“An era of human rights, reason, justice, fairness, there is none of that so long as the most vulnerable, the most desperate, are exploited, chewed up by the global economy and spit out when there’s nothing left to chew.” – Siddharth Kara
I am a licensed social worker in New York City. I work with youth who experience commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) and domestic sex trafficking. My clients are 12-18 years old, and often, their abuse and exploitation started when they were younger: eight, eleven, ten, five. I first started working on the issue of the domestic sex trafficking in 2013 at The Covering House in St. Louis, followed by an internship in the human trafficking division at the U.S Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of Missouri. Now, I advocate in the family courts in the five boroughs of New York as an advocacy coordinator for Girls Educational and Mentoring Services. Before 2013, I spent five years in the anti-violence field on issues of campus sexual assault and rural domestic violence. I train on vicarious trauma; I practice self-care. But the work still changes me, forever and irreparably. There is only so much I can protect myself. I don’t mind. The pain I feel is only an eighth of the pain felt by the young survivors I currently serve, homeless, abused, runaway, vulnerable lost in a system that will take an army to fix. This blog post is compiled of pieces of journal entries from 2013-2015 reflecting both on the effects of CSE work, as well as the desperate need for change. It’s not to portray personal martyrdom for the cause but rather to offer a glimpse into personal thoughts about doing trauma work in an oppressive world.
As long as you can handle chaos, disruption, paperwork, uncertainty and relax into the eternal flow of lives and needs and hands that push and grab, you will be fine. There is no one way to do it right. There is just you, human, lifting your voice everyday – even if it just means making a phone call, faxing a form, giving a kid a pack of skittles and asking them how they’re doing… I got to believe these are the tasks that add up, and I’m pretty sure all I’ve got to do is fight and keep caring.
I cannot swallow, or I can, but I cannot wholly feel and there’s a non-reaction I have to things now where my head simply feels fuzzy, fogged, and like there’s a vibration interrupting the normal sensation of being present, able to react. Five criminal U.S. attorneys and two FBI agents and we’re working through a case for three hours, and I’m locked in, in the best way, listening to every word, engaged, and we plow through the details: battered toes (they took a hammer), smells (wads of rotting gauze in her vaginal cavity), burns (they pour chemicals on her body and use a blow torch) until the attorneys are all back to wishing the pimp would accept a plea bargain. But someone needs to pay. I come home to say, I’m OK, and when my roommate talks about daily life, I’m watching a girl get burned alive and another strangled with a tube sock, and I don’t feel like I can hear anyone else or care. How do I remain in the “petty” world and do this work?
If I unpack the days, I unravel the most mind-boggling exhaustion that comes from doing work that doesn’t belong in the ‘real’ world. It is too dark and desperate for people to understand, and I feel like I am stepping between time zones, a warped bubble, every time I leave work. There are two worlds that exist side-by-side every day. The things we see that we couldn’t explain… you couldn’t know unless you saw it, too.
She was so matter-of-fact, packing her bags in the middle of the office. A 17-year-old with no place to go. Her third shelter in two months, and she was separating clothes into an overnight bag like she’s done this her whole life, which she has. Strength has a numbness to it. She cries sometimes, tells me, “I’m tired of doing this alone.” I’m so sad from seeing her alone, I cry too, later, at night. There’s a brokenness that she pulls together with bravado. We’re not meant to cry this hard. Or maybe we are. I want to sew the homeless shelters into a quilt and give her a hearth to throw it on. I’d like to see the world turn into a yellow brick road and lead her into “possible,” “real,” “home,” “forever,” “safe.” I know there are steps in between and a darkness to the waiting, a fight in the quiet hours… but I didn’t know my heart could break this hard for someone else, and I’m torn apart tonight.
I don’t want to talk about my job when a neighbor stops to visit. There’s a blandness to my tongue when I cut-and-dry the raw, the salt, and spell it out for people. The reactions are always the same: sympathetic, interested, shocked. They murmur how it must be hard, rewarding, meaningful. I affirm because I’m tired, and this is not what I want to be talking about. Over coffee is not the place for child rape and a teenager’s tears. I’m not going to unravel the fury of advocacy against a brutal system. I’m not going to shake out my terrors, the comfort zone I’ve lost, and say how I’m living every day pretending I know what I’m doing when, really, I’m just finding an audacity I didn’t know I had. I’m pushing my palms against doors and kicking at door frames. I’m telling myself to use my voice to scream and shout. This is the voice the child needs. She had no one to speak for her and, still, no one. Be the voice. Be the voice.
I’m surrounded by brave girls. They live so beautifully, something fierce. I’ve got a mother’s heart the way I love them, and they tell me their stories into the evening in the Bronx, and I’ll never be humbled enough. Every time I could kneel down and pray. They are the stars in my eyes, something crazy, changing my life. I will forever be grateful and amazed that this is what I get to do with my days.
She just holds onto me and sobs on the park bench on the east side of Jackie Robinson Park. I say nothing until she lets go a little and the tears that spilled down drain only slowly, now. I say, “I’m sorry, sorry, sorry. It’s not your fault.” She looks with broken heartedness in her eyes at me, at me, at me, and tears spill heavy and fresh, again: “Where were you when I was raped? Where were you when I was out prostituted? Where were you?” her voice cracks in a damp plea to her father who abandoned her then blamed her.
It hovers along my days the rest of the week. I hold it in the sadness of my chest, a gentle echo that hums the deep melancholy of being human and broken in this world. Where were you?
Another comes over to my desk, and I can tell she’s upset but when I ask her what’s wrong, she doesn’t speak until the tears spill, and she says, “I got a disturbing phone call,” and I pull her into a counseling room, so she cries freely and tells me her mother is dying of AIDS. I say, “I’m sorry, sorry, sorry.”
A third texts me, “I need your help” and then disappears. So, I am on the phone with police until 3 A.M when they finally find her, and I tell her, “I was worried” in the relieved half-scold, half-hug of finding a child alive after you’ve imagined the worst. The police sergeant drives over the bridge talking to me at 2 A.M and there’s a companionship in being the only two awake looking for a missing 16-year-old in Manhattan on an April night. I’ll always be relieved when I see these teenagers jubilant and childish and smiling in the moments of safety—the refreshing moments.
Otherwise, I’m walking through St. Nicholas Park at 8pm on a Friday night, thinking, “Right now, anything could happen” and I’m on-call all night again because a fourth is still missing, and some aggressive man answered her phone, and a detective found her backpage ad, so I’m worried, and it’s Friday and I’m at my computer trying not to cry. I am praying to God that another child finds safety tonight. And all we have is Hail Mary’s in a world that terrifies our humanity so.
What is this darkness? How horrifying have society’s own taste buds become that we can stomach the rape and disappearances and trauma of so many young people every day all over and do so little? People become numb and selfish and write rules to exonerate themselves, reduce their personal responsibility for the very real tragedy of our flawed system, our broken world. They go to sleep at night. I talk to a police officer in the middle of the night about how no one cares. I’m saying, “Everyone’s trying to pass the buck” and he says, “Of course. No one gives a shit but us.” Then, it all becomes OK because I’m thinking about the rest of the world I once knew, the ignorant, blissful world that rests and doesn’t struggle and suffer the way many girls suffer, and I’m grateful. Not to be ignorant. Not to be blissful. To be awake in the middle of the night on the phone with a detective who’s driving over a bridge, joking. We’re in the trauma, hers, trying to do something to help, and he says “I mostly work nights anyway,” even though he left an obligation in Staten Island to answer my call, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else or know any less. I’d like to suffer just a fraction, if she could be safe, so she could be less alone. When we find her later, she tells me, “It’s nice to know someone cared.”