Unraveling and Ending the Psychological Bonds for Trafficked Women

Lenore Walker & Giselle Gaviria, Co-Chairs 

This presentation will unravel the steps that many trafficking victims take from the grooming period through the branding and psychological bonding of the women by the traffickers and in many cases, the groups that are formed. The presenters work in academic as well as clinical settings using the information to design and develop intervention programs. The various intricate techniques learned from the women themselves helps us understand the traumatic bonding that occurs and the ways to help the women regain their own psychological independence.


Outline/Structure of the Workshop

Giselle Gaviria, MS – Identifying Vulnerabilities in Victims of Human Trafficking  

There are roughly 20.9 million victims of human trafficking globally (Polaris Project, 2015). Approximately 80% of people trafficked are females with up to 50% being children. An estimated 70% to 87% of those females are trafficked into commercial sexual exploitation. Although there is no single profile for trafficking victims; trafficking occurs to adults and minors in rural, suburban, or urban communities across borders. Branding is a technique that is used by traffickers to change the identity of the women to belong to him. It has great psychological significance as well as helping identify the groups. This presentation will review the circumstances or vulnerabilities and its multiple levels that lead to a higher susceptibility to victimization and trafficking.

Chelsey Mahler, M.S. – Trauma Bonding Between Sex Trafficked Victims and Traffickers

Trauma bonding occurs when attachment is strengthened by intermittent abuse and a relationship involving unequal power. This relationship is a typical pattern among sex traffickers and their victims. The literature describes trauma bonding as a survival technique that a victim engages in during pervasive abuse to avoid future abuse. Sex trafficked victims can become emotionally attached to their trafficker, making it difficult for law enforcement, mental health providers, and other professionals to identify them. Traumatic bonding also helps to explain why it takes several months for sex trafficked victims to leave or detach from the relationship. Traffickers will lure their victims into being sexually exploited by means of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. Psychological abuse can be best characterized as methods of power and control to emotionally manipulate another person, such as: isolation, threats of harm, harassment, intimidation, humiliation, degradation, and lack of freedom. Domestic traffickers typically recruit victims by providing them with gifts and affection to create a psychological bond in conjunction with physical control to make victims feel trapped and powerless. Research indicates that victims endorse symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety as a result of being sex trafficked. The purpose of this presentation is to explore the signs of trauma bonding and the effects it has on its victims. It also will discuss how trauma bonding can be addressed in treatment.

Estefania Masias, BS – Developing a Culturally Sensitive Safety Plan for Sex Trafficking Victims

Investigations from human trafficking task forces between January 2008 and June 2010 found that out of 459 confirmed cases of sex trafficking about 296 were ethnic minorities (Banks & Kyckelhahn, 2011). Many victims come from impoverished families and are coerced into sex trafficking with promises of a better future, stable job, education, citizenship, or as a way to repay a debt they owe (Hodge, 2008). Due to the exposure to harsh treatment, victims of sex trafficking are more likely than not to develop severe psychological and emotional trauma (Deshpande & Nour, 2013). Taking into consideration the amount of victims of sex trafficking in the United States that are minorities it is important to provide culturally sensitive services, especially for those who have escaped from their traffickers. Safety plans have long been used for victims and survivors of domestic abuse but there are not many examples of safety plans for victims and survivors of sex trafficking. Not every victim of sex trafficking has the same needs or comes from the same cultural background. When developing a safety plan for these victims, as mental health providers, we must be cognizant of their cultural backgrounds to ensure it meets their needs (Dovydaitis, 2010). Depending on the victim’s culture, some may have a hard time leaving their traffickers especially for those whose cultural norms have been distorted in order to normalize sex trafficking (The U.S. Department of State, 2015). It is our job to find out how the victim’s culture impacts their lives in order to develop a plan that works for them. This presentation will review the most current literature on safety plans in order to highlight the importance of developing a culturally competent one that can be used with ethnic minority victims of sex trafficking.

Natalie Sarachaga-Barato, M.S. – Resiliency Factors in Survivors

Many trafficking victims are targeted due to hardships that they have to endure, such as poverty, childhood sexual abuse, abandonment, and homelessness. These and many other risk factors are exploited through deception and false promises to a better life. Additionally, these victims are taught to fear law enforcement due to the possibility of arrest for participating in illegal activities of prostitution, drugs, or even immigration status in the country. Research of the risk factors that could potentially make girls and women vulnerable to sex trafficking has greatly increased, however, significantly less research has examined how a victim survives as well as why a victim finally decides to exit the sex trade. It is imperative that sex trafficking research is expanded to encompass this area as these resiliency factors can be starkly different from other sexual traumas because it is chronic in nature to include torture, rape, assault, and repeated forced abortions (Farley & Kelly, 2000). Furthermore, most of these women are taught and forced to believe that they are the trafficker’s property, have no power, and could face the possibility of death, leading to their continued involvement in selling their bodies or assisting in victimizing others. Cecchet and Thoburn (2014) found women that had a desire to live, positive thinking, and motivation for change were able to persevere, maintain the will to survive, but also have the strength to guarantee their survival. Furthermore, through their study they found that the participants’ catalyst to finally leave the sex trade was getting pregnant by either their pimp, drug dealer, or both. The women also stated that the father of the child either took the baby away from the mother or forced the mother to abort the pregnancy, which further prompted her desire to escape. This presentation will examine resiliency factors that can strengthen the victim to become a survivor.

Impacts of Sex Trafficking on Adolescent Development – Amanda Berthold, BS

Severe, chronic, and prolonged trauma and abuse during critical early-life periods of development may have adverse biological implications on child and adolescent development that result in impairments to an individual’s cognitive and behavioral functioning that may prevent the development of a coherent sense of self. The human mind develops out of interactions between an individual’s neural functions and relational processes that occur within the interactive and communicative patterns an individual has with others. Experiences have direct roles in shaping neuronal circuits responsible for memory, emotion, and self-awareness by altering the structure and activity of the connections between neurons. Early adolescence is important for the process of integrating and establishing a sense of self. Normal adolescent development is characterized by the emergence of new, separate selves that include a sexual self, a student self, and a self that is independent of one’s caregivers. However, adolescents often experience conflicts between their new states of mind as they crave assert their new independence while still requiring acceptance, support, and comfort from their caregivers. Sex traffickers take advantage of the anxiety-provoking emotional void formed during the process of self-differentiation by offering adolescents a new self-image that is centered on their emerging sexual identity. This new identity assignment allows adolescents to experience a sense of maturity while simultaneously manipulating them towards increased dependence on the trafficker. The identity trade causes a feeling of meaningless and disconnection known as a “false self” that is continuously reinforced by their new identity as a sex worker, causing them to experience increasingly degrees of emotional turmoil. This paper reviews literature related to the unique developmental struggles of early adolescent victims as sex traffickers recruit them and discusses the implications these developmental factors may have on treatment.

Psychological Interventions for Sex Trafficking Victim/Survivors – Lenore Walker,Ed.D.

There are various types of psychological interventions that are useful with women who have experienced gender violence at a young age. Those that appear to be the most helpful generally take into account both the interruptions in normal development and interpersonal relationships and the support to rebuild various life skills. While cognitive behavioral therapies are helpful in rebuilding skills, a more trauma-specific approach also develops interpersonal relationships necessary to rebuild trust and eliminate feelings of betrayal that arise when separating from the trafficker or other abusers. Psychoeducation is another component in the intervention program as many survivors do not understand how they were manipulated and instead blame themselves, which then negatively impacts their self esteem. Transparency in the intervention process along with mutual goal setting are other critical processes. This presentation will take these factors into account and demonstrate how they can be accounted for in a treatment program such as STEP or CHANCE or others that may be developed.

Trust Building Lessons from the CHANCE Program – Ana Rivas-Vasquez, Ph.D. & Kim McGrath, Psy.D

New legislation in many states has permitted mental health providers to develop services to meet the needs of youth involved in commercial sex exploitation. The Citrus Helping Adolescents Negatively Impacted by Commercial Exploitation (CHANCE) program was developed in 2013 as a model in partnership with a community mental health center, the state DCF and local government to provide these services. There are three parts to the program; community response-team that deals with assessment, home-based services, and crisis intervention, special foster care homes, and an inpatient psychiatric facility. All of these areas utilize the services of psychologists as well as other mental health providers and educators. The youth served may receive individual psychotherapy two to four times a week, group therapy, family therapy, life skills coaching, and behavioral intervention experts as needed. Building trust and engagement with services is the first part of the treatment plan, followed by trauma-specific psychotherapy and interspersed with crisis intervention. One of the challenges that the program deals with is the frequent elopement of the youth, which makes engagement, trust building, and bonding more difficult. Lessons learned from this program will be presented to help psychologists who provide services to this population. We have learned that no matter how long it may take, if trust is not first built, interventions will be less successful with the typical trafficking survivor.

Discussants - Survivors of Trafficking Present

Learning Outcome

1. Participants will identify 3 popular grooming techniques used by traffckers

2. Participants will understand trauma-specific approaches to therapy.

3. Participants will be able to develop psychoeducational intervention sessions relevant to trafficking survivors.

4. Participants will learn 3 skill building techniques for treatment with survivors of trafficking.

5. Participants will identify and prepare for difficult areas when survivors are in treatment.

Target Audience


schedule Submitted 5 years ago