Sunday, May 1, 2011

How do we define success when it comes to caring for girls who have been sex trafficked and abused?

When it comes to caring for girls who have been sex trafficked and abused there are two primary measures to determine success. The first is trauma assessments. When a girl enters our aftercare center, Agape Restoration Center (ARC), she is given a trauma assessment which provides a baseline from which to measure her progress. These assessments are then conducted on an ongoing basis in order to determine if the impacts of the trauma she has experienced are lessening as she progresses through our program. Across the board, 100% of the time, the girls in our program are found to experience less negative impact from the trauma they suffered. Some might think that this is the definition of success. However, although these assessments reflect positively on our program and are valuable in evaluating it, I don't believe they define success.

The most widely accepted definition of success is what happens to the girls once they are reintegrated  into society. In other words, are they able to start a new and healthy life, or do they return to their former lives. Here again the numbers reflect positively on ARC, less than 15% of the girls who are reintegrated from our program return to their former way of life. And once again, despite the positive reflection these numbers have on ARC and their value in program evaluation, I don't believe they define success.

For me success is defined by never giving up on a girl regardless of the decisions or choices she makes. Success is a girl believing that no matter what choices she makes when she leaves ARC, she will always find unconditional love and support to make healthy choices from our staff.  As Rachel Lloyd wrote in her book, Girls Like Us, “I learn[ed] that leaving the life takes practice, that girls need to try multiple times without having someone give up on them.”  And we have experienced this very same thing with some of the older girls who have come to our program after spending years trapped as sex slaves. The following story of a girl we'll call Mary is a case in point.

Mary came to the ARC at the age of 15. Since the age of 8 she had been sold by several of her family members, including her mother, as a sex slave to both Cambodian and foreign men. In addition, she had been raped repeatedly by her father and her cousin. Mary is a very bright girl, and despite never attending school she had completed first through seventh grades by the time she reached age 18. It was our hope that Mary would finish high school and attend university. However, soon after completing grade 7 Mary's mother, who is HIV-positive, became quite ill. At that time Mary asked to be reintegrated so that she could help to physically and financially care for her mother. So, we provided her with small business training and a loan, and she opened a small clothing store in her mother's village.

Mary was quite successful in her small business, but soon after she was reintegrated she began to hang out with a less than desirable crowd of girls. It wasn't long before she decided to live with those girls instead of her mother. She continued to run the business, but worked less and less hours and spent more and more nights in clubs around Phnom Penh. During those nights on the town she found a boyfriend, someone she thought loved her, and moved in with him. Within several weeks she was using illegal drugs, had abandoned her small business, and was supporting her habit and her boyfriend by selling her body. During all this time her ARC social worker continued to follow-up with Mary several times each month. Mary willingly met with her even though she knew her choices were not pleasing to the social worker because she knew that social work loved her and wanted only the best for her. Months dragged into years and Mary continued down her self-destructive path, still meeting at least monthly with her social worker.

During those meetings Mary’s social worker unconditionally loved her, explained why the choices she was making would only hurt her in the long run, and offered alternatives. It took more than two years, but finally during one of those meetings Mary said she no longer wanted to live this way. She cried, “Please help me, I want a new life, last night I asked Jesus, if He loves me, please send someone to help me today.”  And Mary was helped that very day. We were able to place her in one of the best vocational training programs in the country of Cambodia. She worked very hard and graduated from the program with honors. Today she is working in a job in which she earns four times the national average wage in Cambodia, which allows her to not only support herself, but help care for her mother as well.

To me the action of Mary’s social worker is a modern day application of Jesus’ parable of the wandering sheep in Matthew 18:10-14, and the definition of true success…

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off?  And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.”

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