Adelphoi Shines a Light on Human and Sex Trafficking
By Abby Pratt
Adelphoi, a non-profit organization based in Latrobe that serves at risk-youth and families, has a strong history of serving individuals from a variety of communities, backgrounds, and situations. Over the past several years, this has included a significant number of youth, in particular girls, who have been victims of human and child sex trafficking.
Child sex trafficking, by definition, is the exchange of something of value, such as money, drugs, food, housing, love or belonging, for a sex act with a youth under 18. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, Pennsylvania ranks twelfth in the nation for most reported cases of human trafficking, with 221 human trafficking cases were reported in PA in 2020. Sadly, the National Institute of Justice relates that the actual number of cases far exceeds those reported.
According to Shannon Smith, unit director at Middle Creek Female, one of Adephoi’s secure facilities, “Many of our youth who are victims of trafficking come from broken homes, struggling communities… they’re vulnerable.” Youth who have been trafficked are easily lured into their situations because it feels like a form of protection; someone to take care of them with the promise of money, shelter, or escapism.
Anna Welts, senior counselor at Middle Creek Female, echoes this sentiment. “For a lot of the girls that come to us, they’re a product of their environment. They grew up in a high risk environment, knowing only that way of life, or they grew up needing money to support themselves.”
Smith and Welts recall the story of one of the girls in their program whom they refer to as ‘Emily.’ Like many girls who have been sex trafficked, the documented details of her trafficking were scarce. “When she arrived, she described giving birth to undocumented children that she had on her trafficker’s bed,” Smith recalls. During her time at Adelphoi, Emily described ‘camps’ throughout her community where the same man or ‘pimp’ would father multiple girls in hotel rooms or their own homes.
Perhaps surprising to those who are unfamiliar with the patterns of sex trafficking victims, this specific victim’s story involved various serious crimes. “Once we got to know Emily, we uncovered a lot of the details. Her mom was a sex trafficking victim who grew up in this same environment, working for the same pimp.” Of her mother’s twelve children, all the girls were then raised to be involved in trafficking, as well as abused by their brothers. As in a lot of these situations, Smith explains that the children were all “highly sexualized and desensitized to what was happening.”
Smith and Welts recall the struggles of working with not only Emily, but her family as well. “We realized her pimp was in on some of the phone calls we made with her mom,” Welts says.
In addition being victims of trafficking, girls like Emily tend to hit a ‘flipping point,’ becoming traffickers themselves. “They become trusted enough, dependent enough, that they are the ones whose job it is to now go out and grab new girls,” Smith explains. “Emily flipped, so she became responsible for trafficking girls for her pimp.” Eventually, through treatment and therapy sessions, Smith and Welts found Emily opening up about the truth of her story. She became engaged in her treatment once she crossed over that defensive threshold, even becoming helpful to staff in the unit and a mentor to some of the younger or newer girls. “She took on a big sister role,” Smith says.
But the reality of a different future hit home when it was time for her to leave the unit. “She regressed,” Smith remembers, “and she was ready to get out of here regardless.” Welts remembers that Emily was given the opportunity to go to another program after discharge, a program that was more self-paced, that would help her transition back into society and away from environments like the one she was trafficked in. “She went back and forth with it,” says Welts, “She was really excited to go, and then she would say, ‘No, I need to go home and take care of my mom.’” She wrestled with wanting a fresh start for herself and wanting to go back to what she has always known, Welts shared. Eventually, she chose the latter.
MENTAL, PHYSICAL AND EMOTIONAL DESTRUCTION
Trauma from being trafficked typically manifests in the form of mental, physical, and emotional destruction. Smith describes the first signs of this trauma in girls as “defensiveness about what they were doing. [They’ll] pump their chests out, tell me ‘I was the one doing it, I had these girls follow me.’ They turn themselves from victim to their version of victorious.” Smith says the second biggest sign is lying. “It’s a defense mechanism,” says Smith. “They’re told not to talk about it.” This makes treatment harder for employees like Smith or Welts, who liken the false storytelling to a puzzle. The first few months of narratives from the girls tend not to be true. It takes time and effort to piece everything together.
Smith notes that the girls often present in the unit as aggressive at first, wanting to appear tough in front of the girls who are already in the unit. “They gravitate towards the stronger ones,” Welts says, yet another way to avoid any indication that they were victims. When the girls exhibit resistance and defensiveness, treatment is a challenge. But Adelphoi staff understand the value of persistence. “It’s consistently holding them accountable every day,” Welts says, “They know we’re not going to break.” She also explains that reassurance of safety is key in treatment. “Showing them that they’re in a safe environment and they don’t need to have that hard exterior anymore helps a lot. Once we break down that exterior, they become immersed in their treatment.”
Smith explains that everything the girls knew prior to coming to the unit was the opposite of safe. They never knew where meals were coming from, where they were sleeping, who was trying to contact them. Smith works with her team at Middle Creek to create safety, saying, “Everything we do step by step throughout the day creates an atmosphere of consistency and safety, so once they’re able to relax into that, the rest falls into place.”
TELLING THE TRUTH
Smith explains that for most victims of trafficking, a day that eventually comes where their stories don’t align with the stories they’ve told before and they finally tell the truth. Once there is a confirmation of human trafficking from the victims, Adelphoi begins the process of working to keep them safe after discharge. “At that point, we’ll contact the FBI, and they might send Homeland Security, depending on state lines.” This allows those organizations to work toward finding, arresting and prosecuting the pimps that had trafficked them.
For victims of trafficking, this begins a long and difficult road that does not always end successfully. Smith emphasizes that it’s challenging for girls to return where they were trafficked and were trafficking. “They can’t be left to their own devices,” she says. Welts agrees. “They need meetings with therapists, schedules for the week, and for the kids that never finished high school, they should be going to school daily. It’s really easy for them to fall through the cracks, because they don’t want to go to school, and sometimes there’s no one there to tell them to go.” “Sometimes just addressing that they have trauma isn’t enough,” Smith explains, “because the girls are so desensitized that they don’t really care. They need to know what fun is and that they’re allowed to have it. They’ve had no normal life experiences.”
The age that a child becomes involved in trafficking can have a bearing on the outcome. “The younger girls are a little bit more at risk,” Welts says. “They have more time to go back and get deeper into it. These older girls, seventeen or eighteen years old, they take really well to the treatment, but it’s really easy for them to snap back into that mentality if they go back to their community, because it’s just their life. Their formative years were spent doing that, so it’s just what they’re conditioned to do.” When the girl’s lives are not built around structure, everything tends to fall apart. “The problem lies in what they do after here,” says Smith. “It’s taking that mentoring and structure to the next level… it’s really important that we lay the foundation for that structure as much as we can before they leave.”
Despite challenges for youth who have been trafficked, there is help available. PA 211 has a 24-hour hotline that can connect victims with services including emergency shelter, food and clothing, legal support, housing, emotional support and counseling, immigration assistance, medical treatment and life skills reintegration.
IN OUR BACKYARD
Welts notes that there is a common misconception that trafficking only happens in large cities. “It’s here, it’s everywhere, it’s happening all around us. People think of it as only in movies or foreign countries, but it’s here. It’s not an abstract idea or a conspiracy theory.” Because of the undocumented status of some victims and the way their traffickers can move them across state lines, “we do not even know they are missing or gone,” Welts reflects. “The world just doesn’t know.”
According to Welts, there is much that can be done to raise awareness about human trafficking, and perhaps, prevent it from happening. “If you see something that you’re very unsure of in public,” Welts says, “like a teenage girl getting into a car of someone she doesn’t know well or some sort of odd behavior, it’s not going to hurt anything if you report that. If something comes from it, then you probably just saved someone’s life.” She notes, “The longer people deny that human trafficking is happening here, the less there will be done about it.”
Smith says that parents need to be educated on how to talk with their teenage girls. She notes its becoming more common that girls are taken from rural areas and moved to the city. “They can take a girl from Latrobe, and no one in Philadelphia knows who she is. That’s what’s scary,” Smith explains, “that it can happen that fast and easily.” “And with social media,” Welts adds, “it’s happening online as well.” The isolation of youth from their peers during COVID means youth are spending more time online, providing greater opportunity for traffickers to reach potential victims through a screen.
AWARENESS IS KEY
Youth often demonstrate outward signs that they are being trafficked. These include indications of physical or sexual abuse and neglect, appearing afraid to speak, anti-social or hyper-vigilant behavior, branding, or a secret phone or apps. Youth may also act submissive, withdrawn, nervous, unable to make eye contact or defiant, not able to give an address, or have run away and are recovered at a suspicious location (hotel, strip club, street).
Smith believes that it’s important to speak more openly about human and sex trafficking to help increase awareness. “Just making youth more aware of it is important, like ‘what could when you’re alone and people don’t know where you are?’ Consider the risks of being at parties, being drunk or high with people you don’t know.”
Ultimately, awareness is key. Familiarizing yourself with the signs of trafficking, educating yourself and others, and speaking out if you see something that looks uncomfortable or out of place are critical, Smith notes. Smith and Welts, along with those at Adelphoi who work closely with victims of human and sex trafficking believe that change is possible. Community awareness and better support of programs like Middle Creek will lead to better outcomes and brighter futures for vulnerable children in our communities.
Reports of human trafficking can be made to the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
Adelphoi provides a continuum of quality services to children, youth, and families from Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and Delaware. Headquartered in Latrobe, PA, our 650 staff provide help and hope to over 2,000 youth and families each year.