Lessons Learned in Survivor Care

Preparing for the launch of the Grow Free TN safe house, we have spent countless hours examining the best practices of various service providers across the span of human trafficking, domestic violence, substance abuse—you name it. There have been times when I have found myself literally cross-eyed from reading through the vast amount of literature and policies regarding “effective” practices for safe houses and crisis shelters. Everyone seems to have an opinion, and my job has been to sift through the various program implementations and take a harder look at the measures of quality of each program.

Our intention is to create a program that is inclusive and accommodating to meet the demands of a population that has experienced myriad types of trauma and abuse. We want to create an environment that is welcoming and as far away from the “victim-pimp” dynamic as humanly possible. However, in addition to trauma-related nuances, we also feel it is important to consider the unique needs of survivors as individuals.

We have made posts recently about tackling the stereotypes of the “typical victim.” Case in point: there is no “typical.” Every survivor we encounter is a new person with a new identity. We focus on the individual as a WHOLE, not just the small part of themselves that may be the “victim” or that simply meets the criteria for being trafficked.

I like to think of myself as open-minded. I tend to exist within the “gray area” of thinking, which can be both an asset and an annoyance to others. Recently, I had a very humbling experience when I received a call from a new survivor. Okay, let’s face it—I was schooled. But I am truly thankful for this learning opportunity and the ability to apply the knowledge as we continue to create policy and procedure that meets our goal of inclusivity.

This particular individual described a significant degree of traumatic experiences and was in need of a place to go. Immediately, I collected some information and began the process of assisting in relocation. Locating shelter and housing can be a very difficult task—space is limited and always in high demand. Success often comes down to tactful negotiations and perfect timing. Specific shelters often cater to very specific sub-populations and have limited eligibility criteria, that never seems to be in your favor! My challenge this time: transgender identity.

Naively, I began making phone calls. Very quickly, I realized my challenge. Myself a supporter of the LGBTQQ population, I was ingenuously unprepared for the barrier I was to experience.

Of course, I was faced with the usual challenge of space availability, but I actually spoke with shelters who were simply unwilling or unable to accommodate “those specific needs.” To be honest, I was floored. And then I was defensive. And then I was angry. I began to expand my search and was thrilled when I finally spoke to an agency that was happy to help out. Excited, I called the survivor and shared the news. Graciously, she explained to me that although she was happy for the optimism, the specific placement I had found was not an appropriate fit. You see, the woman I spoke to was aware of this individual’s transgender identity (as I had fervently sought to advocate on her behalf) and she equally had no reservations assisting in relocation. What she failed to communicate with me however, was the fact that the particular area she was located in was far from LGBTQQ-friendly. Unknowingly, I had made arrangements to place this individual into an environment that potentially could have contributed to further exploitation of her vulnerability. You see, I had done due diligence to ensure the immediate environment would be accepting and accommodating, but I had failed to consider the long-term, bigger picture. How was this individual to focus on a FULL recovery, if she faced daily harassment and biased judgements from those around her? Cue the ball drop.

Humbly, I began to ask more questions of this survivor so that I would be able to better serve her individual needs and preferences. I listened with more intention and purpose. I was in no way the expert in this situation. We as service providers are never the experts. We have experience collecting resources and coordinating services, but we have none of the experience that each survivor possesses of their own individual story. Sometimes, it takes an experience like this to remind you that problem-solving is more than just a temporary solution to an acute problem.

In this instance, I was able to turn to the National Human Trafficking Resource Database and complete a query that included “transgender-friendly.” Although frustrated that this factor had to be outed and would potentially limit my search results, I was certainly relieved for this resource! We were able to identify resources that catered specifically to the personal identity of this individual, as a whole person, not as someone who had to “bend the rules” in order to fit into a narrow scope of eligibility criteria in order to obtain residence. Space availability was of course, still an issue, but now I was armed with the right questions to consider the path to a full recovery.


This article was written by Shantel Standefer, Director of Survivor Services. Shantel has been a part of the CCAHT since July 2017 and is a key player in the implementation of the new CCAHT safe house set to open in Spring 2018. Read more about Shantel here. 

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