestic trafficking was, in fact, a bigger national problem. That realization led to broadening the target population to include all trafficked persons, foreign or domestic, in subsequent reauthorizations of TVPRA legislation.

The Challenges of Fighting Human Trafficking

There are numerous factors and challenges involved with addressing human trafficking: the demand/supply equation, profitability and poverty, sophisticated multinational and interstate organized crime, use of the internet, legal and jurisdictional issues, coordination of interstate/ federal law enforcement, coordination and lack of victim services, cultural/language barriers, a woeful lack of data or system for collecting data on trafficking—the list goes on and on. But, for the purposes of this article, I will focus on the challenge of engaging and successfully treating those who have been rescued from or escaped prostitution and/or survived sex trafficking.

As the chief administrator of social services operated by The Salvation Army, I have the privilege of overseeing a broad array of programs addressing human needs. One of those programs is the Wellspring program, which was conceived in the 1980s by local citizens with a heart for those entrapped by prostitution. Other programs include housing for homeless individuals and families, behavioral health services, older adult and family services. In these diverse programs I have seen a common thread of vulnerable,
marginalized youth and adults who have been ensnared in an ugly underbelly of our civic society. While we may live in the same state, their worlds have been light years away from mine.

Through our Wellspring program, we work with women, men and occasion-ally transgender individuals who have all been involved in prostitution. Our staff is specifically trained in providing "trauma informed care," also referred to as "trauma sensitive" as well as trained in treating co-occurring symptoms. We provide case management, support, advocacy, therapy, and material assistance to survivors of trafficking and have met with varying degrees of success. Because of the insidious nature of the dark subculture of the sex industry, our goals are built on small, incremental behavioral changes. For some, that may be keeping an appointment or asking for help in accessing services. Over the years, there have been profound, inspiring examples of restoration and healing.

Those who were trapped in the nightmare of prostitution and addiction have gone on to complete their educations, reunite with family, marry and even graduate with college degrees. For others, success may be not engaging in prostitution and maintaining sobriety. A unique aspect of Well-spring is the strong bonds participants form with each other. The peer support group is a key component of treatment. Some have even gone on to form a "thrivers" group; they see themselves beyond just surviving but living lives they never thought possible. In spite of caring, credentialed professionals trained in "trauma informed care" utilizing a holistic, nurturing approach, there are some who relapse and return to their trafficker or back into a similar lifestyle. This is a difficult reality for service providers who expend themselves on behalf of trafficked persons and are invested in their freedom.

Overwhelmingly, our Wellspring participants have histories of early and ongoing sexual abuse, family dysfunction/ disintegration, substance addiction and undiagnosed/untreated mental illness. While often they deny that they were victims of trafficking, according to self-report, an estimated 80% or more have been under the control of a pimp at some point. Generally when they came into the program they have experienced numerous incarcerations, loss of custody of children and breakdown of support systems. Although Wellspring provides professional counseling, nurturing, safety, peer support and a multitude of other services while being "open ended," some choose to return to their trafficker and/or destructive lifestyle. They are always welcome to return. Frequently, staff report that those in the program may relapse and disappear sometimes coming back months and years later. The focus of the remainder of this article will delve into this dilemma. If a trafficked person is "rescued" or has left the control of the trafficker, why would they return to that person or situation? The answer to this question is complex, varied and enigmatic.

Why do they return?

For those of us who work with victims or survivors (as many prefer to be called) of sex trafficking, a source of bewilderment and frustration accompanies our best efforts. Why, after months of making progress in a safe, secure environment with basic needs, social supports and proper treatment, would someone leave and return to the "streets" or a trafficker? For some, the pull of a substance addiction and need to use drives them back. Others may miss the danger and hyper vigilant state of arousal. I have heard some say that the daily routine of "normal" life did not have the thrill. Often trafficking survivors have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder similar to military personnel who have experienced combat duty. Still others find it difficult to gain employment, housing and basic assistance because of past criminal history. The lack of ability to secure a livelihood through legal means may be insurmountable; only the very determined and fortified survivor can press forward through the multitude of barriers they face in society.

There is another powerful factor which often thwarts and intercepts the recovery process for survivors of sex trafficking. Initially, once trafficked, victims often go through a "breaking" or conditioning process which includes isolation, deprivation, beatings, rape, forced drug use, etc. "Thereafter, captivity, which brings the victim into prolonged contact with the perpetrator, creates a special type of relationship, one of coercive control. The goal of the perpetrator is to instill in his victim not only fear of death but also gratitude for being allowed to live." [Judith Her-man, Trauma and Recover, 19921

It is a phenomenon referred to as "traumatic bonding." One common definition of traumatic bonding is: "a strong emotional attachment between an abused person and his or her abuser, formed as a result of the cycle of violence." [Wendy Austin; Mary Ann Boyd. Psychiatric and Mental Health Nursing for Canadian Practice, 2010]. There is a wealth of study and professional writings surrounding this condition including the work of Dr. Patrick Carnes who developed the term to describe "the misuse of fear, excitement, sexual feelings, and sexual physiology to entangle another person." [Patrick Carnes, Ph.D. The Betrayal Bond: Breaking Free of Exploitive Relationships, 2010]. Traumatic bonding has been long acknowledged in situations of domestic violence. Thus, domestic violence treatment models have often been successfully applied to treating Nebraska Medicine I Spring 2015 (continued) survivors of trafficking. For those working with survivors of trafficking, they would do well to understand the power of traumatic bonding.

One schema which I have referred to often is Bidennan's Chart of Coercion. This tool was developed to explain the methods used to break the will or brain-wash a prisoner of war. Domestic violence experts believe that batterers use these same techniques. More recently, it has also helped explain the relationship between a trafficker and his/her victim.

In working with trafficked survivors, I have found this chart helpful as I have been challenged to break down barriers and build relationships leading to healing and wholeness. I have also included this schema as I have conducted training for both law enforcement and service providers. It provides a context for understanding the complexities of trafficking, especially in prolonged relationships. Understanding the inherent coercive nature and attachment issues is critical to effectively serve survivors as they disentangle themselves and move toward lasting freedom. For readers who treat survivors of trafficking, I would encourage further study on this topic.