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The Restorative Power of Mentoring for Sexually Exploited Youth

JULY 7, 2017

The May edition of the Collaborative Mentoring Webinar Series focused on mentoring youth who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation. MANY served as the facilitator of this webinar, bringing together practitioners with expertise in this area for an important conversation about the needs of young people who have faced commercial sexual exploitation, and how mentoring programs can be sensitive to these experiences and support healing. Dr. Karen Countryman-Roswurm, Founder and Executive Director for the Center for Combating Human Trafficking at Wichita State University provided an overview of the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). She described family and system-level risk factors that may be associated with a young person’s experience with commercial sexual exploitation, such as a history of exploitation in the family, abuse, abandonment, significant drug or alcohol abuse in the home, housing instability, unmet basic needs, and the lack of a consistent adult in the young person’s life. Dr. Roswurm also discussed how mentoring can act as a protective factor, providing an example of a healthy relationship and offering support and care without expecting anything in return.

Two other experts in the field joined us for the panel discussion to share their knowledge and experience in mentoring victims/survivors of CSEC. Ann Wilkinson, Director of Mentoring Services at My Life My Choice and Tiffany Wilhelm, Crisis Stabilization Program Coordinator at La Causa described how their mentoring services support victims/survivors of commercial sexual exploitation in their healing journeys. Karen, Ann, and Tiffany shared their different approaches to mentor training and ongoing support, providing participants with concrete examples for preparing mentors to serve victims/survivors. In addition, all three panelists noted that they place a strong emphasis on survivor voice and leadership at many levels in their programs. This approach ensures that those who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation are recognized as integral to designing and delivering effective services for victims/survivors.

Susan Spagnuolo, Senior Technical Assistance Manager at MANY concluded the webinar with important information regarding different program models, as well as ways to utilize the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring for youth who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation. These considerations are critical for organizations who may be considering developing a mentoring program to serve this population.

Throughout the webinar, participants asked many meaningful questions, but we were not able to respond to all of them due to time constraints. We offer some additional space here to respond to key participant questions.

1. Do you have any advice for us who are not survivors, but are in the position of training prospective mentors who are survivors?

One of the most important things is to acknowledge that although you have expertise in this work and will be providing important training, prospective survivor mentors also bring their own expertise. A survivor’s personal experience may provide them with a different level of understanding of CSEC that can be leveraged when connecting with mentees. Honoring each person’s contributions is critical. Provide space for multiple perspectives, as each survivor has their own unique experiences and values. In addition, ensure that you utilize the support of a survivor leader or consultant when developing mentor training. Finally, be clear on your program’s values, mentor roles, and policies and procedures when training survivor mentors. Ensure that they have an understanding of expectations and boundaries, and are aligned with the program values prior to entering a mentoring relationship. You can find more about Survivor-Centered/Survivor-Led Practices here.

2. Victims of commercial sexual exploitation need to develop a high level of trust with their mentors, but mentors are required to report abuse and neglect (regardless of the mentee’s wishes). How can a mentor build and maintain trust given these reporting requirements?

Trust is the foundation for any successful mentoring relationship, but is even more critical in mentoring youth who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation or other relational trauma. It can be challenging to balance this trust with the responsibility of protecting children and youth from abuse and neglect. Here are some tips to building and maintaining trust while addressing child welfare reporting requirements.

  • Be open and honest. Let the youth know that you are a mandated reporter in the beginning of the relationship and discuss the boundaries around which you would need to make a report.
  • Avoid pushing youth for information. Let the youth disclose and discuss their experiences as they feel comfortable. Often a youth will share small things first to “test” whether the mentor can be trusted.
  • Share power. If you have to make a report, involve the youth as much as possible.
    • Tell them that you are required to report abuse and neglect, and want them to be safe and supported.
    • Listen to any fears or concerns they may have, but don’t make promises or provide information unless you are sure it is accurate.
    • Ask the youth if they would like to call with you, or remain in the room to listen to the call. This offers the youth some small sense of control in a situation that may feel chaotic or scary.
    • Offer to remain with the youth while they are interviewed by the child welfare investigator. This can help some youth feel more comfortable.
  • Give space if needed, but remain connected. After making a child abuse and neglect report, the youth involved may feel hurt, angry, appreciative, afraid, hopeful or a range of other emotions. In some cases, a youth may need space to process these feelings with another caring adult prior to re-engaging. It is paramount that the mentor continues to convey care and acceptance during this time, while slowly rebuilding trust when necessary. Sometimes overcoming challenges in the mentoring relationship can actually strengthen the mentor-mentee bond.
  • Be proactive in working with the Child Welfare System. Find out if there is someone in your local office who specializes in working with youth who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation or human trafficking. Build a strong relationship with this person, as well as with other workers in your local office.

3. What are the warning signs a youth service provider or community member (who is not an expert on human trafficking) should be aware of in identifying or serving young participants?

Commercial sexual exploitation is sometimes difficult to identify, but many youth victim/survivors may demonstrate some of these warning signs. In addition to warning signs, this resource from the National Center for Homeless Education provides information regarding definitions, statistics, risk factors and responses for the sex trafficking of minors.

Mentoring has the power to be restorative for youth who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation, providing a model of a healthy, supportive relationship with a caring adult. Although there are many considerations in developing a mentoring program for youth victims/survivors, these three resonated the strongest.

  • Survivor voice/leadership – Ensure that survivors are involved in all aspects of the program planning and implementation.
  • Mentor training and ongoing support – In addition to traditional mentor training; mentors for youth who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation will need additional training to understand CSEC and the impacts of trauma on youth. It is also critical that programs provide a high level of supervisory and peer support for mentors to prevent burnout and increase mentor retention.
  • Meeting youth where they are – Youth who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation are not a monolithic group. Each mentee has their own goals, strengths, challenges, and life experiences. It is important for mentors to get to know their mentee as an individual rather than relying on generalizations or stereotypes about victims/survivors. In addition, mentoring programs should consider that all youth may not be interested in or ready to engage in a one on one relationship with a mentor. Group mentoring or other types of services may be more appropriate for some youth, depending on where they are in their journey.

Kendan Elliott is a Technical Assistance Manager at MANY, leading the mentoring for survivors of commercial sexual exploitation project through the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). He has 15 years of experience serving marginalized youth in a variety of capacities; including youth experiencing homelessness, human trafficking, and exploitation, LGBTQ youth and those involved in the foster care or juvenile justice systems. His experience in program development, management, and training are built on a foundation of positive youth development, emphasizing authentic collaboration with youth.

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I really enjoyed reading this article!

Dontra Peters
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