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How Mentoring Supports the Healing Journey for Victims and Survivors of CSEC

JANUARY 20, 2017
“Show me a successful individual and I’ll show you someone who had real positive influences in his or her life. I don’t care what you do for a living—if you do it well I’m sure there was someone cheering you on or showing the way. A mentor.”  — Denzel Washington

People need people. We are social creatures! Each of us needs someone to encourage us when things go wrong and to cheer for us when we have success. So often it is others who see our potential and remind us of our worth.

For youth who are at risk for or have experienced child commercial sexual exploitation (CSEC), the need for healthy, supportive relationships is even greater. The trauma that CSEC survivors have experienced is immense and the road to recovery is long. Having someone to walk beside them and encourage them through their recovery journey can make a huge difference. A mentor is someone who can provide this support. By its very definition, a mentor is “an experienced and trusted adviser.” Having an experienced and trusted adviser is something that we all find benefit in and, for youth, it is an important factor in positive outcomes.

So having a mentor can make a significant difference in the lives of youth who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation, but why? What is it about these relationships that can help survivors live up to their full potential? We asked our partners across the country currently offering mentoring to CSEC survivors in various capacities to share their thoughts. Here is what we learned:

1. Mentoring is a Restorative Relationship.

Typically, CSEC survivors have a complicated history with relationships. Most survivors of CSEC have a background of physical and/or sexual abuse in the home. That means they have experienced significant relationship-based trauma before they are trafficked. Their understanding of relationship is further skewed during their experience of exploitation. Victims often view their trafficker/pimp as a significant other, boyfriend or protector. Through the seasoning and grooming process they come to believe that this is someone who cares for them despite significant abuse. The result is “trauma-bond” or what is commonly known as “Stockholm syndrome.” With all of these traumatic experiences embedded in the relationship, survivors of CSEC have little understanding of what a healthy, supportive relationship looks like. Mentors can begin to fill in this gap by simply showing up on a consistent basis, investing in the youth, and modeling boundaries. By modeling a healthy relationship, mentors can provide their mentee with a healthy pattern for future interactions with friends, significant others, family, and other personal relationships.

“Among the injuries done to a young person who has been sex trafficked, one of the most lasting and detrimental results of this trauma is the impact on healthy relationships. The multi-layered, complex trauma experienced creates attachment disruptions that can add to the long-term damage and make healing more difficult. Youth can become conditioned to believe that adult relationships are not safe and that all adults want something from them. Enter: the mentoring relationship. A mentor can provide a healthy, restorative relationship to a young person, which can foster personal growth and optimism about the future. Whether the mentor is a volunteer, who is 'giving' their time to a young person, or a survivor themselves who has much to offer by way of their example, it is the relationship itself that is the vehicle for change and healing.” - Liz Longfellow, Operations & Training Manager, MISSSEY

2. Mentoring Encourages Growth and Healing.

Mentors play an important role in the healing process of a CSEC survivor. As CSEC survivors exit a situation of exploitation, they often have difficulty seeing their own value and worth. So defeated by those who have exploited them and even some of the systems of care who have tried to help, they accepted a false narrative about their ability to live full, prosperous lives. Mentors can help shine a light on the numerous strengths of CSEC survivors, encouraging them to reclaim their identity as strong, worthy human beings. This is particularly powerful when mentors are survivors themselves. Survivor mentors are able to instill much needed hope by providing an example of someone who has survived exploitation and come to a place of healing.

“My observation is mentoring provides a framework of support for survivors which is often absent even as services are offered. This framework is such a key element for healing, and creates a safe place for growth and contemplation. The addition of trained, supportive, non-judgmental mentors into the lives of youth who have experienced coercion and manipulation assists in helping to draw attention to strengths of survivors. Hearing a voice that says, "this is not your fault" and "I believe you", builds belief in the self and encourages healing through relationship.”  - Jessica Muret, Program Manager and Trauma Therapist, Wichita Children’s Home

“Mentoring is a key ingredient in restoring trust and providing a safe non-judgmental environment for mentees. Survivor mentors at Kristi House provide clear picturesque lenses for the mentee to look through. "I was there!’ This is what I did! This is what I saw, but now I am here!" Most of our girls are still locked into their traumatic experiences, and are still being impacted by the psychological and emotional pain of their abuse. This type of unpretentious caring relationship from our survivor mentors instills hope, and decreases guilt and shame. The ability of the survivor mentor to paint a real picture of past struggles and pain gives rise to hope to those who are hopeless. Mentoring in general instills the 3 P’s - purpose, passion, and power.”  - Ruthlyn Webster, Programs Director, Kristi House

3. Mentoring Creates Social Support and Connection.

Mentors serve as a connection to new experiences and opportunities (hobbies, educational opportunities, employment, social and cultural experiences, etc.). This connection provides survivors with additional groups of people to learn from and build relationships with. It is through these opportunities that survivors begin to establish a strong social support system outside of the mentoring relationship. Such a network is vital to a young person’s continued success and healthy development.

A mentoring relationship is unlike other relationships that one typically holds. It is nuanced in that it comes with an intentional focus on the growth and development of the mentee or protégé. A mentoring relationship provides a unique opportunity to explore ideas about self and have new experiences in a supportive context.

There are many ways that mentoring can be integrated into a comprehensive plan for healing and opportunities to reach forward toward a future of independence and prosperity. Formal mentoring can be implemented in groups, individually in a structured site-based setting, or in the community. Survivor mentors bring unique expertise to the relationship. Aspects of each of these approaches can be combined in one model. While there are many models, programs should be mindful of the standards of care in mentoring. The Elements of Effective Practice for MentoringTM is rooted in evidence and provides clarity to inform planning and design. Youth can also be encouraged to recognize the natural mentors with whom they already have relationships and consider how these relationships have made a positive difference in their lives. Natural mentors are non-parental, caring adults whom youth select from their existing social networks, such as teachers, coaches, pastors, or adult relatives.

Ultimately, mentors provide the supportive and consistent presence that is so often lacking for victims/survivors of CSEC. Having someone who will show up no matter what - even when bad decisions have been made, or hurtful words have been said - can shift the way that survivors approach life and help them achieve their full potential.

Bailey Patton Brackin is a licensed master social worker. For the last four years she has been engaged in anti-trafficking work in various capacities including: direct service, training, research, and advocacy. She currently works as the Assistant Director for the Wichita State University Center for Combating Human Trafficking. In this role, Bailey acts as a liaison to campus and community partners, helping to facilitate grants and contracts, and managing CCHT communications. Bailey is responsible for planning and coordinating outreach and awareness events designed to educate community members on the issue of human trafficking. Bailey played an important part in the efforts to establish January as human trafficking awareness month in Wichita, Kansas. She also has experience as a therapist for youth and adolescents who have experienced childhood trauma. Bailey holds a Bachelor of Psychology from The University of Kansas and a Master's in Social Work from Wichita State.

Susan R. Spagnuolo, M.Ed. has been working with, and on behalf of, youth in high-risk situations for over 35 years. For the past 25 years, she has enjoyed her work in delivering customized, practical, and comprehensive technical assistance support to community and faith-based programs that serve youth and families through her work as MANY’s Senior Technical Assistance Manager. Susan is a skilled facilitator and consultant, with expertise in teaching and training in many areas of the youth services field, including support to agencies that serve youth who are survivors of or at highest risk for commercial sexual exploitation.

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