Serving young people who have experienced sexual exploitation demands a high level of critical thinking and careful planning to ensure best practice. We have identified three core components to effective support and service that could translate for anyone coming into contact with youth who have these experiences.
Expanding the network: Developing a team
The risk factors associated with being sexually exploited align closely with events that place children at an increased risk for isolation. At the same time, young people in these situations also have a high level of need that can feel taxing on those around them. Without dedicated effort to increase the number of formal and natural connections available to youth, service providers can easily do a disservice. Oftentimes, helpers compete to have the strongest connection with the youth and use the perceived strength of that connection as a measurement for success.
Instead of focusing on having a deeper connection than others, the intention must be on expanding the depth and number of connections the young person has with those around them; helping them to create a community of strength and support. This is especially critical for formal providers who have a time-limited relationship with the young person. By creating a network of support, youth have access to more genuine relationships that can help them with a number of different challenges and needs. By working together, this network prevents against burnout and increases the chance of sustainable success for the young person.
Harm reduction: Avoiding the rescue approach
The rescue approach, also referred to as the savior complex, is harmful to the service field as a whole. When this lens is used, adults make assumptions about youth experiences, and work to meet their own needs, versus the goals of the young person. This approach induces compassion fatigue, burnout and can encourage unethical behavior by helping adults as they attempt to drive the young person’s decision-making. Harm reductionism is an important piece to relinquishing this approach and embracing altruistically supporting a young person. This does not mean the adult and young person are always in complete agreement; rather respect is given as they navigate through life’s successes and challenges. Despite the difficult circumstances in play, adults must acknowledge that young people have been surviving, and are more skilled and resilient than the rescue approach can acknowledge. Youth who have been exploited do not need to be saved — they need access to resources, opportunity and support with no hidden agendas and motives.
Crafting connections: Cultivating relationships
Without undermining the unique experiences of youth who have been sexually exploited, there is a key factor: Help doesn’t have to be complicated. Healing comes through the power of relationships. Too often, adults forget to truly ask youth how they can help them. Through empowering and supportive relationships, adults can model caring relationships and share in mutual respect with young people. This means listening without judgment and validating a youth’s experience within the world as real and true. Too often individual experiences are discredited because it threatens the listener’s sense of personal safety.
To truly help youth who have had experiences in the sex trade, the focus must not be using language like victim or survivor; youth are more than their experiences and should not be defined as such. Youth need unconditional acceptance and ongoing support at all stages of their experiences. They want individuals who listen nonjudgmentally and respect their decisions. To accomplish this, adults must be acutely aware of their own beliefs and biases so they can instead focus on data-driven practices.
Offering support does not have to be complex, but must be thoughtful. To start, helpers need to carefully consider if they are the right person to be providing assistance and in what way. Having good intentions is not good enough. The key to providing meaningful care for youth who have been sexually exploited is to consistently self-evaluate and monitor the ability to successfully do the three highlighted components.
This can be accomplished through consultation with a colleague, the use of self-created or developed tools and continuous education on additional best practices. While the measurements of success are hard to calculate, adults can partner with young people to strengthen resilience. Helpers who engage youth in strength-based, person-first conversations about their real needs, are honest and open about the assistance they can provide and offer education with a harm reductionist approach are positioned well to be efficacious.
Jenna Kreuzer, MSW, is associate director for Wraparound Milwaukee and served as the grant project coordinator for an OJJDP-funded mentoring program focused on serving youth impacted by commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking.
Tiffany Wilhelm is a social work supervisor at Wisconsin Community Services and is a part-time associate lecturer for the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. She holds a master’s in clinical psychology and served as the program coordinator on a OJJDP-funded mentoring program for youth who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation.