To raise Chester County residents’ awareness of the effects of trauma on children who have been trafficked and sold for sex, the Chester county anti-human trafficking coalition (CCAT) invited Dr. Clara Whaley Perkins to describe those effects. Her presentation took place at Westminster Presbyterian Church.
Dr. Whaley Perkins drew on her decades of experience in helping adolescents and adults affected by long-term trauma. Her experiences as a clinical psychologist at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital’s Evening Program (a partial hospitalization program), and from her practice of 30 years, informed her comments. The central focus of the presentation was on prevention by helping teens become aware of the tactics used to lure them into the sex trade.
Dr. Whaley Perkins noted that the typical age for children to being lured into the sex trade is between 12 and 15 years. She explained that, because the brain is still developing at that age, the trauma stemming from commercial sexual exploitation is devastating to the emotional, psychological, social and physical development of a child. Complex trauma it often the end result. CSEC is underreported, and there is little research. There also is no specific treatment for trauma stemming from CSEC. Dr. Whaley Perkins has observed that victims may not even mention that they had been trafficked, perhaps until after being in therapy for several years. As a result the specific needs of these children are not being addressed. She emphasized that CSEC constitutes violence against children.
To help prevent teens from being unwittingly snared into the trafficking trap, where 50 percent of victims met their predators over the internet, Dr. Whaley Perkins created the LATO Teen Prevention Project. She showed the video portion of that prevention project. Drawing on the fact that teens tend to accept information more readily from their peers, rather than adults, the video depicts teens talking in the camera to teens about trafficking. The success of the Teen Prevention Project rests on the tendency of teens to relate to each other, and have each other’s backs. When shown these typical luring tactics, teens become savvy the ways traffickers and pimps might approach them and their friends and can warn friends naively considering meeting strangers online, who may have misrepresented their identity.
For those in fields such as teaching and counseling, who may be working with students who have experienced CSEC, Dr. Whaley Perkins had some suggestions regarding how to help these students reconnect. They learn differently because their brains are trauma-affected.
As a result, their ability to tolerate frustration is low, as is their ability to experience pleasure through little things. They experience hyper-arousal (which often is misdiagnosed as ADHD), and can’t distinguish between what is a real threat and what is not. They bond with their perpetrators. These victims abuse drugs and alcohol because they want to block emotions. When working with these children, the adult shouldn’t try getting them to talk about their trauma and their lives; these kids first want to be sure that the adult has the emotional strength to hear what they have experienced. Dr. Whaley Perkins suggested letting these children know that you truly see them and care about what happens to them. For adults involved in helping these children, Dr. Whaley Perkins explained vicarious trauma. If you feel drained after hearing a person’s horrific experience, then you have internalized that experience, and need to talk to someone to process it.
The presentation then was opened to questions from the audience. A number of individuals inquired about a range of topics. For example, one asked what is being done to prevent this trafficking; the answer was “not much,” but that LATO is trying to get the Teen Prevention Project into schools. Another question concerned the need for a long-term program where victims could form a supportive community, held after school or work. After hearing descriptions of the mental health challenges faced by these children, a member of the audience underscored these observations by self-identifying as having been a victim during the 1960’s, and who still is suffering the psychological after-effects of that trauma.
For those who were interested in finding out various ways that they could help in combating human trafficking and its aftermath, various Chester County panelists were on hand, representing law enforcement, victim services, education, and faith-based organizations.