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CS Training – Trafficking & Trauma

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Trafficking + Trauma

Trauma and the brain

What is trauma?

  • SAMHSA defines trauma as: the results from an event, series of events, or a set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening, and that has lasting, adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being
  • In simpler terms, trauma is extreme stress that overwhelms the ability to cope
  • The key to trauma is the individual’s perception of and capacity to respond to the event
  • Traumatic memories are not subject to simple conscious control, often cannot be searched for and produced like a regular autobiographical memory, and are not evoked at will, but are provoked by triggers/reminders of the event
  • Trauma is not a bad memory, it is a body memory
  • In addition to interpersonal trauma (from events the individual has experienced), it is also important to consider systemic (from the health care system, legal system, foster care, and mass incarceration – among others) as well as structural trauma (from gender, race, and poverty)

How does trauma impact the brain and memory development?

  • During a traumatic experience, the brain’s prefrontal cortex becomes temporarily impaired, and subsequently the experience becomes encoded as a traumatic memory making recall of the traumatic event highly affectively charged
  • Recall, either intentional or through inadvertent exposure to internal or external stimuli related to the trauma, leads to the release of stress hormones
  • The physiological effects of trauma can manifest far after the traumatic incident occurs as the amygdala does not always discriminate between real dangers and memory from a past dangerous situation
  • Triggers are situational or emotional stimuli that remind survivors of past traumatic events, and re-traumatization occurs when triggers induce the emotions and reactions associated with the original event.

What can trauma look like and mean for trafficking survivors?

  • Survivors of trafficking often experience complex trauma, which is the exposure to multiple traumatic events, often of an invasive, interpersonal nature, with wide-ranging and long-term effects
  • They also frequently experience poly-victimization, where they endure multiple types of victimization or community violence
  • Complex trauma changes how one thinks, what one thinks about, and the brain’s ability to store and make memories, experience healthy attachments, and develop trust
  • A sense of stability and security must be attained before the individual can be expected to engage constructively with any systems or services

What are some signs/indicators of trauma?

  • Avoidance
  • Distrust
  • Emotional detachment
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Anxiety
  • Hyper-vigilance,
  • Anger
  • Irritability

What are some signs/indicators of trauma?

  • Not telling the full story (survivors often only tell you what they think you need to know)
  • Lying
  • Changing the story over time
  • Recanting
  • Covering for her trafficker (be aware of trauma bonding)
  • Disappearing
  • Remember: Within a comfort zone, a client may seem engaged, well-related, healthy, and appropriate, but once novelty is introduced or a stressor is applied, behavior changes

Person-centered trauma-informed lawyering

The PCTI approach

  • PCTI legal services promote the dignity, strength, and empowerment of HT survivors by incorporating knowledge about the role of trauma in survivors’ lives into the attorney-client relationship and legal practice approach
  • A PCTI approach provides you with the knowledge and awareness necessary to prevent retraumatizing your clients, in other words, it enables you to meet clients where they are at and helps you to be more aware of (and therefore avoid) potential triggers
  • A PCTI approach also facilitates recognition of the way clients’ responses, behaviors, or decisions are related to trauma, and encourages you to modify your approach to accommodate clients’ sensitivities

The PCTI approach

  • Attorneys are traditionally trained to take emotions out of the equation when analyzing legal matters
  • PCTI acknowledges trauma’s continuing impact, adjusts the attorney-client relationship and legal strategy, and mitigates re-traumatization
  • PCTI includes characteristics intrinsic to all positive human relationships: empathy, responsive listening, restraint from judgment, and demonstration of authentic care and concern
  • PCTI connects clients’ behavior to a trauma response, not a character flaw
  • Often survivors have been failed by the legal system, so it is vital that we don’t reinforce their distrust

How to approach client interactions

Trauma-Informed Tips and Strategies

  • Imagine being defined by the most vulnerable moment(s) in your life
  • It is very difficult for clients to come to meetings with a lawyer or with anyone who they perceive to be in a position of power or where they feel like they may not have control of the situation
  • It may also be difficult for a client to come in and share their story and work on resolving it with someone if they have general feelings of hopelessness (nothing has ever gone well in my life, so why is this going to be different)
  • If you trigger someone, question what is making the person feel unsafe or out of control by actively listening, empathizing with the individual, and allow space for venting
  • Be aware of how questions can create judgment, shame, or re-traumatization
  • Be aware of your own biases
  • Be transparent with your clients about what you can/can’t do
  • Engage in self-care (you will be a better advocate for your client if you are taking care of yourself)
  • Create as many opportunities as possible for survivors to rebuild a sense of control
  • Promote survivor self-sufficiency
  • Be mindful of language (for example the term convict infers that the person did something wrong)
  • Instead of asking what is wrong, ask what happened
  • Shift your mindset from power over to power with (otherwise you may replicate the dynamics of power and control that the client experienced while being trafficked)
  • Emphasize:
  • Prioritize the client as decision-maker
  • Build a collaborative partnership that sees the client not as a victim, but rather an individual and an equal
  • Ask the client how she would like you to refer to her trafficker(s)
  • Maintain a verbally neutral stance toward the trafficker
  • Allow client to choose where to sit
  • Create a safe, private space
  • Meet the person’s physical need with drink/snack, tell them where restrooms are, check in and ask if they need anything
  • Body positioning: eye level, close but do not hover, do not touch, do not cross your arms
  • Engage the client: calm tone, eye contact, warm expression, active listening
  • Match the client’s pace/mirror their language, do not rush or judge
  • Do not probe for unnecessary details
  • Use respectful and empathetic language
  • Be prepared to respond to a trauma reaction (4-7-8 breathing; 5-4-3-2-1 sensory game), including providing referrals
  • If a client shares something difficult or traumatic with you, reflect with compassion what you heard the person say and honor their courage for surviving and sharing
  • Allow clients to decline to answer questions (while explaining why questions are being asked)
  • Be friendly, not friends
  • Express an interest in learning more, but do not act like you are trying to uncover something
  • Do not interrupt
  • Don’t ask a question or offer an option that would take the power from the client, e.g. pick option A or B, but then you’re going to say no option B is the best
  • Remember that having arrests and/or convictions for prostitution or prostitution adjacent crimes can be stigmatizing and humiliating for clients
  • Approach every client with dignity, respect, and civility
  • Be mindful of coercive control – the criminal legal system can mimic the experience of control that a trafficking survivor experienced, and we want to provide a different experience
  • Trafficking survivors were criminalized for surviving
  • Take off the cape (no savior complex)
  • Behaviors you may consider self-destructive are often strategies or behavioral adaptations developed to cope with the physical and emotional impact of trauma
  • Start a meeting or phone call with something positive, even if it is just to say thank you for coming to the meeting or for getting on the phone
  • Safety signal: a way that client can indicate she needs a break
  • Be patient!
  • Address common symptoms of trauma, normalize these symptoms
  • Check in that client has support systems
  • Plan for client crisis
  • Positive feedback
  • Take breaks if client is triggered
  • Ask if there are barriers for the client to attend meetings (childcare, transportation, mental health)
  • Client may use humor or have an emotional reaction/response that seems incongruous to the question
  • Strategies and tools that will help promote trust, safety, as well as empower client decision-making:
  • Personal questions
  • Note-taking
  • Focus on the purpose of the meeting
  • Map the meeting and the process
  • Regular phone calls/check-ins
  • Clearly defining roles and responsibilities
    -Patience and consistency
    -Allow client to tell their story with no judgment, assumptions, or blame
  • Be comfortable with pauses and silence
  • Facilitates memory
  • Be mindful of the physical meeting space
  • Where to meet
  • Who should be included
  • Physical space (lighting, colors)
  • Seating options (next to client vs. across from desk)
    -Body language and verbal communication
  • Calm speech
  • Validations
  • Affirmation
  • What happened vs. why did you…
  • Eye contact
  • Be aware of how you are sitting
  • No touching without consent
  • Give client enough space
    -Signal to client that they are in control and we are willing and committed to let them take the lead to create a safe space
  • Promote client decision-making
  • Overtly ask client for what might help
    -Partner in developing case strategy
  • Reliability: follow up, do what you promise

Other Considerations

  • Remember that individuals engage in sex work by choice, circumstance, and/or coercion, so check any internal bias you may have about sex work or sex workers
  • Survivors identify with a wide variety of gender identities and expressions – refresh your knowledge and understanding by looking at the Genderbread Person


  • As the pro bono, you are not trying to provide trauma treatment, just trauma-informed practice (to provide legal services in a way that is accessible to the client and that enables the client to feel safe, in control, and to access the legal system)
  • You can always say: “I believe you and I am sorry”
  • Two ears, one month – you should be listening twice as much as talking
  • Victims don’t care what you know until they know that you care

Pair and Share Exercise

  • Pair up and tell your partner about something that changed your life
  • Your partner must then tell that story to the rest of the class
  • Discuss the challenges and obstacles of telling someone else’s story

Summary of Best Practices

  • Best practices
    -Active listening
    -Validate and acknowledge client’s emotional experiences
    -Provide decision-making power
    -Make a concrete plan, be clear on next steps, communicate all developments
    -Bring in support services at beginning of process
  • Be aware that trauma impacts memory and impairs memory consolidation
    -Story may seem ‘sketchy’ or fragmented, survivor may struggle with chronology, expect inconsistencies across interviews, and details may come out much later
    -Do not misinterpret as evasiveness or lying but be honest with client and confront gaps later
  • Practical considerations
    -Power dynamic
    -Therapeutic support
  • Emotional support needed can include crisis intervention, basic needs, transportation, case management, and/or trauma informed psychotherapy

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