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The Role of a Mentor in the Lives of Commercially Sexually Exploited Youth

AUGUST 29, 2017

CSECThere is no doubt that mentors play a powerful role in the lives of youth who have been sexually exploited. Positive, supportive relationships can help these youth heal and achieve long-term prosperity. However, not every mentoring relationship results in growth or positive change. Far too often matches don’t mesh or relationships stall, leaving both mentor and mentee feeling tired and disappointed.

While there are a number of reasons that mentoring matches might not be successful (the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring™ provides tips on how to facilitate matches), there is a concerning trend in mentoring youth with a history of sexual exploitation - a rescue mentality. Unfortunately, the root of this problem lies in the misunderstanding of the mentor role. Far too often, mentors come into the relationship with the idea that they can “save” or “rescue” their mentee. Instead of coming alongside to empower their mentee, they make decisions for them. Instead of listening to their mentee, they make assumptions and snap judgements. This rescue mentality can cause mentors to act as if they know best, ultimately preventing the building of a trusting relationship. It can create an unhealthy power differential that survivors of exploitation may find triggering.

While this idea of “rescuing” might be rooted in good intentions, the outcome is never positive. It is important to remember that none of us are capable of “saving” another person. We just can’t do it. True rescue only occurs when we empower another person to live a full, healthy life as the person they were created to be. Mentors certainly play a huge part in this by giving of their time and offering support. To be most effective, mentors must be clear about their role. Mentors and mentees should communicate openly about roles and expectations and all parties should have an understanding of what a mentor is and what a mentor is not.

A mentor is:

  • A teacher/coach. Mentors play a huge role in encouraging youth to learn and develop new skills. These new skills are valuable for moving youth past exploitation.
  • A cheerleader. The simple presence of a positive and supportive adult is huge. When a youth has someone there to encourage them and celebrate big wins, they feel valued and supported.
  • A connection. Mentors play a huge role in connecting youth with new social and professional networks. Mentors can expose youth to new opportunities (higher education, professional opportunities, etc.) and new groups of people.
  • A role model. Mentors model positive behavior for their mentee, helping them to see possibilities and envision a life outside of sexual exploitation.
  • A reliable presence. Trust is essential for any youth, but particularly for those who have experienced sexual exploitation. They have often been let down by numerous people and have learned to make it on their own. When youth know they can count on their mentor to show up, no matter the circumstance, trust is established. This is ultimately where change can happen.
  • An Accountability Partner. Change doesn’t happen overnight. But as trust is established, mentors can hold their mentee accountable for showing up and engaging.

A mentor is not:

  • A savior. A mentor cannot fix all the problems and “save” their mentee. They can only support, teach, and help create opportunities for their mentee to grow.
  • A case worker/psychologist/social worker. Often times a mentee will have other professional helpers in their life. These people are important, but the mentoring relationship is quite different. Mentors have the ability to relate to their mentee in a different, more casual and personal way. While all of these people should be on the same page, they each have a different role in the life of the youth. Additionally, mentors should refrain from asking questions or seeking specific details about past exploitation. Mentees can share those details if, and when they are ready.
  • An Authority Figure. Mentors occupy an interesting space. They can be a mix of a professional, friend, and family member. While it can be difficult to accept, the ultimate authority for decision-making does not rest with the mentor. Barring matters relating to the safety of the youth, mentors are there to offer advice, support, and direct their mentee towards healthy choices. Again, their role is to advise, empower and support.

Ultimately, true change occurs in the context of relationship. That is why mentoring can be so powerful for survivors of commercial sexual exploitation. However, a successful, long-term match won’t occur if a mentor is unclear on their role. By setting boundaries and understanding the nature of their role, mentors lay the foundation for an open, honest, and transformational relationship with their mentee.

Bailey Patton Brackin is a licensed master social worker. For the last five 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. Bailey holds a Bachelor of Psychology from The University of Kansas and a Master's in Social Work from Wichita State University.

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