Oakland Mentorship Program Offers Safety & Healing to Sexually Exploited Young Women – by Sarah ZahediJuly 30th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon
EDITOR’S NOTE: San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego metropolitan areas are all rated as among of the highest intensity centers for child commercial sex trafficking in the nation.
Fortunately, California has been a leader in reforming its response to the commercial sexual exploitation of children, treating the young people involved as the victims of crime they are, not lawbreakers to be prosecuted.
Yet, for victims of sex trafficking, recovery can be extremely challenging due to the severity of the emotional and physical abuse, as well as the sexual abuse, they have endured. Fortunately, as California reformed its legal response to sex trafficking victims, community organizations have been emerging to help these young women and men to whom great harm has been done to begin the healing process and then to find ways to thrive.
In the story below, which originally appeared in the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, journalist Sarah Zahedi explores the work of one such program.
IN OAKLAND, SEXUALLY EXPLOITED YOUNG WOMEN FIND HEALING AND HOPE
How a unique mentorship program started by survivors of sexual exploitation gives sexually trafficked girls a safe and loving place to redefine their lives.
by Sarah Zahedi
Through times of trauma and distress, often all a child needs is to be showered with love. It may sound corny, but for the estimated 100,000 children who are sexually exploited per year around the country, it can be transformative.
The Lasting Links Mentorship Program at MISSSEY (Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth), an Oakland, Calif., nonprofit, works to end child exploitation and help victims through the formation of healthy, supportive and loving adult relationships.
“Some of them will even just come in to the drop-in center for a hug. They’ve said that to us,” said executive director Falilah Bilal at MISSSEY.
In Oakland, MISSSEY’s efforts are more than necessary. The San Francisco Bay Area is one of the top three epicenters of human trafficking in the United States along with Los Angeles and San Diego, with 46 percent of all prosecuted human trafficking cases in California coming from the Alameda District Attorney’s office.
“People think that this is a problem that happens to kids ‘over there,’ whether it’s kids from other countries or poor black kids or boys from another place,” said Bilal. “People don’t think that this is an American-bred issue that happens across all class and all gender. This is something confronting and impacting all of us.”
MISSSEY partners with Girls Inc. and the Mentoring Center to match people who wish to volunteer their time to provide advice and emotional support to sexually exploited young women in need.
“The goal of the program is to provide a restorative healthy adult relationship to youth who have experienced disruption and betrayal in adult relationships,” said mentoring and training coordinator Liz Longfellow.
To become a mentor, applicants must attend an information session, fill out an application, be interviewed, participate in a rigorous 20-hour training program and go through a criminal background check. From there, the match process can take a while, depending on what youth want from a mentor. MISSSEY works to have several mentors on hand so there is an individual mentor who meets the youth’s specific requests as soon as the youth requests a mentor.
Some of the mentors are already connected to the field, therapists or social workers or nurses who have worked with sexually exploited youth in the past. Other mentors are simply people who want to help. The minimum duration of the mentor-mentee relationship is one year.
“It’s a commitment to become a mentor,” Longfellow said. “The process of getting matched with a mentee takes so long because the mentor has to show they will give their time and commitment. If the relationships doesn’t last a year, it’s not going to be as effective for the youth.”
The sense of love and care the young girls can get from a mentor has proven to bring about monumental positive change, especially since many of the relationships last beyond one year, she said.
“The year is a great benchmark but it’s great when it continues on,” Longfellow said. “We’ve had some of the youth come back and say [their mentors] are stuck with them for life. That’s a successful relationship.”
Take Sheila (all clients’ and mentors’ names have been changed), now 18. After being exploited for many years in Oakland, she realized that in order to get out of the life, she needed to move away from the city. She wanted to be far enough away to feel safe, yet be able to visit family and friends every now and again. Her child welfare worker in Alameda County helped her find supported housing in the Antioch/Bay Point area. But when Sheila got there, she felt very alone and disoriented. She didn’t know how to use the bus system to get to the store, let alone to look for a job.
Longfellow matched her with a mentor named Ena who is also a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation. Ena, who has lived in Antioch for many years, was able to show Sheila around. With Ena’s support, Sheila eventually was able to find a job. Ena also helped her decorate her new apartment, which in part involved creating a vision board to give Sheila a daily visual reminder of her dreams and goals. Ena, who was a college student then, knew about many area resources to make school more affordable. She referred Sheila to several people in her support network so that she could feel more encouraged to take college classes and feel more connected to her new community. After many conversations about Sheila’s traumatic history, Ena convinced Sheila to reconnect with a therapist.
“I wouldn’t have been able to make it here without Ena,” Sheila said. “She has helped me so much and I feel really comfortable talking with her and telling her personal stuff about myself. That doesn’t really happen for me. It’s a relief.”
From 2007 to 2014, MISSSEY has served approximately 1,000 girls. And the organization’s services do not stop at the mentorship program. It also offers case management for youth looking to get out of the life of sex trafficking and a foster youth program, funded by Alameda County Social Services to prevent and intervene in child sex work.
MISSSEY was founded by two survivors of commercial sexual exploitation of children along with two allies. It’s staffed by a number of other survivors of sexual exploitation.