by Megan Jessup

So many challenges are presented to agencies who are missioned to address the issue of modern day slavery and commercial sexual exploitation. If we’re not careful, even the most well-intentioned and well-thought out plans and designs can have adverse effects on the population(s) we are trying to serve and protect. Seemingly miniscule decisions and details can have far reaching effects, both positive and negative. In our agency, it is not uncommon to have long drawn out discussions about very nuanced issues. We don’t always get it right, but we will always continue to learn and grow and be intentional. Because in order to effectively advocate for victims and survivors, there are certain critical areas that we, as a collaborative network, must be intentional about in our various approaches. We will explore the issue in this three part series

We must stop sharing stories

Non-profit human service agencies are presented with one of the greatest challenges: funding. Funding for services is dependent upon donors. Donors want to know what they are investing in and they want to hear what effect their donations are having. But not only are agencies ethically bound to protect the confidentiality of clients served, there is also another risk: re-exploiting victims.

We have often said that the best definition of human trafficking we’ve come across is this: it is the exploitation of vulnerability for personal gain. How, then, are we to use personal stories in fundraising efforts without becoming exploiters ourselves?

Add to this the fact that the individuals we serve often do not know how to set protective boundaries for themselves. This IS their vulnerability. They are so used to meeting the needs of everyone around them, even at the detriment of themselves. This is their normal. So even when a client approaches us and says that she wants to begin sharing her story publicly to help others, we have to be careful and make sure that the experience will be empowering for her, that it will not make her even more vulnerable and that she will be a beneficiary.

It is a difficult balance. There is power & healing in testimony. Even for the survivor, once he/she is ready and emotionally prepared for such transparency and exposure.

There have been times when adult survivors have approached us and asked to speak to the public on our behalf. But as we establish a relationship with them, it becomes clear that what they are proposing would open them up to additional pain and vulnerability that they likely are not prepared for. We have since set a policy where we connect them with a national survivor advocacy group whose sole purpose is to equip survivors to safely and effectively engage in advocacy and awareness efforts. It also provides them with a built-in support system full of other individuals who have shared experiences.

Does this mean that in the meantime, we will have to turn down the media station that is requesting a personal testimony but that could bring awareness of the company? Yes. Does it mean that we can’t always provide potential supporters with stories of girls we helped.  It does.

The ethical dilemma is this: in order to provide needed services (for the girls’ benefit) we need money. In order to raise money, we have to provide some information about the work that we’re doing (agency gain). It’s a balance that every agency must learn for themselves. At Ascent 121, we use the following formula as our guide:

Ask yourself these 4 questions:

  • Does she know I’m sharing her story? If the answer is no, then don’t share it. This is simple. We all have stories. They are ours. If you think back to painful memories of your past- would you want others to share that publically without your knowledge?
  • Do I (or does my agency) benefit from sharing her story? If the answer is yes, than you are dangerously close to re-exploiting and there are very few scenarios where this would be considered appropriate or ethical. We worked with a young woman once, who said she wanted to talk with “our donors” to help support us. (The red flags? A) She’d never shared her story before outside of a clinical or legal context. B) She was looking out for our interests more than hers.) She then wrote a poem and said we could share it. In it, she said: “But does he really love me, or am I just a money machine.” My heart crumbled. Because the scenarios were so similar. There was absolutely no way that we could include that poem with our year-end financial campaign. None. And so our financial letter was dryer and less emotional and probably did not yield what it could have. But we could stand with our heads up after it was sent. And that’s what mattered.
  • Does she benefit from sharing her story? There are lots of ways for survivors to benefit. It can be healing and empowering. It can provide a sense of purpose and direction and fulfillment. It can be an income stream. But ultimately, she gets to be the one who decides that. And there MUST be a benefit. If there is no benefit, it is exploitation. At Ascent 121, there is no such thing as a “survivor volunteer”. If someone is engaging with us, based on their past experience with exploitation- than it comes with a financial commitment to them.
  • And even if so, is there the potential for her to be harmed through my sharing? The girl’s we serve sometimes WANT to share. And that can be both healing an empowering in the right time/place/context. But we can’t forget that we’re working with individuals who, many times, only know how to exist in the space where other’s benefit from them. They may not be fully prepared to recognize their own vulnerabilities and potential risks to themselves. In fact, I’m still not sure it’s possible for folks to NOT be exploited in this process to some degree or another. Not that that means she should never share or not be able to make her own decision. But how are you helping her prepare? Are you having conversations about pro’s and con’s, where risks and benefits are weighed out? Are you introducing her to survivors who have already gone public with their stories to help mentor them? Ultimately, it is her choice. But if we’re going to be advocates- let’s really be advocates.

Megan is Chief Operating Officer and co-founder of Ascent 121. She is a licensed mental health therapist with more than 15 years of clinical and administrative experience in outpatient and residential treatment settings. She specializes in sexual trauma and has been working with human trafficking survivors since 2009. Megan provides training on human trafficking to numerous organizations including: local colleges and human service agencies, law enforcement, juvenile probation departments, the public defender’s office, child advocates, area judges, and the Department of Child Services. She has also been called to provide expert witness testimony in criminal cases.

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