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The Cost of Caring for Survivors of Domestic Human Trafficking

October 04, 2016

Sex_traffickingThe problem of human trafficking in the United States is a relatively new issue. The Federal Strategic Action Plan was released in 2013 and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced the formation of the Office on Trafficking in Persons in 2015. Almost daily, however — particularly in major metropolitan areas — we are presented with news stories about the latest sex trafficking sting or labor trafficking violations involving manufacturing supply chains. Polaris Project has been reporting on legislative progress within the states for the past several years, and while there has been progress on the awareness-raising and legislative fronts, the landscape of victim services, and residential programs specifically, has been harder to quantify. Everyone seems to point to the growing number of victims and the need for "beds," but few understand what providing those beds entails.

In July 2016, through a grant from an anonymous donor, The Samaritan Women of Maryland, PATH of Arkansas, and Gracehaven of Ohio convened a group of almost two dozen service agencies with at least two years' experience serving victims of trafficking and more than twenty individuals representing start-up efforts on the campus of Wheaton College in Chicago. At that four-day summit, the above-mentioned agencies committed themselves to working together to improve information exchange, research, peer mentoring, and survivor referral through a modern-day "underground railroad." One of the things the group did was to establish a shared lexicon so as to better categorize each type of agency and the scope of services provided. Speaking the same language is the first step to improving the quality of survivor referrals.

There also was considerable conversation about funding. Most of the founders and executive directors represented were "called" to this work out of a passion for meeting the needs of the underserved, not because of their experience in nonprofit management or fundraising. As a result, the group's next action was to circulate a survey to any agency offering residential services with the goal of establishing an initial understanding of the funding landscape and the needs of organizations serving victims of trafficking. Sixteen agencies responded, with all but one providing long-term restorative care for victims of sex trafficking, whether minors or adults.

The report (13 pages, PDF) based on that survey offers some interesting data, including average organizational budget size, annual cost of care, and executive compensation levels. Notable findings include the fact that most of the nonprofit executives working in this area have gone without compensation for two years or more. The difference between cost of care for minors and adults also is significant — and may prove to be a barrier to entry for those who aspire to serve victims who are minors. Adult service providers, in contrast, have many more options for staffing, their largest budget line item. Last but certainly not least, many of these service providers would like the philanthropic community to take more notice of their work and are willing to do the education and awareness-raising needed to make that happen.

Efforts like this are important, given that our perceptions of trafficking tend to be colored by Hollywood depictions of sensationalized heroism and unimaginable violence, or our own tendencies to cover our eyes and say, "I don't want to know this exists in the world." Either way, we get a distorted picture of the problem, and that often leads to misguided ideas about the solution. Most of the agencies that participated in the survey will tell you this, however: the victims of trafficking require an array of services and lots of patient caring if they are to heal. The good news is that healing — for many of them — is possible.

Our survey also revealed that the agencies involved in this work need the support of funders to recruit and retain qualified people over the long haul. The philanthropic community needs to understand that their investment in this work is an investment in people, not only in outcomes, and that the hardest thing to measure is the impact a redeemed life has on the world. We just don't know. But philanthropists need to believe and accept that it is worth their time, effort, and money.

Jeanne_allert_for_PhilanTopicJeanne L. Allert is founder and executive director of The Samaritan Women, which has been providing residential care for adult female survivors of domestic sex trafficking since 2011.

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