When it comes to human trafficking, enacting measures to stop perpetrators from claiming more victims is only one part of the battle to end abuse and sexual exploitation.
As nonprofits like StreetLightUSA understand, helping human trafficking survivors recover from trauma is another crucial front in the anti-trafficking movement. The organization has served more than 1,300 girls since its 2009 founding, and that number continues to grow every day.
According to Skye Steele, StreetLightUSA’s chief executive officer, the organization’s mission is “to transition adolescent girls from trauma to triumph.”
“Our demographic or the clientele that we serve are teen girls between the ages of 13 and 17 who have fallen victim to commercial sexual exploitation through human trafficking,” Steele told The Western Journal during a tour of the facilities in the Phoenix area.
The organization serves as a live-in shelter for human trafficking victims and offers trauma-informed services to set survivors on the path toward healing.
In addition to offering residents the opportunity to attend therapeutic support groups, StreetLightUSA’s pastoral care program provides girls with the option of attending church and Bible study sessions.
Of course, therapy and the learning of coping skills are necessary in trauma recovery. But the CEO also believes that for someone to go from “trauma to triumph,” God is “crucial” to the restoration process.
“There is so much bondage and shame and hurt and despair and trauma at the root of what these girls and young women have encountered,” Steele said. “Only God can truly heal that.”
As human traffickers continue to find new ways to claim victims, it appears that StreetLightUSA’s services are needed now more than ever. According to the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, human trafficking cases rose 185 percent from January 2020 to the same month this year.
“The increase of trafficking online has skyrocketed, even more so during COVID-19,” Steele said.
“I want to say it’s something like half of women and children met their trafficker on social media. And it’s, unfortunately, we’re not seeing that get any better. It’s just getting worse.”
“The internet is fueling the demand, no question,” she added.
Discovering a Calling
When Steele entered the anti-trafficking movement in 2008, she received a phone call from law enforcement. They had heard that Steele was in the process of launching an anti-human trafficking program through the Phoenix Dream Center, and they invited her to sit in on a forensic interview with a teenage trafficking victim.
As she watched authorities interview the girl, Steele felt a “change” sweep over her, she said.
“And so it was like this, this divine moment where God really spoke to my heart and said, ‘This is going to be your life’s work,’” Steele said.
Ever since that day, she has made it her “mission to help rescue children and women who have fallen victim to this heinous crime.”
Stories of Success
While the center has witnessed numerous women and girls regain control of their lives, one success story that stands out to Steele involves a girl who had been forced to work as a recruiter for her trafficker.
When the girl arrived at StreetLight, she was “one the angriest kids” that Steele had ever met. At the time, the girl had only two goals: obtain a GED and return home to her mom.
While the trafficking survivor committed to these goals at first, she started to “self-sabotage” as she neared the end of her time at the center, Steele said.
“And we see that sometimes where kids unknowing, unbeknownst to them, they start sabotaging their healing. And she started running. She would AWOL from our facility and was making really poor choices.”
The StreetLightUSA staff started to grow concerned that they would not be able to help the girl anymore, as her actions were endangering the other survivors’ healing. Eventually, the staff approached Steele, telling her that if the particular survivor ran away again, the center could not take the girl back.
But Steele was invested in the girl and was not prepared to give up on her.
Sitting down with the girl, Steele gave her a final warning, stressing the seriousness of the matter. The result was, of all things, a pinkie promise to remain on site — and the girl kept her word.
Recommitting to her original goals, the survivor succeeded in completing her healing journey. Once her time at the center was done, the girl not only snagged a scholarship last year to attend Grand Canyon University, but she also earned a place in the National Honor Society.
“So that just really shows that when you’re invested in someone, and you believe in someone, they can make it,” Steele said.
In closing moments with The Western Journal, Steele highlighted the importance of wider cultural awareness and involvement in the issue.
She voiced hopes that the local community would connect with law enforcement or seek out ways to support her on-site survivors by writing letters of encouragement.
Steele also shared how parents and grandparents could protect their children from trafficking by learning about potential risk factors and involving themselves in their kid’s lives.
“Even if they don’t want you to be,” she said, “we have to be proactive and we have to know what’s going on with our children in order to prevent kids in this in this day and age from being perpetrated against.”
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