They see both sides of the equation. The darkness of what’s been done to these children, the joy and light of full restoration, and the very long, complicated journey in between. The women of the After Care team in International Justice Mission’s Dominican Republic office are compassionate, intelligent, articulate, and funny. I imagine their sense of humor carries them through a lot. It is evident they are their own family of sorts and have great affection for one another.
As I listened to them speak about their work, two things became very clear: A whole myriad of issues fall under the jurisdiction of this team’s responsibilities, all of which are essential to the survivor’s journey of healing. Also…I had some pretty serious misconceptions about what the victims of child-sex trafficking experience when rescued.
I picture a child flooded with relief that the abuse will stop and relieved to be removed from their abusers. Reality can be very different. I’m not the only one to make this error. Often, the police have very similar misconceptions. When they encounter victims exhibiting behavior of defiance or anger rather than gratitude or joy at being rescued it sets the stage for more trauma during the rescue process. This juxtaposition of the stark contrast between impression vs. reality makes the jobs of IJM’s After Care team that much more complicated. Victims are sometimes treated more like criminals by the police than children that need protecting and understanding. Two of the After Care team’s vital tasks are to be there during the rescue so children are not alone and to train police officers to know:
1. Victims of trauma may not view themselves as victims.
2.Violent behavior can sometimes be a side effect of having experienced extensive trauma.
3. Victims may have feelings of affection for their abusers and be reluctant to leave or to speak out against them.
Rather than relief, victims often feel bewildered, terrified, angry, and resistant. They are being taken from all that they know. They have likely been told that they will be the ones in trouble if the authorities find out. Often threats of violence against those they care about have been made so they may also be extremely fearful on behalf of loved ones. These issues are so complicated and every situation so different, I hardly know where to begin and fear that I will not do them justice. Actually, I KNOW I will not do them justice. My knowledge on this is limited but I will do my best.
First, sex trafficking of minors in the Dominican Republic does not look like it does in some other countries. These are not children lured from happy, loving, albeit poverty-stricken homes with the promise of a legitimate job to help provide for their family (and once isolated far from home, violently abused and trapped in a brothel). There is not one ‘model’ of child-sex trafficking in the Dominican Republic. It takes different forms and takes place in various settings. It is extremely fluid, making the investigators’ task that much more difficult and certainly the After Care team’s as well.
Traffickers come in many forms. This list is not exhaustive but a few examples might be:
Traffickers are: well-liked and respected or powerful men in the community, making it difficult for people to come forward against them. Families of victims are frequently pressured by their communities to drop the case.
Traffickers are: mothers, (sometimes working alone, sometimes in conjunction with a boyfriend or step-father) selling their daughters or sons to make extra money or feed a drug addiction. They themselves may have been trafficked when younger. Generational perpetuation of trafficking is not uncommon. Many trafficked children come from abusive and dysfunctional situations with no concept of what healthy relationships, attachments, or affection look like. This makes them highly susceptible to another form of trafficking;
Traffickers are: Men befriending and lavishing attention upon young girls or boys. He gains the child’s trust and once he has some measure of emotional power over them it transitions to mental and physical abuse and then selling them to others.
The monumental task of guiding survivors through the healing process falls to the aforementioned group of social workers and counselors working on IJM’s After Care Team. Needs are assessed and individual plans are crafted. The needs of the 5 and 7 year old sisters recently rescued from their mother (who was using them to create pornography) are very different than the needs of the twelve year old who has just learned she is pregnant (she thinks by the man who claimed to care for her all-the-while selling her to tourists). My daughters are seven and twelve. These cases were especially hard for me to process.
IJM works in collaboration with CONANI (The Dominican Republic’s equivalent of Child Welfare Services) and private NGO after-care homes to find solutions for: where these survivors will live long-term, education, job training when appropriate, trauma counseling, and ensuring medical needs are met. The After Care Team has recently had the opportunity to train some of CONANI’s social workers. They hope to further this relationship. The more training government social workers can receive the more people are equipped to help navigate these children into lives of full restoration.
On top of all of this, the team does much of it’s work in the beach city of Puerto Plata on the northern coast of the country. This means three hours of driving (each way) to be present for rescues, meet with clients, attend court cases, etc.. The scope of the work these women accomplish is astounding. I would have loved to have more time with them but even the short time I had was enough to see these women have a unique combination of grit, patience, and tenderness. I’m so thankful for the way they stand daily in the gap between brokenness and healing on behalf of these precious children. Their smiles and laughter belie the reserves of strength they hold within them to walk journey after journey with each child from darkness to light.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of the whole team, but above is Daisy, whom I had the chance to talk with the most. Doesn’t she have the greatest smile? She is standing with Mallory, IJM’s Director of Strategic Partnerships for the Dallas area.