Trauma and Human Trafficking
Intergenerational and historical trauma have existed for hundreds of years within Tribal communities. Understanding this history as well as the impact of complex trauma on survivors of human trafficking is critical to supporting their healing process.
“Because of the trauma that comes along with human trafficking, as well as other forms of violence, staff are going to need training and support in order to serve the victims and survivors.”
- Michelle Cook, Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe
These questions and answers come from Talking Circle conversations where American Indian and Alaska Native practitioners share their experiences supporting survivors of human trafficking.
Trauma varies for each person and can affect any aspect of their life: daily functioning, emotional wellbeing, relationships, self-image, goal setting and follow through, engagement in services, mental health, and physical health. Trauma impacts the whole person in a variety of ways and can increase or decrease in a moment, triggered by something as simple as a smell or a noise.
Complex trauma is a way to look at layered trauma. I (Lu-Anne Haukaas) will use my own family as an example. I carry trauma of those that came before me. The trauma of genocide; the trauma of mass illness; the trauma of boarding schools which are just one, two generations before me. This trauma contributes to the Intergenerational trauma in the way that my parents raised me. The home I (Lu-Anne) grew up in was imperfect based on the traumas they carried and passed forward; I am carrying those traumas. I (Lu-Anne) also experienced domestic violence, child sexual abuse, and sexual assault in my growing up years from people that were outside of my immediate family; I (Lu-Anne) am carrying that layered trauma as well. Then you grow up in a system that is unfriendly to people of color, so traumas might be experienced in the workplace or traumas that are experienced with law enforcement. That is another layer of trauma. Then if someone, you know grows up and goes away to war, there is combat trauma. Or, in rural communities, first responder trauma. In a rural community, it is your cousin or your brother that you are responding to when they went missing or there was an accident of some kind or a suicide. These layered traumas are what we are talking about with complex trauma. With regards to how trauma impacts survivors of human trafficking, the Adverse Childhood Experience Study explains how people who experience traumas are more vulnerable and may be more susceptible to experiencing trauma as an adult. It is not a self-fulfilling prophecy that this will happen; however, oftentimes survivors of trauma are more vulnerable to experiencing trafficking.
Yes. It is the approach of "I am here alongside you. I am with you. I carry story too. You do not need to share your story with me, but I am here." We cannot do this work without survivors leading. They are the experts of their own lives. Bad things have happened to us, but they do not make us who we are. We have had a lot of traumas happen to us and are complex individuals. Trauma-informed means that all of those pieces of an individual get to walk together. Individuals are not just one singular story or experience. It is not just one experience. There are multiple needs. Survivors get to decide — hopefully with an advocate or the people who are creating change — what is the loudest need that I want? Maybe it is going to be a need for housing or maybe a need for a new pair of shoes. We do not have to know everything to help our people. We do not have to listen to the traumatic parts of a story in order to believe a person that comes to us and says, “I need support and I need help.” We are not the experts in their lives. They are in the driver's seat of their life, and we are just here alongside. If you think about all of the places, all of the movements and structures that have historically been very harming to us and to our ancestors, it is somebody else telling us what we needed and how we needed it and when we needed it. We do not want to be repeating the trauma. Even if we disagree, with what they say is the loudest need for them, it is listening and seeing and believing.
Trauma-informed care realizes the prevalence of trauma, recognizes how trauma affects all individuals involved, and responds appropriately. Being a victim-centered, trauma-informed organization begins with understanding the physical, social, and emotional trauma on the individuals it serves, but it does not end there. Trauma-informed organizations also recognize the impact of trauma in the lives of their staff members; how staff may bring greater empathy, passion, and commitment to their work as a result of their own experiences with trauma; and how staff who are survivors may also be more vulnerable to their own trauma triggers and vicarious trauma in their work. What it means to be person-centered and trauma-informed may include─
- Being trauma-responsive and understanding of how trauma impacts the brain, how it impacts every human and every individual, and the substantive trauma literacy we bring to trauma consciousness.
- Being ethical and honoring ethical standards in our interactions with individuals and in the delivery of services.
- Being empowerment-based and follow what individuals want, what their goals are, and how they seek to get to their end goals.
- Being culturally relevant and recognizing how culture relates to each individual.
In order to develop relationships with communities experiencing historical trauma—
- Acknowledge the historical traumas that have happened and continue to happen to substantiate this uncertainty.
- Communicate intentions for working with the community.
- Seek guidance from community members and the governing council about how best to do the work within the community.
- Demonstrate trauma responsiveness. Be consistent, genuine, and present. Recognize defensive behaviors are protective mechanisms.
- Treat every single interaction as a corrective experience on behalf of others who have done harm in the past.
The research on epigenetics and trauma and resilience is fairly new. However, more and more research continues to show generational survivance and passing on some kind inherent survival mechanisms to help future generations. Some of this research includes—
- Traumatic experiences can leave epigenetic marks that alter the stress response in offspring (911 research - Yehuda, R. et al, 2005, & Yehuda, R. et al, 2009)
- Mice trained to avoid a smell passed their aversion on to their offspring, and their offspring’s offspring (Dias & Ressler, 2013)
Aside from epigenetics, there are also other theories of generational transmission including but not limited to: narrative that we carry to younger generations (Doucet & Rovers, 2010); storytelling and secondary traumatization (Palacios & Portillo, 2009); introjection (Rowland-Klein & Dunlop, 1998); and unconscious channels (Pickering, 2012).
This comes back to meeting clients where they are, taking time to listen, taking the time to explore the support they need, and how this support furthers the goals they are seeking. It is about gaining an understanding of a client’s experiences of trauma and in turn helping the client understand how this trauma is impacting their life. It is about sitting down with a client to discuss their hopes, dreams, and fears, and assessing potential opportunities and any limitations. Finally, it is about creating a plan of action together with the client to best reflect the person's safety concerns, their goals, and their pathways to those goals. This will drive the delivery of services and provision of ongoing support in a victim-centered and trauma-informed way.
If you or a loved one are experiencing human trafficking, you are not alone.
Strong Hearts Native Helpline and the National Human Trafficking hotline are available 24/7 to listen. All conversations over phone, text, and online chat are confidential and anonymous.
- Strong Hearts Native Helpline - 1-844-7NATIVE (762-8483) is a 24/7 safe, confidential, and anonymous domestic, dating and sexual violence helpline for American Indians and Alaska Natives, offering culturally appropriate support and advocacy.
- National Human Trafficking Hotline - 1-888-373-7888, text "BeFree" (233733), or live chat at humantraffickinghotline.org.
During your conversations, if you desire, you may receive referrals to state or local resources.