By Ben Shedlock
When a young person in Spokane County leaves a human trafficking situation, one of the first people to find out is a victim advocate.
The call might come from a juvenile justice officer who picked up a truant student. Sometimes it’s from a social worker in the state’s child protective division, who notices that a child in foster care all of a sudden has new clothes and spending cash. Occasionally, it’s the youth themselves, who use the county crisis texting service.
Regardless of how the survivor arrives, the advocate’s first response is always the same.
“We start by believing,” said Jenn Davis Nielsen, a victim advocate for Lutheran Community Services Northwest (LCS). The human trafficking survivors LCS specializes in helping are commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC).
There are no good data on the prevalence of CSEC in Spokane, but as with the nation as a whole, it’s on the rise. And according to Davis Nielsen, who supervises the Advocacy Program at LCS, it disproportionately affects youth and young adults.
In Spokane, an interfaith partnership comprising LCS and Catholic Charities Eastern Washington (CCEW) is at the forefront of efforts to identify, protect and heal exploited youth. Most recently, the faith-based nonprofits collaborated to open the CSEC housing unit, a safe haven where youth retake control of their lives and heal from the trauma of physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
“The shared Christian faith of our agencies emphasizes the unique holiness of children, how special and close they are to God,” said Rob McCann, president of Catholic Charities. “There is no more important work that our organizations could be doing than coming together to protect youth.” The LCS–CCEW partnership serves all clients based on need and regardless of background.
Interfaith Partners Provide a Safe Home Away From Home
The CSEC unit provides a safe, home-like environment where exploited youth receive CCEW’s expertise in housing and LCS’s expertise in victim advocacy. The simple, self-contained studio apartment is located at CCEW’s St. Margaret’s Shelter. It includes a private bathroom and kitchen and is furnished with a bed and dresser. St. Margaret’s is an emergency and transitional shelter operated by CCEW where homeless families have the stability and resources they need to exit homelessness.
Exploited youth are able to access all of the shelter’s resources, including case managers who help them set and achieve their goals for housing, education or employment. Other onsite resources are available, such as shared kitchen space, community classes, a food pantry and a clothing closet. It is one of the few options available for exploited youth.
“There is some emergency shelter for teens, but it doesn’t always fit the need or feel safe,” Nielsen said. “St. Margaret’s is nice because it’s secure, which is really important for these young people.” Older youth and young adults are the most vulnerable demographic to sexual abuse and human trafficking, according to Nielsen.
Youth who have unmet emotional and psychological needs as the result of abuse, neglect or trauma are especially easy targets. But where perpetrators see weakness, LCS sees strength.
“Those things that have been preyed upon, we strengthen and build for independence,” Nielsen said.
LCS and CCEW began working together on CSEC issues through the Inland Northwest Human Trafficking Task Force, which LCS coordinates. One of the challenges the partners noticed was that youth choosing to leave exploitative situations need stable, secure housing while they receive victim advocacy services, but their families are not always able to provide that. The CSEC unit was the answer.
“If [parents] know their child is some place safe, living at St. Margaret’s…is a better fit,” said Nielsen. As a result of their exploitation, youth may have developed drug addictions or behavioral issues that parents cannot address alone. Moreover, the youth have been targeted by a perpetrator, and parents have to protect their other children. Both CCEW and LCS share information with parents and keep them involved with their child’s case.
Helping Youth Move Forward through Case Management and Victim Advocacy
When the juvenile justice system or Washington State Department of Children, Youth, and Families identifies potential trafficking victims, they refer them to LCS for additional screening to determine if they are being trafficked and whether they are candidates for the CSEC unit.
“They need to be able to handle independent living and be willing to get out of the exploited situation,” said Nielsen. “We don’t want to disrupt St. Margaret’s.”
During their stay in the CSEC unit, youth identify their own goals for housing, education and employment. Based on this exit plan, they work with case managers to build the skills they need to move into a safe and stable living situation that fits their unique circumstances.
At the same time, LCS provides victim advocacy services. Like case management, victim advocacy is client-driven.
“We look at what help they need as a survivor” of human trafficking, Nielsen said. In general, survivors need crisis intervention, medical care and legal support.
At the crisis intervention stage, LCS provides support immediately after a trauma. Once survivors are safe, victim advocates help them make informed decisions about the unique medical care that sexual assault requires. Advocates connect survivors with sexual assault nurse examiner services and provide support at medical exams and appointments.
Victim advocates support survivors before, during and after legal proceedings. They, “provide education and support to make sure they are empowered and informed to make the best choice possible,” Nielsen said.
Often, the legal outcome survivors pursue includes a criminal restraining order or civil protection order. LCS maintains close relationships with the FBI, local law enforcement and civil and superior courts that improve legal outcomes for survivors.
Throughout the victim advocacy process, advocates provide care that is trauma-informed. They serve as a guardrail to ensure survivors’ traumatic experiences do not prevent them from getting help. Believing the survivors’ stories and understanding that trauma is influencing their behavior “makes all the difference in the trajectory of someone’s healing,” Nielsen said.
Making a Long-Term Commitment to Youth
While court cases end, healing lasts a lifetime. To support the journey toward peace and independence, LCS and CCEW make their services available for as long as exploited youth ask for them. LCS victim advocates refer youth to their clinical program for therapy. They also help them sign up for health insurance and other services.
St. Margaret’s Shelter allows the youth to return to access the food bank, clothing closet or case management services at any time. After helping youth become stable, the goal is to help them choose to stay in safe situations where they will not be exploited.
And, if youth need additional services that LCS or CCEW do not provide, they are referred and introduced to a new case manager.
“Spokane is very good about collaborating,” Nielsen said.