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Simply mentioning that they don’t have access to health care or money might be a clue that someone might be a victim of human trafficking, according to Counselor Mary Landerholm.
“If they say, `I’m living on this rural farm and we don’t get access to health care with my job,’” Landerholm said. “OK, that’s different: I need to know more about that. Now, I know someone is not providing workers comp and they are in a rural area where they may be cut off from other people. If they don’t get access to health care for some time and their employer tells them not to go in, oh boy. We’ve got something funky happening.”
Landerholm helped the Community Reach Center draft a training program for all of its staff to help identify potential victims of trafficking and get them help. The training isn’t aimed at just the professional counselors or social workers but for everyone that might talk to another person — including receptionists and telephone operators.
“As an intake person, I am able to let my team in the back know something is going on while I continue to have a conversation,” Landerholm said.
Human trafficking, for sex work or any other kind, is just a new name for slavery and it’s been a part of human culture as long as human culture has existed, Landerholm said.
She sees awareness about the problem, especially among health care and mental health organizations like the Community Reach Center, as a potential solution.
“Law enforcement and prosecutors have to stay in their lane,” she said. “They just want to get the bad guy, who cares if the victim is freaking out or has to be deported?”
That leaves room for a more gentle approach, she thinks, one that starts the moment a person walks into a Community Reach office or talks to a receptionist.
“We’ve been trying the hammer approach for a long time,” Landerholm said. “We are not going to arrest our way out of this.”
Landerholm’s experience as a social worker helped her draft the curriculum for the program, but the time she spent locked away, a victim of trafficking herself, is what really gave her insight.
Escaping to Colorado
When Mary Landerholm escaped to Denver in 2005 on a Greyhound bus, the concept of “human trafficking” was really just beginning.
“I started college in 2006 and it wasn’t until 2012 that I was given language about my experience,” said Landerholm, a consulting social worker who works with the Community Reach Center.
“To be able to talk about where I was showing up in the system and often being misidentified or being called something else,” she said. “People were not asking the questions we know now need to be asked, how could my life have been different. So how could I give back to folks now? I believe today that if I encountered law enforcement that I would be treated very differently now than I was.”
The Chicago religious-based organization she’d gone to for help offered her and others like her treatment for drug addiction in exchange for work. They were expected to sign up for food stamps and other public benefit programs, which the program operators confiscated.
“There were 13 of us kept in a basement in the south side of Chicago,” she said. “We went around and put fliers on doors but didn’t have food or money or access to a phone. We were forced to work, young women who had substance-use issues, all as a way to save us using religious doctrine to support the cure.”
Her handlers kept her identification, so interstate travel was difficult and impossible on an airplane.
“My mother had moved here about five years before that, so I took a Greyhound and she picked me up at the bus station,” she said.
She’d thought of herself as a criminal up to that point, an outsider on the skirting edge of society. Her education as a social worker changed that perspective.
“What I did back in 2005 was considered public benefit fraud at the time,” she said. “I think today, if I encountered law enforcement — I think — I would be treated very differently than I was then.”
Stop, Observe, Ask, Respond
It’s the first successful program in the country, sponsored by the federal National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Center, a part of the federal Department of Health and Human Services. Community Reach was one of two pilot programs, but the second one — based in Boston — never got off the ground.
Landerholm worked with the Denver-based Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking until April of this year, when she went into private practice. She also teaches classes on human trafficking at Metropolitan State University.
Landerholm said she began working with the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Center to develop trafficking awareness training. It was built on the federal SOAR to Health and Wellness Act, signed by President Donald Trump on Dec. 31, 2018.
The act lets care providers like the Community Reach Center refer trafficking victims to other agencies to get help and encourages providers to draw up a curriculum to help their staff recognize and help potential victims.
At its most basic, it relies on the acronym SOAR, teaching care professionals, police and anyone else encountering a potential victim to Stop, Observe, Ask and Respond.
“It helps us understand the nature and the scope of the issue and see some of the nuances in the folks they are working with,” she said.
Trafficking victims can be frightened or worried about getting hurt by their handlers, so it’s a delicate situation. The course teaches health care professionals how to ask questions without interrogating the potential victim and then offer resources.
Elaine Fisher, the project lead for Community Reach, the organization has already included some of those questions into the normal intake process.
Fisher said the partnership has put the mental health agency into a whole new world.
“It introduced us to new relationships, putting us at the table with the FBI and (the Colorado Department of Human Services), and really let us step up and be a leader with all that,” Fisher said. “I feel like we are new to the movement, but we’ve already done some great things and we have already seen some amazing outcomes.”
Community Reach has presented four modules. The first is a basics course on how health professionals should respond to suspected trafficking victims. Others teach how to recognize the kinds of trauma that trafficking victims suffer and getting around cultural and linguistic barriers.
“For example, a trauma nurse treating a broken arm might see on the X-ray that it’s been broken multiple times,” Landerholm said. “I might start to ask: `Hey, this looks like a repeated injury. Is it part of your work?’ We are going to use that to help treat the person, but we want to be able to get more information.”
At least 81 Community Reach employees have taken the first class, with 51 taking subsequent classes.
Landerholm sees the training going well beyond Community Reach. For example, she recounted the story of a young girl who sold sex to get food for her family. One time, she visited a food bank at her Colorado high school and talked to the person working there.
“She said `she didn’t feel like selling sex tonight, but we don’t have any food,’ “ Landerholm said. “That conversation started to unravel and it went to a mental health professional in the school.”
The final step, Respond, is almost as crucial. It involves getting the victims out of the situation, which can mean finding them a safe place to live, food, education or a normal job.
“And unfortunately, those are the very things the trafficker provides,” Landerholm said. “How can we do better and provide the things the trafficker is doing?”
Some times it can involve helping them get citizenship.
“The trafficker tells people that they will be deported if they don’t do exactly as they say,” she said. “It’s why we have migrant-refugee settlements that will not contact law enforcement — I don’t care what’s happening. They have no trust in the system and that gives the traffickers a golden ticket.”
It’s why the Community Reach Center’s role matters.
“How can I tell people that are undocumented that they can trust CRC?” Landerholm said. “That’s going to be key to the relationship going forward.”
“We have these beautiful evidence-based services, once we get them there,” she said. “But we have to get them there.”
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