F.R.E.E: The challenges, rewards and lessons learned building a comprehensive program to support sex trafficking survivors

F.R.E.E: The challenges, rewards and lessons learned building a comprehensive program to support sex trafficking survivors

F.R.E.E: The challenges, rewards and lessons learned building a comprehensive program to support sex trafficking survivors

Makayla Sinkovich is a licensed social worker, that has a passion for working directly with human trafficking survivors. She has built her career around research and education on anti-trafficking work. Makayla is based out of Toledo, Ohio where there is overwhelming evidence of human trafficking throughout the state and services are greatly needed. She plans to continue her education and become a trauma therapist in order to enhance the range of supportive services she can provide to survivors. 

When I applied at The University of Toledo (UT) it was with the specific hope of working with the Human Trafficking and Social Justice Institute (HTSJI), while achieving my goal of a master’s degree in social work. I was aware of the Institute and the work they do not only in our community here in Toledo, but internationally, due to my undergraduate study. When I began my master study, I heard about a new program being started by Celia Williamson called the F.R.E.E (Foundation, Readiness, Education, Employment) Program in partnership with the ECMC Foundation. Human trafficking can have a profound and lasting impact on an individual’s ability to obtain employment and thrive. Dr Williamson is a distinguished professor of social work at the University of Toledo, studying human trafficking and prostitution as well as hosting the oldest and largest international academic human trafficking conference in the world*. Dr. Williamson had identified a lack of comprehensive, wholistic support services for survivors of human trafficking and wanted to create a single program to address this gap. Working with LaDonna Knabbs, Project Coordinator at HTSJI, they began the work to get the program off the ground. Like many others I have been privileged to work with in my career, LaDonna recognized survivors’ potential to achieve economic and psychological freedom and empowerment when given survivor centered, comprehensive support. I immediately wanted to be a part of the groundbreaking work LaDonna was doing to provide this complete foundation to survivors. Over the next nine months I began working with the F.R.E.E Program as an intern, learning the ins and outs of the program, watching as it grew from concept to reality. This included helping tackle the challenges COVID brought to continuing this type of hands-on survivor support. Today I am thrilled to be working directly with LaDonna and the team helping with program development and monitoring the progress of survivors through each step. 

F.R.E.E has been up and running for three years now and provides scholarships and supportive services to survivors from all over the U.S. One aspect of the F.R.E.E. Program that makes it unique in terms of survivor services, is that it doesn’t just provide educational scholarships and employment opportunities for local and non-local survivors of human trafficking. If awarded a scholarship, F.R.E.E. offers a comprehensive network of support, so survivors can make the most of the scholarships and employment opportunities offered through the program. This includes community referrals, academic support and activities designed to build community amongst survivors and help them identify their own strengths as they move forward to pursue their educational and career goals. I am very passionate about this work with survivors. Creating rapport and trust is crucial to working together, and I love that I am part of building that trust network for survivors. Working together, myself, LaDonna, and the survivors create paths that connect them to their goals and help them become successful in overcoming educational and career barriers. 

The F.R.E.E. program is specifically designed for survivors of sex trafficking, which includes labor trafficking as a component of human trafficking. As most people know, human trafficking is the use of force, fraud, or coercion to get another person to provide labor of some type, and commercial sex can fall under this category. Any instance in which an individual engages in a commercial sex act (such as prostitution) as the result of force, fraud, or coercion, is considered sex trafficking. Sex trafficking also includes the commercial sexual exploitation of children or minors (commonly abbreviated as CSEC) and in these cases it is ALWAYS considered trafficking due to the victim being a minor. It is important to know that forced labor can occur within any form of labor or services, and this includes sex work as a form of forced labor. People who have been victims of sex trafficking, once free from forced labor, often have other needs that need to be addressed for them to succeed in healing and finding a next step. That is why F.R.E.E. was designed with four phases, (1) Foundation (2) Readiness (3) Education, and (4) Employment.  The acronym signifies survivors’ potential to achieve economic and psychological freedom and empowerment. Survivors of sex trafficking apply to the program, and if they meet the qualifications, they will enter the program and be awarded a one-time scholarship to help cover tuition/certification costs for a course of study they choose, that will be guided by F.R.E.E. team members.  

There are four phases to determining eligibility for the program while practicing Trauma Informed Care (TIC). Phase I screens’ survivors for their readiness and preparedness for school. Screening includes assessing their psychological, emotional, and intellectual maturity for school. It doesn’t work to provide scholarships if the applicant is not yet in the right mental space to maintain the discipline and focus needed to study and achieve success. This aspect is vital, as we don’t want to overwhelm, trigger, or even set up survivors for failure. The assessment is done with the help of Theresa Flores, a licensed Social Worker with a Master’s in Counseling Education who facilitates a survivors’ “Journey of Grace” weekend retreat approximately four times a year. 

The Journey of Grace retreats are specifically designed for trafficked survivors. It is the only weekend, therapeutic program offered completely free of charge to women who have endured domestic sex trafficking. If qualifying survivors are outside Ohio and expenses are a barrier, Theresa covers the cost of their travel and stay, enabling all program participants to enjoy the retreat. The weekend aims to work with the deep seeded issues of trauma associated with trafficking through mind, body, and soul activities. The activities are evidence based and include the therapeutic needs of survivor’s mental health as well as personal recommendations for helping survivors heal. The weekend utilizes survivor leaders to help survivors move past their life-long hurts and is designed to unlock the complexities of trauma to better understand the mental health needs of each individual survivor. Attendees learn the value of “play”, how to make healthy choices, how to access their “inner child”, engage in trust exercises with each other, and talk about how to have healthy relationships. The retreat is an important part of the program as it lets us assess the survivors’ readiness for the rest of the program. Based on their experience, we help guide them in moving on to the next step in the program or support them in considering if this program is the right next step for them at this time. In some instances, other services may better address what their most immediate needs may be, rather than entering a course of study. 

In Phase II, survivors that successfully complete Phase I, are accepted and move forward to the Readiness and Resources. To be involved in this component, student survivors must also be involved in trauma informed counseling, receiving continued psychological support service. This aspect is self-funded or linked with their insurance. If they have not received treatment in the past, they must be open to receiving services that they can seek out on their own or with help from F.R.E.E. In Phase II survivors officially enter the program and are eligible for a scholarship, after they complete Phase II.  Phase III, the Education component begins with identifying survivor skills, talents and passions, and completing the paperwork for their application. Based on each survivor’s desires and needs, the Program Coordinator helps each local or long-distance survivor find a suitable program that is the right fit for them. Upon the completion of the Readiness program and the enrollment in their selected program, each survivor may receive a one-time tuition only scholarship.  While survivors are enrolled in the program, they have the option to participate in Phase IV Employment. The Job Coach, helps survivor’s in obtaining employment in their career field. This includes creating resumes, obtaining interviews, finding appropriate clothing, learning soft skills, applying for jobs in their chosen fields, and troubleshooting problems or issues so that survivors are truly set up for success. 

The COVID-19 pandemic created increased challenges around the issue of sex trafficking and on our ability to implement the program for survivors. For sex trafficking in general, the pandemic led to increased vulnerability for many. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime found that during the pandemic, the dramatic increases in unemployment and reductions in income due to the pandemic, meant that significant numbers of people who were already vulnerable to trafficking found themselves in even more precarious circumstances. This was especially true for low wage and informal sector workers.

For the F.R.E.E. program, in person aspects had to be rethought and adjustments made to accommodate virtual support, meetings and interviews. Instead of in-person retreats, the program had to switch to online presentations. And all this while trying to maintain strong and effective relationship building and mental health support. We began utilizing communication via Zoom and email and rethought how services were delivered. Being flexible during this time had its challenges but it also had rewards. It forced us to find ways of staying in contact with survivors while keeping everyone safe from exposure, leading to increased capacity and options for program delivery as we moved forward. Mental health challenges, along with increased financial and living hardships during the pandemic, made it more difficult to keep survivors enrolled in the program. Alternatives have now been put in place to help survivors keep moving towards their education and career goals. It became clearer than ever that one size cannot fit all and that there was no one formula that would keep everyone on track, with or without the pandemic. Constant and regular communication between our program, universities, case managers, etc, were paramount to keeping survivors on track as well as being flexible and keeping an open mind on how to achieve our needs. Through this process, change became a common occurrence, eventually leading to innovative, successful improvements of the F.R.E.E. program, and enhancing our services to survivors overall.

However, throughout all the changes many existing barriers have yet to disappear. As an administrator for the program, I consistently face issues like:

  • overcoming communication barriers intensified by COVID-19
  • proscriptive requirements for tuition-based scholarship, 
  • outdated processes for scholarships disbursement,
  • ensuring each survivor meets the program milestones to secure success 

From a survivor perspective, ongoing barriers look more like:

  • having adequate stable housing, 
  • finding and staying engaged in trauma informed therapy, 
  • building trust and communication with formal and informal support networks, 
  • securing access to resources needed to communicate program requirements,
  • financial and logistical resources for other living/career needs

There have even been times where we at the program unintentionally created barriers by trying to make the program stronger. We have come to realize that the need to keep changing procedures and transforming our way of doing things won’t end with the pandemic. It is an ongoing process requiring new road maps as we learn more about what works and as the landscape of helping sex trafficking survivors continues to evolve and change.

Our organization works hard to minimize barriers and work through all the different aspects of the journey to success for survivors. As an organization that is known and respected internationally, we have been connected to local and national resources from the design phase. But in order to provide the most comprehensive and individualized support for our participants, we have to constantly be on the hunt for new services, current best practice and become better acquainted with the type of support existing organizations have to offer. This process can be rewarding but also overwhelming, combining education, research and advocacy for survivors with the struggle and desire to do more than current resources and staff numbers allow. With a small team, it is easy to overload beyond our capacity and with such a successful program, things can (and do!) fall through the cracks. 

Working directly with survivors has enhanced my understanding of the barriers they face and the effect those barriers can have on how they move forward. But I have been continually blown away by the strength, resilience, and perseverance I witness on a daily basis working for the F.R.E.E Program. I have a front row seat as survivors figure out and achieve their next step. Challenges like the pandemic will continue to arise for both F.R.E.E. and for survivors. The beautiful thing about F.R.E.E., is that we will overcome them or keep trying new solutions until we do, just like the survivors we work with. Given the opportunity, survivors can thrive when provided the help they need to heal as well as the support to move forward in their life. I am thankful to be part of an organization, working with a program coordinator, that is dedicated each day to helping transition survivors into thrivers.

For questions about the F.R.E.E. Program you can contact HTSJI.FREEprgm@Utoledo.edu.

*You can attend the 19th Annual International Human Trafficking & Social Justice Conference hosted virtually this September 21-23, 2022. This will be the HTSJI’s largest conference to date with over 110 live breakout sessions. The sessions will also be available as on-demand webinars for registered attendees to view up to 3 weeks after the conference. You can hear from over 175 expert presenters, including researchers, survivors, healthcare professionals, lawyers, direct service providers, activists, and more, discuss various topics in the anti-trafficking and social justice fields. Learn, connect, and collaborate with thousands of attendees and presenters from all over the world. 

Attendees can also earn up to 12 Continuing Education Credits for social work, counseling, marriage & family therapy, chemical dependency, developmental disabilities, occupational therapy, public health, health education, nursing, and law. 

Learn more and register here.

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