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 When Helping Hurts: The Accidental Pimp.

We have to be honest with ourselves about our level of control

What does pimp-controlled prostitution look like: Several girls, isolated from their communities, a clearly defined hierarchy, with a controller at the top, indoctrination, and an exchange of money.

What does residential treatment look like? Several girls, isolated from their communities, with a clear system of hierarchy. I won’t call therapy “indoctrination”, but we’re certainly trying to sway belief systems which, to a child, can feel kind of like the same thing. And they know that someone is paying for their treatment. In fact, we have heard children say to us: “DCS is the biggest pimp ever!” or “At least when I was with my pimp, I could go to the kitchen without having to wait for someone to unlock the door!”

The truth is, the kids shouldn’t trust this set up at first. That would be a good boundary for them. They are still children and their physical safety needs trump their need for independence; there will always a certain level of need for residential care. But we have to be honest about the emotional risks that our programs create. And we have to be intentional in our efforts to counterbalance the risk of re-traumatization.

At Ascent 121, every staff member who interacts with the youth have to attend a specific training on this topic where we examine the motivations and control tactics of the exploiter and then intentionally identify ways we can counter that. And while the programs may often include a high level of structure and restriction at the onset of treatment, they must become increasingly empowering and promote autonomy as she moves through the programs.

We must check our motives

When asked what the goals of our programs are, most of us in this field would say something about empowering individuals who have been trafficked or exploited. But is it really?

As a non-profit human service agency, we are met with numerous goals and outcomes: goals set forth by grants and foundations, goals set forth by various different referral sources, agency goals as outlined in your strategic plan, informal goals and expectations from the general community. The reality is that program success is driven and defined by outcomes and numbers and, if we’re not careful, the individual goals of the people we serve can get lost in the process. And for survivors of human trafficking- that’s dangerous. Especially when considering the variables described above.

For trafficking survivors, their very survival has been dependent upon their ability to meet other people’s needs and goal. They’re tired of meeting other people’s goals. They don’t need or want someone to speak up for them.They have a voice and they want it to be heard. Even if it doesn’t align with our preconceived notions of what success should look like for them.

Sometimes it is a child entering treatment, running away, being re-exploited, and then returning to treatment (a
few times!) and then getting into a credit recovery program and earning her GED and achieving independence.

Be prepared to redefine success. Occasionally, success looks like a child entering treatment, achieving all of her treatment goals, making good grades at school, getting a job that she’s proud of and resolving some of the problems within her family.

Sometimes it is a child who enters treatment, runs away from foster care and you don’t hear anything else from her for 2 or 3 years and then one day she calls you up and begins to tell you about the good things that are happening in her life, including an exciting event that she would love for you to attend. And sometimes, it is a child who enters treatment and returns to her abuser but is simply more aware and equipped to protect herself.

Are you prepared for that? Is your goal really to empower those you are serving? Even if empowerment means equipping them to make decisions and choices that you wouldn’t necessarily define as positive?


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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