Huffpost Impact
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Dr. Lois Lee Headshot

The Model Residential Program for America's Sex Trafficked Children - The First Step - The 'Critical Figure'

Posted: Updated:

A successful residential program for America's child sex trafficking victims requires an appropriate adult role model, a critical figure to whom the child may attach. Perhaps for the first time in his/her life, the child may feel safe enough to experiment with new behaviors that are based on friendship and trust instead of hatred and fear. Attachment to this critical figure, usually female, mother figure in a residential setting is essential to engaging the sex trafficking victim in attempts to try a new way of life

Throughout the last 35 years, the most successful residential programs for sex trafficked children were led and operated by women who these children referred to as "Mom" - not because the leader required this title, but because the children needed to define the role of someone they could turn to when in need and who would accept them regardless of their behavior.

It did not seem to matter whether the residential program offered three beds or 24 beds, was faith based, government funded, privately funded, well-funded or financially struggling - what stood out was the single critical figure who these children learned to trust, on whom they could depend, and in whom they could confide.

This should not be surprising to the knowledgeable professional who works with child sex trafficking victims. The pimp organizes his victims according to familial roles - he himself plays the "daddy" role and frequently demands the victim call him "Daddy." The pimp family, which consists of a pimp "daddy" and female victims, has been referred to as "a stable" or "my folks." Child sex trafficking victims refer to one another as "wifey," "wife in-laws," "and stable sisters." This grouping together or feeling of belonging is similar to the substitute family provided by today's street gangs.

The critical figure who sets out to prepare the sex trafficking victim for a "normal" life must be strong and well versed in the varying roles of the sex trafficking subculture. They must not be fearful of the subculture or that fear transfers to the child creating chaos and an imbalance familiar to the child, reinforcing the child's belief there is "no way out."

During this process of attachment to the critical figure, the child confides closely guarded "family secrets" that she has kept private and out of shame and humility. It is in this relationship that the child will share early childhood experiences of sexual abuse, family relationships, stories about the pimp and his activities and other closely guarded information not shared on television talk shows or with researchers, police or detention officers. While the critical figure provides nurturing, lifesaving resources such as food, shelter and safety, the child attaches to this figure and defines her as "mom" in an attempt to make sense of her skewed social world.

Most importantly, the critical figure must be attentive and available to these children. She must hear them out and direct staff to assure their needs are met. They need to feel that one central character cares for them and assumes responsibility for their well-being.

Most social service programs and residential care for children is staff-centered and characterized by the primary goal of retaining staff. These children have a keen sense of awareness of who really cares for them and who they can trust versus who is "on the job."

Oftentimes they will demean support staff who they feel are merely collecting a paycheck - the result is staff turnover and the battle of whose needs come first. If the child wins the "battle of the needs" the reward is a voluntary commitment by the child sex trafficking victim to work hard at learning educational skills, counseling and program participation - programs designed to change their lives.

If America's child sex trafficking victim does not win this "battle of the needs," - he/she runs to the streets because he/she has options to meet these needs. The pimp and his makeshift family create a sense of belonging this child has been denied in his/her desperate efforts to be noticed and "be somebody."

We must remember that the "square world" is not something necessarily respected or desirous of the child sex trafficking victim because this child frequently interacts with the "square world." She/he trades sex for money in cars, motels and hotels with members of society most of us have learned to trust or admire - doctors, lawyers, politicians, movie stars, musicians, etc. This child knows the "dirty little secrets" of the "square world."

While there is recognition in the residential care community that this "critical adult figure" is required in residential care, most efforts to provide this critical figure have the underlying goal of saving money in that they provide "live in staff" room and board as part of their compensation.

Again there is the "battle of the needs" in a more basic form than previously discussed because the issues are rooted in the daily living such as who gets to decide what to eat for dinner, what to watch on television and the convenient development of rules that apply only to the residents when they meet the changing needs of the "live in staff."

In this system of care, one of two results occur - either "live in staff" boundaries loosen and he/she becomes so needy that resources for the child are coveted by the staff, or in a desperate attempt to protect one's personal boundaries the caregiver takes on the characteristics of a guard or detention warden which is evident in body language - crossed arms and stiff posture.

The "live in staff" model fails miserably in providing appropriate supervision or care for this special group of children because these children are experts in violating personal boundaries - their survival depends on it when they are forced to earn money in exchange for sex.

The critical figure and support staff must be relieved of the constant routine of meeting America's child sex trafficking victim's needs. Frequently residential programs structure child care supervision around 3 shifts a day which gives staff time to meet their personal and social needs away from the residential program.

Long after residential care America's child sex trafficking victim will maintain communication with the critical figure in a residential program. The critical figure, like "Mom," provides for her children unconditionally independent of the child's compliant behavior.

There is no "quick fix" for a child who has been sex trafficked. The emotional and physical trauma occurred years prior to sex trafficking and will continue for years beyond residential care.

Leading and operating a residential program for America's child sex trafficking victims requires a life commitment. It is not a job.

So the question we must ask the non-profit community is whether we are willing to make this commitment to America's child sex trafficking victim? Will nonprofit leadership produce these "critical figures" required to lead a new kind of residential care to address the needs of America's child sex trafficking victim?