Malee* was just 9 years old the night she was found and liberated from her abusers. This child had already been through so much in her short life. Tears from earlier that night left salty tracks on her cheeks. Her sundress was worn, the once white flowers on the blue cotton now brown and dirty. Her hair fell in tangles. No one had cared for Malee. Her small body was sold repeatedly for profit. And as she walked down the path to the aftercare shelter, led along by a social worker, she moved slowly, tentatively. Malee trusted no one. Adults in her life had only betrayed her, and she wore an expression of fear mixed with resignation.
Malee was now physically free from her traffickers, but her rescue that night was only the first step in her long journey to experiencing true freedom. This journey for survivors like Malee is individually complex and varied, but quality aftercare is a critical component of counter-trafficking work.
What should a quality aftercare program include?
1) Immediate physical and emotional needs are met
Immediate needs during and directly after a mission must be met first. At The Exodus Road, for example, we employ social workers to provide crisis care during a raid — an event which is often chaotic and traumatic. This type of care is both emotional and physical and meets survivors’ immediate and most pressing needs: care and counsel, food, clothing, and physical protection.
Following police action, as survivors are transported to safe shelters, it’s critical that immediate needs continue to be assessed and provided. Whether survivors come to a government or private facility, because of their situations, most arrive with a deep distrust of everyone around them. They may not initially understand that the aftercare shelter is intended to be a safe place. Many are upset and want to leave. Some survivors have reported that it took several days or even weeks or years to fully understand that staff at the shelter were there to help.
2) Medical care is a critical component of survivor care
Another urgent need to be met is medical screening and care. Survivors of sex trafficking such as Malee, for example, often have a number of health issues due to poverty, abuse, and a lack of medical care. Malnutrition, rotting teeth, infection, internal organ trauma and dysfunction related to repeated abuse, and sexually transmitted diseases are all commonly diagnosed. Survivors of labor trafficking also commonly suffer from malnutrition, chronic back pain, hearing loss, cardiovascular issues, and respiratory problems from overwork in agriculture, sweatshop, and construction industries. Unfortunately, survivors may continue to live with a series of health issues, but aftercare shelters aim to help by starting to assess and provide basic medical care.
3) Mental health care must be addressed, preferably with an emphasis on trauma-informed care
Because the experience of severe trauma is repeated, survivors deal with a variety of mental health complications. As reported by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Victims suffering from complex trauma often experience depression, anxiety, self-hatred, dissociation, substance abuse, despair, and somatic ailments. Individuals exposed to this type of trauma are also at heightened risk for self-destructive and risk-taking behaviors as well as re-victimization, and tend to experience difficulty with interpersonal and intimate relationships.” Preliminary studies show that therapy should be customized according to gender, age, and culture.
Since the ultimate goal of quality aftercare is to walk with survivors as they become healthy members of their own societies, the intentional investment into trauma-informed care is fundamental. Continued research in this area remains important to determine the best methods of therapy for trafficking survivors.
4) Legal guidance and advocacy should be provided
Aftercare programs typically play an important role in assisting survivors with their legal case management. The U.S. Department of State finds that “often, traffickers take victims’ legal documents to make them more defenseless and afraid of justice officials.” Aftercare providers can assist in retrieving those legal documents, equipping survivors with their personal documents to empower future safety, rehabilitation, and future reintegration into their communities. Also, in order to prosecute the traffickers and buyers, courts need cooperation from the survivors for their testimonies. Recounting their abuse can be very traumatic for survivors and a quality aftercare system should be sensitive to this. Over the last two decades, International Justice Mission has been a leader in both human trafficking prosecution and guiding and supporting survivors through the legal testifying process.
The process of securing justice for the crimes committed against them can be an empowering journey for survivors.
5) Education and job training equip survivors
Once immediate needs are met, as survivors begin their journey towards mental and emotional healing, education and job training become increasingly important. Education and the ability to make a sustainable income are critical for personal confidence and enable the survivors to gain the skills needed to support themselves in a healthy capacity. Both women and men fall prey to trafficking often for economic reasons, so equipping them with marketable skills is critical for their ongoing safety after they leave post-rescue care.
In the USA, Futures without Violence is an example of an organization that works to increase access to quality education and employment opportunities to survivors of human trafficking. Internationally, a variety of governmental and private programs exist to support survivors in both their schooling and skills development.
Who provides aftercare to survivors of human trafficking?
Government shelters, NGO shelters, and community-based shelters can all offer quality aftercare. Effective survivor care programming can be found in each sector. The majority of aftercare shelters are government-run shelters, which generally tend to have fewer resources if those shelters are located in developing countries. Laws and processes vary greatly, of course, based on the legal structure of the social welfare system and the individual case of human trafficking.
Though many more are needed worldwide, private non-governmental organizations also have a presence in many countries and tend to be better funded. In the representative story of Malee, she was taken to a private NGO shelter where she could stay as long as she needed, as she had no stable and healthy home to return to. She found resources for healing and a safe place to live under the care of responsible adults. A leading example in the aftercare space, LOVE 146, continues to produce quality resources for those private efforts to provide holistic services to survivors.
Some shelters are beginning to experiment with community-based care, allowing child survivors to return to their families or another private home (such as a temporary foster family), provided they are first reviewed and cleared as a safe and stable place. They are then able to integrate into their communities to attend school. Aftercare staff typically provide consistent support to the survivor and family through weekly visits and service management.
It’s also important to note that the typical placement of survivors into aftercare shelters, including their stay’s length, guidelines, and regulations, depends largely on their ages. Minors are more often required by law to remain in official care, while adults tend to have more freedom of movement or services offered.
Is aftercare difficult work?
The work of walking with individuals who have suffered extreme trauma, who typically have little or no support systems, is incredibly challenging. It is complex, costly work that takes years – not days.
Especially in the developing world, there is often little or no standardization of care. Many countries are simply doing what they can to provide safe shelters for survivors and do not have the resources for the other important components of restorative care like therapy, education, or job opportunities. For example, while trauma-informed care is critical for the mental well-being of survivors, many countries do not possess the resources or ability to provide it.
Another defeating reality is the return of many survivors back into situations of exploitation following aftercare services. Because resources are limited and living conditions may not be desirable for adults, for example, some survivors refuse to stay at the shelter, choosing instead to return to vulnerable situations and ultimately back into exploitative situations. Corruption or abuse can also sometimes be present in shelters, which leads to survivors willfully leaving. Oftentimes, governments will repatriate survivors (especially adults) back to their original countries, where these displaced individuals find themselves back in at-risk situations once more.
Is aftercare worth it?
To rescue young survivors like Malee from the horrific realities of human trafficking is a significant victory, but to give her the care and tools she needs to walk into her own life with healing, confidence, and a future? That is true freedom.
To learn more about how The Exodus Road values and invests in aftercare, explore our Beyond Rescue program.
*The story of “Malee” is representative to illustrate the experience of a young survivor.