Lincoln and Jenny Smith
“Aww, are you crying? Do you need a hug?”
These are the words coming from 14-year-old Tessa*, spoken to her foster mom as they walked out of church last night. I was moved because this is a girl who 6 months ago was being trafficked on the streets, escorted from motel to motel, sold for sex to strangers each night. This is a child who has experienced unmentionable trauma and pain. Every relationship she’s ever known since birth has been dysfunctional and hurtful. She has every right to recoil at the thought of touching another person. No one would blame her for wanting to crawl into a closet and cry herself to sleep, far away from any other human being. Yet here she is, attuned to the pain of another person, empathetic towards the emotions of her foster mom. It might seem like a benign comment, but it’s a key indicator that this traumatized girl is healing.
Today thousands of children are being sold for sex right here in the United States. Thirteen-year-old girls are marketed online and delivered to motel rooms to service men old enough to be their fathers. Children who should be listening to the latest pop sensation with their friends and giggling while learning to put on make-up are instead learning how to properly pleasure a man.
The majority of kids sucked into commercial sex trafficking come from single-parent homes, abusive and neglectful homes, state care (foster or group homes), or they are runaways living on their own or with friends or other families.
In other words, when families are unhealthy and broken, kids are vulnerable to exploitation.
If we recognize that vulnerable children are being sold for sex in our communities and we choose to engage the issue, we must answer the question, “What is the best way to help these children heal?”
Sarah’s Home is a long-term safe home located in Colorado Springs for juvenile girls rescued out of the forced commercial sex trade in the U.S. Our restoration program includes therapy sessions 3 times a week. Two teachers are in the home each day working one-on-one with the girls to bring them up to speed with their education. We have a small group of mentors that work with the girls on empowering activities. Right now at Sarah’s Home, we have one home that is up and running with 3 girls and their foster mom. Our second home will be ready to open as soon as we find the right fit for a second foster mom (or foster couple.) Each home is licensed for 4 girls, allowing us to help 8 kids.
The path to healing for our girls is exceptionally complicated and multi-faceted. But at the heart of each necessary healing element are relationships; relationships with family, friends, community, faith, education, etc.
At Sarah’s Home we have learned that trauma happened in the context of broken relationships, and healing will happen in the context of healthy relationships.**
Before you gloss over that concept, pause and think about it.
Healing comes from relationships.
If you accept that premise, you have to then ask, “Who is going to have a healing relationship with this child?” Is it going to be the night shift worker at the state run detention center or group home? Is it going to be the social worker or parole officer? Is it going to be their teacher or coach or neighbor? All of these are important relationships for the child. But these people all have one thing in common, they go home at the end of the day or at the end of their shift, and the child is left alone yet again. By necessity these relationships end up being compartmentalized and shallow because a child can’t be emotionally close to someone who is not present with them.
This is why we choose to run Sarah’s Home as a foster home. One of our core values is that we want our girls to learn to build healthy relationships. Our foster mom works hard to build relationships that prove that the girls are worth loving through the good and the bad, the pretty and the ugly. Our girls need a person who is willing to listen to their pain and endure their defense mechanism of lashing out at those around them; a person that can experience their anger and their hurt without recoiling.
The girls are longing for unconditional love and this only happens if you are present . . . a lot. Present when she is crying in her closet, when nightmares keep her awake at night, when she is getting her STD report at the doctor, when she discovers she is actually 3 years behind where she thought she was in school. The same person needs to experience all that with her, and still love her. And then that same person also gets to experience the straight A’s in school that are the fruit of diligent studying, the thrill of learning to bake her first cake, the joy of completing her first long hike, and the confidence that comes from testifying against her trafficker in court.
Because she’s been through the good and the bad with the girls, it’s the foster mom that gets to hear the words, “Aww, are you crying? Do you need a hug?”
* Name changed to protect the child’s identity.
** Our friend, mentor, and colleague, Debi Grebenik was instrumental in teaching us this philosophy. Learn more at: http://www.traumatraininginstitute.com