You’re listening to Episode 29 of the Trafficking Dispatch, a biweekly podcast that briefs you on human trafficking issues in a brief amount of time. I’m your host, Victoria Erdel. In this episode, we’ll hear from an advocate who works with perpetrators of trafficking.
A little over a year ago, I attended the Human Trafficking and Social Justice Conference at the University of Toledo. I learned about advocates like Dr. Jesse Bach, who we heard from in episode 3 of this season. I also had the chance to attend a session called “Saving Our Boys to Save Our Girls”. It was led by Stefania Agliano, a licensed social worker who dedicates some of her time to working with young perpetrators of trafficking. I found her work fascinating and wanted to give you all the chance to hear what she has to say too. Without further ado, let’s get started!
Victoria: To start off, how did you get involved in working with young perpetrators of trafficking, and why take that approach in fighting human trafficking?
Stefania: Well, for the child welfare agency that I was working for at that time, [they were] creating the staff training, if you will, on human trafficking. So this was really starting back in 2010. There wasn’t a lot of information. There were some trainings, there was a lot of focus on international trafficking. And I think people at that time thought, you know, it doesn’t necessarily impact our kids here, one in the United States, but also 2, working in child protection, that wasn’t really what our role should be. And so, really started to research there in that time the whole issue of trafficking. Not just, certainly perpetrators, traffickers, but looking at victims and buyers and you know now, we’re referring to survivors as things have evolved. And so kind of doing a lot of research there. And as time went by, I realized that there was this real deficit, if you will, in looking at how do we impact the demand, not necessarily on the buyers’ side, because that’s so broad. That’s so big, and that looks so different in many different areas. But how do we really dial it down and look at who’s the trafficker, and what’s their story really? I think that was one of the things that as we started to look at it outside of the role of child welfare and outside of the particular function that I was in at that time, when people were talking about trafficking or the trafficker, there always seemed to be this one narrative of this black male. And that starts to feel disheartening. That started to feel like, what role does this implicit bias of, or stereotypes -- and what types of negative stereotypes are we perpetuating in the messaging. And if this in fact were true, then what was the story behind that? And so we became more so interested in I’d say -- and I say “we” because of my partner who has been on this journey with me since the beginning -- we really became interested in what was that story? What would lead a person, specifically looking at young men, to engage in those type of trafficking-related behaviors? Those battering behaviors, to engage in sexual assault on this kind of normative way? We just became really interested in that role and felt that it was a unique way for us to address trafficking differently than what other people were doing. And so, our impact can be a little bit greater because now we weren’t one of many, we were really kind of one voice in looking at it from that perspective. So that’s really how we got started in looking at the perpetrators of trafficking specifically.
Victoria: Thanks for that explanation, I think you definitely highlight why it’s important to take this angle as opposed to only looking at buyers, which is pretty broad. So the people that do end up your I AM Training program specifically, do you automatically receive every minor that’s a perpetrator of trafficking, or is there some process that they have to go through to get into the program?
Stefania: You know it’s really -- the agencies that are running the program at this particular time, you know, across the United States. It’s really part prevention but there’s also a piece of intervention as well. And so really it’s for any young man between the ages of really 12 up to even 21 if you will, to really just kind of start to explore, what does their manhood mean to them? What does it mean to them in relation to their circumstances? And so, you know, how do they kind of define their masculinity? Let’s say an inner city urban setting is gonna be very different than if you were running it in a rural eastern Kentucky town. You’re gonna discuss some different things, as to what masculinity means to them and how it drives their relationships. And so, it isn’t just necessarily for kids or young men who have engaged in trafficking-related behaviors. It’s really kind of to reach kids, to reshape their thinking, and hopefully to prevent them from even going down that path in the first place. A lot of kids could be gang-involved kids where we know that trafficking is prevalent. It’s a means of income for a gang, at times a means of initiation. But that gang involvement doesn’t just come with the one issue. These are kids that are exposed to significant trauma, it could be trauma in their own home. Day-to-day witnessing of domestic violence on a large-scale level. They’ve learned these perpetrating behaviors and so, engaging a girl in trafficking doesn’t seem like it’s not normal. Right? It’s just something that they’ve grown up with. And so, it’s hard to say what particular type of kid would be appropriate. I think any young man, and what we’ve seen through the agencies running the program, it’s really any young man who could benefit from learning the information. And then, what I think is unique about our program is that we take a deeper dive. And so it’s not just about saying, “Hey, this is what trafficking looks like, and these are trafficking-related behaviors, and here’s some of the influences, and here are some resources.” It’s really digging deep about, what have been those relationships that you’ve had in your life? How have they influenced you? What are your opportunities and circumstances to change your behavior? It’s really easy to go in and tell someone to change, but when you kind of really break it down to who that individual is, is it really that easy when some of our kids haven’t even left the two-block radius in which they live all of their lives? Right? Their whole life revolves around this particular two blocks. We had a circumstance in St. Louis where we were helping them to facilitate the program for its own agency. And this was in East St. Louis. And they were saying how some of the kids in the program, you know, they live ten minutes from the Arch landmark and have never been there. You know, I live on the east coast about half an hour from the beach. And I work with kids who have never even seen the beach. And so, you know when we think about trafficking, we don’t just think about it as this, “Why are you doing this?” It’s, “Let’s look at how all of these influences really have driven to where you are going in your life, whether you’ve engaged in the behavior or not.” So, I don’t know if that necessarily answers your question, but it isn’t a program where you have to be referred because you’ve done some A, B, and C. It’s, “Let’s prevent you from doing that. If you’ve done it, let’s explore what that’s about and how do we really start to come up with different ways for you to see your life and engage in different behaviors, even when all of those circumstances are still the same.” Right? Because we can’t change that. You can’t create a program and now change the entire community or circumstances. If I’m working with a young man, again, let’s say eastern Kentucky, rural eastern Kentucky. And you know maybe they’re in a predominately white community at that time. I’ve got to look at what does white privilege mean to a young man in terms of sexual assault or battering behaviors. And again, what are those resources in those rural communities? What are those opportunities to really get you out of that community? And if not, what gets you as a young man to change your mindset and your behaviors in those circumstances that aren’t going to change?
Victoria: I really appreciate that sociological perspective that you have there since I’m a sociology major myself. Going on that similar vein of societal perceptions...what are some common reactions that you receive when you tell others about your work and have you encountered any negativity or challenges in justifying the work that you’re doing?
Stefania: You know, I think it’s been both. We’ve had some really positive -- and I wanna say, a majority positive reactions. I think for a lot of folks, I think it’s kind of like that “ah ha” moment, to kind of go back and claim that old phrase. For practitioners, whether in child welfare or child protection, clinical work, wherever they are, to sit back and go, “oh my goodness, have I completely overlooked this population of perpetrators, if you will, because I’ve only seen them as perpetrators?” Right? Because once kids begin to engage in criminal behaviors, it’s really hard to get them off that path. One because of sociological factors, but two, I think practitioner bias, right? I think a lot of people, it’s kind of that moment where they sit back and they go, “Oh my goodness! I need to really start to question my own practice.” And that’s great for the people who run our program or not. That’s what you want to see happen. You know another thing, I think it’s an opportunity around the country to have a really great, in-depth conversation about race and gender, and about disproportionalities vary and really limited opportunities around the country for young men of color. I think it’s opened up a lot of dialogue for people, so there’s been a lot of positive reaction. I think people have seen, “Oh my goodness, yes, we need to target and focus this area.” And again, this is an area of young kids at risk who are exposed to a lot of trauma. So it’s not just giving them information saying, “this is what it is.” It’s really going a lot deeper. So, majority positive. And then there are people who can’t get past that. Whether it’s their profession, so it’s a majority law enforcement officers, we’ve had a couple public defenders. You know, their role is really to help hold people accountable. And that’s fine, that’s great. However, at times it’s hard to engage that particular profession if you will around taking a closer look at our own implicit bias or how our own judgment kind of guides the work. And it’s really hard for that particular group to see, that wait a minute, these kids still hold value and how do we work from that kind of perspective? So there have been some challenges. For the most part, from a survivor that has been in our presentation, I want to say for a majority it has also been a really positive experience. Because at the end of the day, that whole relationship, right, is bound up in emotion and feelings, whether those are manipulated feelings and emotions, they were there. I had one survivor in a presentation in New Orleans who said, you know, “Thank you for that! Because the reality is, I loved the person that I was with, or at least I thought that was what love was.” Because a lot of traffickers will play on that. That kind of psychological coercion. And so it’s almost validating I think for some folks, to kind of hear that, to say, “Yeah, I really did, and maybe even still do to some degree, feel like that that person was worth something.” I think we go with this assumption that, again, when people engage in bad behavior, criminals, they should be held accountable. Nobody should ever forgive them, nobody should ever love them again. I think that’s unhelpful. And then, you know, there’s been times when -- I specifically had this survivor on one occasion who, she struggled a little bit with the information, and that was okay because that was where she was at in her life, and we totally validated that. Had another person again, you know a survivor, come up and say, “You know, I was ready to come into your presentation and just be so angry at you and be really defensive. And then once I heard you speak about you know the perspective and looking at it, it just made sense. And yeah, it’s an area, a populous, that really does need some help.” So, a majority has been positive with a couple of kind of hard to hear the material.
Victoria: I’m glad to hear that most of the reactions have been positive. I was definitely one of those people that had that “ah-ha” moment when I heard you speak, and I’m glad that people who may have been skeptical at first came around and understood why people like you do what you do. I just have one more question, and this is something that we ask everyone: what advice do you have for young anti-trafficking advocates?
Stefania: I think honoring and respecting the work that’s been done, right? I think it’s really important. I think being creative, collaborating, partnering. I think that there are a lot of well-intended folks who enter this field. And I don’t think -- something interesting happens where people no longer honor other people’s work necessarily. So I think while you’re emerging into this, I think one, it’s just really creating good partnerships across the country. There’s a lot of wonderful organizations and agencies doing some great work. And learn how to collaborate. And pick pockets of areas that need the work. There are a lot of survivor programs, there are a lot of, maybe even intervention towards buyers, or maybe there isn’t anything that creative. I think maybe find the need. So I think really if you’re entering this work, see what’s working really well and find the gaps to find how you can really move the work forward even more.
Stefania’s work shows us that there are many ways to go about fighting the issue of human trafficking. For more inspiration, let’s tune into our newest Audible Audience submission! It comes from Kritika Pandey, a listener in India who I also met over the summer at the UN Youth Assembly. Her submission is a little longer than most, so we’ll tease the first section in this episode. To hear the rest, you can tune in to our season finale, which is the next episode! Now let’s hear what Kritika has to say.
Kritika: Hi, I’m Kritika Pandey and I’m from India. Today I’m going to share with you the experiences I’ve had with being a social work intern in India. I was in high school when I got the opportunity to work with an organization named Robaroo, which linked me to another organization named Synergy in Harda, Madhya Pradesh, a small district in India. I was very lucky to be a part of Synergy which was already working day and night to eradicate child bonded labor in the district. They were planning to conduct a street play and a rally against child bonded labor, which I also took a part in.
This has been the Trafficking Dispatch with Victoria Erdel. You can subscribe to our SoundCloud channel and tune into our next episode which will be released on December 23rd at 5 pm. Or, if you would like to interact with us before then, you can visit our website at thetraffickingdispatch.com, follow us on our social media accounts – our handles are below – or email us with any questions or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for tuning into this episode, and we hope you’ll tune in again to join the fight against human trafficking.