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Self-care for the activist counselor

By Shekila Melchior and Dannette Gomez Beane June 4, 2018

An activist is a person who campaigns and takes action for social change. Counselors are often activists for their clients and for their profession by nature of being in a helping field.

The issue of self-care looms for both counselor practitioners and counselor educators as we face difficult client issues, large caseloads and demanding work environments. The need for self-care only intensifies when societal issues grow more divisive and combative, as we have experienced over the past year or more. Contentious social movements and issues such as #BlackLivesMatter and immigration can have an impact on the climate of care we provide as counselors for our clients and for the communities in which we live.

A tale of two doctoral students

Being a doctoral counseling student is stressful. Being a doctoral counseling student whose research is directly affected by the social movements and climate of the nation is even more stressful.

Shekila’s journey

When I (Shekila Melchior) chose my dissertation topic, “The Social Justice Identity Development of School Counselors Who Advocate for Undocumented Students,” in spring 2016, I had no idea what lay ahead. At the time of my data collection, a heated and divisive presidential election was unfolding in which the issue of undocumented immigration had turned into a political platform. The United States was inundated with xenophobic remarks, anti-immigrant rhetoric and the proposition of erecting physical structures to prevent individuals from entering the country.

On Election Day, concern turned to fear for many people who were confronted with the harsh reality of an unstable future — namely, that their ability to continue residing in the United States was in peril. After the election of President Donald Trump, I questioned whether anyone would participate in my research interviews regarding undocumented students. The climate in our country had changed, but my timeline for defending my research had not.

As an advocate, I was flooded with messages about protest marches and prompting me to write to Congress and participate in meetings to educate others. As a friend, I listened to the concerns of those closest to me who were fearful of deportation and of the possible termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, implemented by the Obama administration to provide temporary protections to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children. As a researcher, I encountered participants who were concerned for their students and eager for their voices — and the voices of their students — to be heard.

Dannette’s journey

When I (Dannette Gomez Beane) chose my dissertation topic, “Virginia Counselors’ Engagement With Social Issues Advocacy for Black/African American Clients/Students” in spring 2017, I never could have predicted what would occur that fall. During the time that I was engaged in my data collection, the white supremacist rallies that ended in violence and death in Charlottesville, Virginia, transpired. The topic of race relations was suddenly on everyone’s mind, but especially mine as my dissertation clock ticked.

I had difficulty telling people about my research. People didn’t understand why we were always talking about race. People found it even more bizarre that, as a Latina, I had chosen a topic that concerned African Americans. My reasons for picking the topic had everything to do with the revolving door of students in my office who could not attend class, turn in assignments or even talk to their friends because they felt so debilitated from what was going on around them. I just kept thinking, “What can I do to help? What are counselors in my state doing to help these students?”

Responses and critical incidents

We (Shekila and Dannette) processed our own personal reactions to these events. The issues that arose during the writing of our dissertations served as motivation to complete our research. Although both of us feared the worst, we hoped for the best as our research progressed. Our fear was that what was occurring nationally and regionally would silence the participation of counselors, causing them to retreat to neutrality out of a concern of responding in a socially undesirable way. Our hope was that counselors would rise to the occasion and speak on behalf of those marginalized populations that needed advocacy. Ultimately, both of us were successful in our data collection, and the respondents to our studies commented with expressions of concern for themselves and their clients/students.

One counselor who responded to Dannette’s study said, “I work in a rural county in the South and have about 20 percent of my population that is African American. I also work in a system very close to Charlottesville. We always have race issues.”

A participant in Shekila’s study shared the frustrations of their students. The participant recalled a time when one of their students wore a T-shirt that said “Relax Trump, I’m Legal.” Another participant who was a DACA recipient was concerned that he might no longer be able to work with his students if DACA were repealed.

The “critical incident” experienced by the advocate begins a process of cognitive dissonance, a “waking up.” According to Leon Festinger’s theory, when individuals experience cognitive dissonance, it changes the core of what they believe, leading them to wrestle with new information in light of things they have previously understood (for more, see Paul C. Gorski’s article “Cognitive dissonance as a strategy in social justice training” in the Fall 2009 issue of Multicultural Education). Thus, advocates begin to recognize the shift within themselves as it relates to a social issue.

Encountering an undocumented student as a high school counselor served as my (Shekila’s) critical incident. In that moment, I felt helpless and uninformed, but through that critical incident, I began my research, which later propelled me to a place of advocacy.

One of my research participants made a statement about how activist counselors develop: “I think that over time, because of my being sensitive to some of their [undocumented students’] struggles and just seeing the human side to their stories … there’s stuff that you don’t learn being in the counseling program. It’s like baptism by fire with that. It’s not something that I can teach. You can’t teach people to be empathetic like that. You can certainly tell them this is how you go about it, but you either have that or you don’t have that. You may be able to awaken something in someone with it, but if it’s not there, it’s not there.”

Dannette’s research is informed by racial identity development theory, with “encounter” being a stage in which a person is faced with the realization that race matters. Counselors who experience these “critical” or “encounter” moments are undeterred from participating with and advocating for others. On the other hand, counselors who have not experienced such a profound incident may not be as moved to engage in social issues advocacy.

As one of Dannette’s study respondents shared, “During an incident that occurred last year at my school when a black/African American student was suspended, I was told by my admin to stay out of it. I felt strongly that the way it was handled was discrimination, and [I] was very disturbed. I was able to discuss the incident with the parent in private and give [her] tools to help advocate for her son. She was also upset because of the way it was managed. I was not able to get into it too deeply with the parent because I felt my job was in jeopardy. However, I was able to encourage her to take it further and add insight into the best way to do so.”

The adversity we face in our work, school and personal lives for participating in social issues advocacy is heightened when incidents occur that feed the political divisiveness. The emotional toil that advocating takes on the activist counselor can be daunting. The work is ever-changing and never-ending. The activist counselor strives to always be informed and to inform others. The greater the degree of political divisiveness, the more strain it can take on the activist counselor. Compassion fatigue can set in, which brings us to self-care.

Avoid, engage, deflect

How can we seek and find comfort, understanding and care when we make our living and have developed our identities as activist counselors? Speaking as the authors of this article, we rely on peer support, faculty advisers, family members, friends and faith communities. At times, however, these normal sources of support and encouragement do not align with the activist mentality; in fact, they sometimes choose to remain neutral or even work against the advocacy. In such cases, activist counselors are left to do one of the following: avoid, engage or deflect.

Note: We (the authors) avoid going to social media for support because we find that causes another layer of stress that will not be addressed in this article.

Avoidance

Our identity as activist counselors is hard to shut off. Some would argue that it never shuts off. Avoiding times when our “buttons are pushed” is a skill that takes practice. The benefit to avoiding adversarial opinions is that of self-preservation. We sometimes “pick our battles” when engaging in dialogue and try to focus on the outcome of peace if avoidance is the best decision. The risk is that we miss a teachable moment or fail to use our place of privilege to educate others.

Engagement

As activist counselors, we are good at compartmentalizing our needs and views for the well-being of others, but when it comes to standing up for what we believe in outside of the therapeutic relationship, we typically take the opportunity to engage.

We often encourage our clients to engage with conflict because it is a practice that almost always results in growth and stretching. Engaging with conflict is natural for counselors who help others to face their fears, practice change and reframe ideologies. The benefit of engaging with adversarial views is that dialogue can emerge, allowing opportunities to increase understanding of and empathy for the other’s view. The risk of this engagement is that the dialogue might turn into an argument, with one-sided views and the shutting down of a topic or, worse, a relationship. As counselors, we are trained to de-escalate these types of heated situations, finding ways to redirect or, in some instances, deflect.

Deflection

Here it comes. You have no time to avoid or engage. A person in your life just dropped a statement that goes against your activist counselor mindset and identity. You know what this sounds like. It is a statement such as “I don’t see _____. All people are the same in my eyes” or “Those people need to ______.” You are left to react without warning.

One approach, especially when caught off guard, is to deflect. The risk in deflecting is that we may seem like we are not paying attention to what the person is saying because we choose to change the topic. This could cause suspicion or hurt if the person is hoping for our engagement in this topic. The benefit is that we do not engage in what could be a relationship-ending conversation depending on the situation.

Recharging the activist self

Avoidance, engagement and deflection are just three examples of ways to approach our daily walk as activist counselors. Counselors regularly encounter situations that must be navigated carefully, and there is no judgment in using any of these three approaches.

As activist counselors, we are hard-wired to serve. But we cannot continue to serve well unless we are diligent in practicing self-care. In this context, self-care does not mean going to the local spa (although we all need that kind of treatment every once in a while). Self-care means filling our cups back up when we are feeling low. Here are some strategies that we have found helpful in recharging our activist selves.

1) Reflect often: We must ask ourselves, why do we do what we do? Reflection is a key component to self-actualization and bringing meaning to our work. Through reflection, we can be in a constant state of improvement. We become more aware, become more open-minded, more readily recognize our own biases and work toward personal growth and change. Reflection enables counselors to grow in both empathy and connection to others.

2) Remain informed: Activist counselors must stay informed of real stories and real facts so they can remain rooted in the truths of people’s experiences rather than getting caught up in the media spin. Counselors must also stay up-to-date with evolving issues as they become more complex. It is imperative for counselors to see events from all angles and to seek out the voices that have been silenced.

3) Give voice to the voiceless: That brings us to using our power for good. As counselors, we hold a position of authority with the clients and students we serve. In addition, our education provides us with privilege that can be used to give voice to those who have been silenced, including individuals who are struggling to enjoy basic freedoms in this country. Our voices are needed. Our voices should be heard.

As counselors, we are always to remember beneficence — to do good and to promote the well-being of others. This is our strength in the counseling relationship. As activist counselors, we must also recognize when rest is needed and when we need to ask for help. Remember that we advocate together to eradicate the systemic oppression that impacts our clients and our students — and even us — every day.

Together, we are change agents. The foundation of what we do and why we do it can be summed up in a quote from Mohandas Gandhi: “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”

 

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Shekila Melchior is an assistant professor and program coordinator of school counseling at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Contact her at shekila-melchior@utc.edu.

Dannette Gomez Beane is the director of recruitment and operations of undergraduate admissions at Virginia Tech. She adjunct teaches for the counselor education programs at Virginia Tech and Buena Vista University. Contact her at gomezds@vt.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Applying the MCC in a divisive sociopolitical climate

By Patricia Arredondo and Rebecca L. Toporek May 9, 2018

We are living through a historic era that many people describe as divisive, polarizing and disheartening. The world of social media never sleeps, and we are bombarded with images of pain and strife. The visible presence of neo-Nazi groups marching, the increase in arrests and deportations of immigrants from sanctuary sites, the killing of unarmed Black boys and men, the senseless deaths from domestic terrorism in Las Vegas and Orlando, the increased incidence of school shootings and the devastation of natural disasters in Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico have led many of our students and clients to wonder aloud: What is going on? Will access to guns continue to bring violence into our schools? Will North Korea bomb the United States? Will we have a new civil war in our country? Will our access to health care be compromised because of tax breaks to wealthy corporations? No counselor is immune to this sociopolitical climate of tension and uncertainty.

Though not always verbalized, these questions are on the minds of many individuals, creating both cognitive and emotional dissonance, much as similar events did 25-30 years ago. In 1991, we witnessed the brutal beating of Rodney King, a Black man, by Los Angeles police officers. In 1989, the Berlin Wall was opened and eventually taken down. Also during this time period, following the CIA’s involvement in Central America, refugees who had been forced to flee from El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras were denied asylum in the United States. Today we witness the disruption of families through deportation and the incarceration of children, separated from their parents and often left to languish indefinitely.

Today, three essential living documents continue to call the counseling profession to action. The Multicultural Counseling Competencies (MCC, 1992), the operationalization of those competencies (1996) and the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (MSJCC, 2015) help counselors, educators and supervisors navigate our tumultuous times and provide guidance for ethical and effective practice — clinical, educational and advocacy. These guides prove useful and applicable for contemporary challenges.

The MCC, developed by Derald Wing Sue, Patricia Arredondo (one of the authors of this article) and Roderick J. McDavis, were the impetus for change in the counseling profession and continue to hold relevance in today’s national discourse. Then and now, we see:

a) Increasing racial and ethnic diversification of the country, with the U.S. becoming a majority/ethnic minority country

b) Legislation being promoted to oppress persons of color, people with disabilities, Indigenous peoples, immigrants, LGBTQ individuals and other underrepresented groups

c) The pervasiveness of White supremacy and White privilege

d) Eurocentric models in counselor training that ignore intersecting identities and the sociopolitical context that introduces barriers and oppression

e) Ethical issues resulting from the failure to consider cultural differences and variabilities, particularly in practice and supervision

In this article, our intention is to call attention to stressors in U.S. society and to discuss how the MCC can continue to be catalysts for inclusion and social justice advocacy.

The MCC framework

During the past 25 years, the needle has not moved with respect to the composition of counselors-in-training and counseling faculty. We are still a predominantly White profession, although our clients are increasingly diverse and with intersecting identities.

Now more than ever, the MCC and the Dimensions of Personal Identity (DPI) model provide guidance for understanding ourselves and our clients through an examination of cultural worldviews in a sociopolitical environment. They invite us to examine privileges and unconscious biases that may be detrimental to teaching and counseling. They also point out the harm of neglecting the environmental conditions that benefit or adversely affect individuals.

The DPI model presents an intersectional approach to identity and includes numerous dimensions, such as predetermined characteristics that serve as a profile (e.g., age, ethnicity); our experiences and opportunities (e.g., educational background, income); and a contextual dimension that shapes our experience (e.g., historical and sociopolitical events). This model communicates several premises:

a) We are all multicultural individuals.

b) We all possess a personal, political and historical culture and biases.

c) We are affected by sociocultural, political, environmental and historical events.

d) Multiculturalism also intersects with multiple factors of individual diversity.

The MCC and subsequent MSJCC are about change, requiring counseling professionals and graduate students alike to reflect on their own lenses and those of their clients/students, the role of power and privilege, and how the MCC can support respectful responses and engagement in times of political divisiveness. National incidents during the past few years remind us of the need to know facts, engage in perspective-taking and examine our personal beliefs and feelings to engage in ethical and effective counseling.

Current realities

When former President Barack Obama was elected, many people and organizations stated that we were moving into a post-racial era. However, even following his election, assertions about the president’s birthplace persisted (including allegations perpetuated by our current president, Donald Trump). This action propagated doubts about Obama’s legitimacy and arguably subjected him to more scrutiny than previous presidents faced.

Following Obama’s 2008 election, there was an astounding increase in hate groups in the country, accompanied by a rise in hate crimes. For example, hate crimes against Muslim Americans rose 67 percent in 2015. During the national election campaign season and subsequent election of Donald Trump in 2016, the number of hate crimes increased again dramatically. In October 2017, 25.9 percent more hate crimes were reported than in October 2015. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are now 954 hate groups operating in the United States. In addition, 623 “patriot” organizations were classified as active, extreme anti-government groups in 2016.

The White nationalist march that sparked violent conflict and led to the death of one counterprotester this past August in Charlottesville, Virginia, provides a high-profile example of the increased visibility of hate groups. This event is a vivid reminder that hate thrives in many sectors of our society, including among neighbors, friends and family. Trump’s comment that there was fault on both sides minimized the killing of Heather Heyer, a peaceful demonstrator.

Another example of great divisiveness and misunderstanding from 2016 involved the controversy surrounding athletes “taking a knee” during the playing of the national anthem before NFL games. Colin Kaepernick, then a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, initiated this action to call attention to racial biases among police forces, the killing of young Black men and the subsequent acquittal of White police officers. As the movement grew, so did the hostility verbalized by the current presidential administration and a segment of the public. A failure to dialogue, inflammatory assertions and the blaming of athletes only exacerbated a national divide. We wonder why these peaceful protests could not be tolerated. Framing this as a “patriotism” issue and a Black-White divide rather than a human-rights and freedom-of-speech issue further polarized the public. As counselors, we may see clients with a range of opinions and perspectives on this and other issues, and we too have to examine our beliefs on these divisive issues.

The #MeToo movement cannot be overlooked in this discourse. Thankfully, the voices of privileged women brought this center stage, yet it was Tarana Burke, an African American woman, who coined the term and brought issues of oppression among working-class women in the South to light. Women across the life span, but particularly girls, women of color, older adult women and economically disadvantaged women, continue to be victimized in a heteropatriarchal society. Although the majority of counseling professionals and counselors-in-training are women, we must be intentional about addressing sexism in the classroom, therapy room and institutions in which we work. We are privileged, but many of our students and clients may not know how to negotiate spaces of harassment and sexual assault.

There is no time for complacency if we, as counselors, consider ourselves to be ethical and multicultural and social justice advocates. The impact of a dissonant national climate and visible expressions of hate on clients and communities must inform our work.

Counselors possess critical competencies to facilitate and support clients, peers and family members who require advocacy. To this end, we must use critical thinking, seek accurate information and develop understanding of sociopolitical contexts. Collective responses and calls to action for justice have been framed politically within the context of a racialized history. For example, assertions that the Black Lives Matter movement is parallel to White supremacy groups misconstrue the purpose of the organization. Black Lives Matter is a collective response of peaceful marches that began in response to the killings of Trayvon Martin and other young Black men, whereas, White supremacy is a movement based on the belief that the White “race” is superior. These are very different premises and have very different purposes.

The “March for Our Lives” and “March Across America” were spearheaded by high school students in response to deadly school shootings. These young people raised their voices to challenge legislators and school officials to make schools safe. These marches were visible nationally and brought the issue of gun control to the forefront. School counselors and educators nationally supported the power of these voices. Within the framework of the MCC, we can critically understand the racialized context in which these voices are heard. In the process, many have recognized that youth of color have been raising the issue for some time.

Legislation and policy affecting human rights

There are a number of examples of policy and legislation that endanger human rights and, thus, the well-being of clients and communities.

The website I Am an Immigrant (iamanimmigrant.com) posts empowering messages detailing personal stories of perseverance and success from immigrants from various countries. Contrast this with scenes of individuals being taken from their homes by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — families torn apart, children witnessing their parents being handcuffed, individuals and communities living with new fears and trauma. Hate-based trauma is a critical clinical issue and one that is directly connected to current sociopolitical events and policies.

The MCC guide us to examine our attitudes about immigrants, documented and undocumented alike. If we subscribe to, or neglect to refute, statements that all Latino men are “rapists and drug dealers,” as stated by the president, or that immigrants in low-paying jobs are taking opportunities away from American citizens, then counseling and teaching relationships will be harmed. We must become knowledgeable about the facts concerning immigrants’ historical and current contributions to U.S. society and recognize the shadow of illegitimacy that is cast with harmful rhetoric.

Legislation proposing to ban transgender individuals from the military, limit the access of transgender persons to school bathrooms and remove protections for LGBTQ individuals in the workplace have also reemerged as contentious human-rights issues. These issues should encourage us as counselors to take a moment for self-examination to ensure that we understand our responsibilities. The MCC acknowledge that we all have biases and assumptions based on personal values, but in our professional role, we are expected to uphold the ACA Code of Ethics, including the requirement to pursue nondiscrimination.

With the spate of 2017 hurricanes — including Harvey, Irma and Maria — we witnessed people’s resilience despite the extensive loss of homes, lives and livelihood. What was equally striking was the differential response of federal agencies to the victims of Hurricane Maria on the island of Puerto Rico. The damages were anticipated, but the slow engagement by the U.S. government was inadequate on many accounts. Many months later, a lack of safe drinking water, electricity to fuel hospital generators and internet access to check on loved ones are among the persistent examples of neglect. There were also many blame-the-victim taunts by the U.S. president. These were noted by many Puerto Ricans, human-rights advocates and others as indications of double standards, raising questions about the role of biases in federal response to disasters.

As counselors informed by the MCC, we must ask ourselves about this differential treatment of U.S. citizens and the lack of basic historical knowledge concerning Puerto Ricans as U.S. citizens. This example of marginalization cannot be overlooked.

Awareness and guidance from the MCC, MSJCC

In addition to providing guidance regarding multicultural counseling interactions, the MCC, its operationalizing document and the MSJCC give guidance that is useful in contextualizing and responding to the impact of these traumatic and life-ending events — for clients, for communities and for counselors themselves. We will provide just a few examples but encourage readers to invest in a more thorough examination.

One overarching dimension, implicit in the MCC and explicit in the MSJCC, is that of privilege and marginalization. This dimension calls on counselors to examine their position and power within institutions and society in relation to clients. For example, the current U.S. presidential administration and economic power structures reflect White, Christian, male, heterosexual norms, and numerous legislative and judicial decisions are reinforcing values associated with beliefs about the superiority of those identities. The position of the counselor in relation to those decisions and identities is relevant in terms of beliefs and socialization, as well as what the counselor might represent to the client. Are we seen as trustworthy or “handmaidens of the status quo” (Sue et al, 1992).

In any constellation of the counseling relationship (i.e., whether the counselor is of a similar background to the power brokers and the client is similar to communities being targeted for oppression, whether those roles are switched or whether the counselor and the client are of similar identities), the DPI model highlights the ways in which these identities may be relevant. The dimension of privilege and marginalization should be considered in each of the three arenas of MCC: counselor awareness of own values and biases, client worldview, and culturally appropriate interventions and advocacy.

Counselor awareness of own cultural values and biases: As a critical component of multicultural counseling, current political, social and global events present opportunities for examining counselors’ perspectives and how those perspectives contribute to the counseling environment. These beliefs may support clients experiencing marginalization or they may interfere with best practices and the amelioration of systemic oppression.

Differences based on political or economic views, unexamined racial bias, beliefs about immigration or other stimuli may promote assumptions about clients, their choices and the epistemology of their concerns. Furthermore, divisiveness in communities, the media and families can contribute to conflict that is not easily resolved. There are some who see student advocacy for school safety as opposite to Second Amendment rights. These are intrinsically related issues.

One example of an observable indicator of cultural self-awareness (as quoted from the 1996 MCC operationalization document): “Can identify specific social and cultural factors and events in their history that influence their view and use of social belonging, interpretations of behavior, motivation, problem-solving and decision methods, thoughts and behaviors (including subconscious) in relation to authority and other institutions and can contrast these with the perspectives of others.” In the current political climate, in which legislation limits the rights of entire segments of the population (e.g., members of the LGBTQ community, women, Muslims, immigrants, refugees), this statement suggests the importance of counselors examining their own history in relationship to authority, institutions and beliefs.

Counselor awareness of client worldview: Many current events require us to reflect in terms of the sociopolitical climate and biases. Power differentials between clients and counselors are always present. Differences in the counseling dyad based on a client’s underrepresented identity status require the counselor to attend even more intently.

For example, in counseling, college students who were protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program may now be preoccupied with concerns about remaining in the U.S., the possible deportation of loved ones and harassment by others who consider them to be undocumented immigrants. Trust issues may also inhibit these clients from fully disclosing out of fear that the counselor might break confidentiality because of the student’s status.

Understanding clients’ worldviews includes understanding the sociopolitical reality in which they live, their fears, the reality of the bias they may face and the impact of immigration policies and practices on their families and communities. Regardless of immigration status, or beliefs about immigration, when the current presidential administration makes broad statements disparaging immigrants and connecting that to cultural identity markers such as ethnicity, it affects entire communities. In the example involving DACA, it is important to understand the policies, rights and resources available to students and to understand the climate of their peers and institutions.

Moving beyond DACA, since the 2016 presidential election, expressions of hate against immigrants, Muslims, Black students and others have increased. Multicultural practice requires an understanding of that climate and how it affects clients. As counselor educators, it is our responsibility to check in with our students to support and hear them out. This is a small gesture of advocacy.

Culturally appropriate intervention strategies: Culturally appropriate counseling interventions include work with clients and on behalf of clients. The MCC advise counselors to consider the cultural contexts of clients and counseling approaches that are congruent for clients’ developmental level, familial and cultural beliefs, and acculturation. Understanding the client’s cultural and sociopolitical context should help determine culturally appropriate interventions and support systems. In the MSJCC, the Advocacy Competencies are also integrated as interventions. The ACA Advocacy Competencies provide valuable guidance for advocating with clients and on behalf of clients to address many of the difficult issues affecting their well-being.

In the DACA example, counselors could advocate through individual interventions, organizational interventions and policy or legislative actions. Individually, counselors could provide students with campus resources to assist with documents that need to be submitted and with identifying DACA-informed immigration attorneys.
DACA clients may also be facing hostility either from fellow students or, in some cases, from staff or faculty. Counselors, as charged by the ACA Code of Ethics, are responsible for bringing discrimination to the attention of their employers and for acting in the best interests of clients. This is an example of an intersection between advocacy and ethical imperatives and would represent organization-level advocacy.

 

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Patricia Arredondo is president of the Arredondo Advisory Group and faculty fellow at Fielding Graduate University. She has published extensively on multicultural competencies and guidelines, Latinx mental health and immigrant identity challenges. She is a past president of the American Counseling Association. Contact her at parredondo@arredondoadvisorygroup.com.

Rebecca L. Toporek is a professor in the Department of Counseling at San Francisco State University. She has written extensively on multicultural counseling, social justice, engaged empowerment of communities and advocacy. Her counseling specialties are focused
on career and college counseling.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go
to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Counseling students with DACA/undocumented immigration status

By Elizabeth Holbrook December 28, 2017

I was 15 years into my career as a professional school counselor when I met a young man who opened my eyes to the life of navigating the education system as a student with undocumented citizenship status. I was working in an upper-middle-class suburban high school in South Texas. This college student, who had recently graduated from our high school, spoke to our counseling staff about his experiences as a high school student with undocumented status and how Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) changed his life.

Ranked in the top 15 percent of his graduating class, with strong SAT scores and extracurricular involvement, he was a strong admissions candidate who also had scholarship potential. Yet, he thought his immigration status made pursuing a college degree impossible.

He kept his immigration status a secret from educators, including his counselor, until his senior year of high school, when he “came out” (his words) to a teacher he trusted. He feared exposure for himself and his family, social stigma with peers and even possible deportation. He sought DACA soon after it became available in 2012. He got a Social Security number, a work permit and a driver’s license. Most importantly, he experienced some relief from the burden of carrying a secret that had eaten at him since his mother brought him and his sister to the United States when fleeing an abusive marriage.

His former counselor asked him to come speak to our counseling staff because she felt she had failed him due to her lack of information and our counseling staff’s lack of communicating the safety zone of the counseling office. After he spoke, I came to realize that a hidden, underserved student population existed in many schools. His story inspired my pursuit of this topic both for my dissertation and for professional growth as a counselor.

As I explored this topic, it became apparent that many educators did not know how best to serve students with undocumented or DACA immigration status. Additionally, I learned that broaching the topic produced reactions ranging from knowledgeable support to embarrassed ignorance to xenophobic revelations. I chose to put this research interest into practice to gain better insight.

I have interviewed students with DACA/undocumented immigration status for my dissertation, volunteered with advocacy organizations, led counseling groups for high school students and presented about this topic in conferences throughout the United States (including at the 2017 American Counseling Association Conference in San Francisco). It is from this perspective that I offer these suggestions to my fellow counselors in high school and college settings.

  • Reflect on your legal and ethical obligations as a counselor. Be aware that the U.S. Supreme Court decision Plyler v. Doe (1982) ruled that students in K-12 public education settings cannot be denied access to free schooling based on immigration status. This does not extend into postsecondary education access. Those working at any level of education or in nonprofit organizations should know that Title IX (1964) prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin for organizations that receive federal funds. To not assist students with DACA/undocumented status could be defined as discrimination based on national origin, but this is not clearly defined.

Counselors have ethical obligations not to condone discrimination due to immigration status (see the 2014 ACA Code of Ethics, Standard C.5.). As judicial, legislative and executive actions continue to change, counselors might need to prepare for how their ethical obligations could collide with new laws. Consider how handling records, explaining/maintaining confidentiality and protecting clients may need to change.

  • Learn the unique steps and pitfalls involved in these students’ paths to college and career access. Counselors need to know that getting In-State Residential Tuition (ISRT) is a state-by-state decision. At this time, many students with DACA/undocumented status can get the same tuition rates as their citizen peers based on residency, not citizenship. Students with DACA/undocumented status do not get access to federal student financial aid via the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Sometimes, however, students with DACA status mistakenly file for FAFSA because they have been issued a Social Security number.

Also keep in mind that most DACA recipients are college age or in the workforce. At every presentation I have conducted, I have been approached by counselors or teachers with DACA status. That means that you might have co-workers affected by the DACA decision. Most high school students did not qualify for DACA due to their entry date to the United States. With DACA ending, the number of students with undocumented status appears to be increasing.

  • Understand the emotional struggles associated with DACA/undocumented status. These students are part of the first generation of their families to go to college, which can be overwhelming in itself. But in addition, they can also harbor reasonable fears associated with their immigration status. Most come from mixed-status families and fear deportation for themselves or their family members. Parents may have instilled in their children the need to keep the family secret.

Those with DACA status may regret having exposed their identity to the government, and they now live with certain deadlines regarding their protection from deportation. Those who did not seek DACA status may regret not joining a group that may get some answers to this predicament. Facilitate empowerment by connecting these students with postsecondary mentors and support organizations that foster their agency.

  • Be aware of how current public policies affect these students personally. According to Harvard professor Roberto Gonzales, these policies create a state of liminality (betweenness) for these students. Not having citizenship status and not having a path to citizenship in their home country puts them between countries in a manner unique to their situation. The lack of certainty is a constant; long-term plans can seem useless. Supreme Court decisions can be overturned as part of a multitiered process, executive actions can be issued swiftly, and bills going through Congress can stall. Counselors can help students understand these processes.

If you work on a college campus, you have probably seen petitions, rallies and information sessions. Many of these students are seeking support, but they may get discouraged as they see the spotlight move to other current issues. They are practicing acts that citizens employ regularly, but they do not have the protection of citizenship. Going public is risky and can create emotional responses. In addition, citizenship can be taken for granted by those who have it. For those who do not have it, perceived apathy on the part of citizens can be offensive and further trigger emotional responses.

When I began my learning journey about students with DACA/undocumented status, I had no idea it would become a highly charged political issue. In light of recent events, I felt an obligation to share with the counseling community what I have learned. I also want to thank the students, educators and community service members who enlightened me about this hidden student population.

 

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Elizabeth Holbrook has more than 20 years of experience counseling in K-12 public schools. She is currently a professional school counselor in Northside Independent School District in San Antonio, Texas. She is also an adjunct professor at Our Lady of the Lake University, where she teaches graduate-level students in the school counseling program. Her dissertation, “Exploring the experiences of students of Mexican descent with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals status,” can be found at athenaeum.uiw.edu/uiw_etds/22/. Contact her at Elizabeth.holbrook@nisd.net.

 

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Related reading, from the Counseling Today archives:  “Mental health implications of undocumented immigrant status

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Bringing Syrian hospitality into your counseling practice

By Shadin Atiyeh November 8, 2017

In a small village resting in a valley watched over by a medieval castle, the women made their morning rounds. At each house, they were met by the same ritual. A warm greeting with a kiss on each cheek, an invitation to sit and at least three rounds of offerings: sweets, coffee and fruit. This is an obligation, to express hospitality to guests, but the host treats it as an honor and a joy.

Between each offering, conversation flows about family members, friends and occurrences in the village. The host asks intentionally about each person in the guest’s life. Silences are reserved to hold sadness, grief or political sentiments better left unsaid. These silences are broken with “May God help,” or “baseeta,” translating literally to “simple,” but used to acknowledge the futility of talking about a topic and moving on to the next one.

The Arabic language is vast but vague. One word can carry many meanings, but translated without context, it can lose all meaning. Another example is “Yalla,” which the women will use to indicate that they are ready to leave and move on to the next visit. It can mean “let’s go,” and “hurry up” or “come on.” The goodbyes are drawn out, with invitations to stay longer, kisses and hugs. The guests invite the host to visit them next time.

These morning visits serve multiple purposes. There is no one in the village who will not have a visit from a neighbor, a friend or a family member each day. There is no household task that won’t have a helping hand. There is no meal that anyone in the village will eat alone. There is no newcomer who is not welcomed with multiple visits from each neighbor offering food and conversation. There is also no misstep, family argument or fashion mistake that does not get aired out with the dirty laundry in rooftop conversations. In English, there are many words for aloneness, and each word can have either positive or negative connotations (e.g., solitude and loneliness). In Arabic, “wahida” has a mostly negative connotation: sadness, loneliness, pity.

The values of hospitality, community and honor are central to Syrian and many Middle Eastern cultures. Growing up as an American of Syrian Arab descent, my father told us one story to teach us true hospitality. This story did not involve a fellow Arab but rather a Jewish man who helped my father when he arrived in the United States from Syria at the age of 18. This Jewish business owner gave my father his first job in the United States and supported him in his first years.

When I visited Syria for the first time with my father, I experienced the hospitality and community that he knew. These values can be hard to find in the United States — a primarily individualistic culture where privacy is paramount and the belief that we must make it on our own is prominent. I can imagine the culture shock when my father came to the United States and possibly went a few days without a knock on the door from a neighbor. I felt a similar shock in Syria. I remember craving some privacy or solitude in which to think and read, some freedom from feeling scrutinized.

 

Bridging cultural boundaries

As a licensed professional counselor and approved clinical supervisor working with refugee populations, I try to hold on to an empathy for how culture shock feels and to encourage that empathy among my supervisees. I have an appreciation for my father’s story because I currently work at a Jewish agency expressing Jewish values by resettling Middle Eastern refugees. I have a firsthand experience of the power of this work to bridge cultural boundaries.

As the Syrian refugee crisis continues, refugees are forced to flee their communities and are placed in third countries for resettlement when there is no opportunity to return home. In the United States, a network of nonprofit agencies is responsible for meeting families at the airport, securing housing and providing basic services and cultural orientation. I have learned that we can accomplish these steps either by checking off the boxes or by approaching these refugee families with the same spirit of hospitality and welcoming that they most likely would afford to us. Doing so demonstrates respect and honor and eases the culture shock of being in a new country.

How could you incorporate hospitality into your counseling practice to make it more welcoming for those of Middle Eastern descent? You can follow some rituals that might help to evoke a sense of respect and suggest that your practice is a place to sit and talk.

Many therapists in the United States put effort and thought into how the room is set up. This traditionally involves a private and quiet setting, dim lighting, plants and the therapist’s chair facing a couch. You might have a table with drinks available, but it is important to insist that these clients partake because they would not think it appropriate to take a drink on their own or accept a drink on the first offer. Going through the ritual of making and pouring coffee for your client further demonstrates care and respect. Having a candy dish or sweets tray can also be useful, but it is important to hold the dish and offer it to these clients.

Giving gifts acknowledges the value of relationships to these clients, so you might consider giving small gifts at the first and last sessions. These gifts might be cards, representational items, journals, bookmarks or books. These gifts can serve a therapeutic purpose.

Artwork on the walls can include Arabic writing, such as the words “Ahlwan wa Sahlan,” meaning “Welcome and Health.” Some therapists have their name in Arabic next to the English writing on their doors. If your client speaks English as a second language, make an effort to learn some words that can communicate empathy for the difficulty of learning a new language and having an accent. One of my favorite moments with a client was when my position as the all-knowing authority was shattered by my broken attempts to speak French.

Be careful not to assume what language your clients speak. Instead, ask. Iran, Afghanistan and Somalia, for example, are not Arab countries and speak languages other than Arabic. There are also different ethnic groups such as the Kurds, Armenians, Jews and Chaldeans within Arab countries who may not speak Arabic as their first language.

Don’t expect your client to teach you about their culture. Obtain supervision and consultation and read from credible sources. Hisham Matar’s In the Country of Men is a novel that offers raw insight into the experience of a child growing up in Libya and being forced to leave. Bint Arab: Arab and Arab American Women in the United States, by Evelyn Shakir, portrays the diversity of Arab American cultures and the dissonance women of Arab descent experience living in the United States.

Poetry is another window into cultures and is a highly revered art in Arab traditions. Some famous Arab and Arab American poets include Nizar Qabbani, Adonis, Khalil Gibran and Maram al-Massri. These poems might also be therapeutic tools.

The Arabic language is also ornate, formal and elaborate. It is not enough to say, “Welcome”; you should say “Two welcomes.” When someone says, “Good morning,” the response should be more extravagant, such as “Morning of light.”

There are many sayings and poems that could hold the extreme sadness, loss and loneliness attached to leaving one’s country, home and community. Qabbani wrote: “My son lays down his pens, his crayon box in front of me and asks me to draw a homeland for him. The brush trembles in my hands and I sink, weeping.” My clients might spend a lot of time talking about how loss of homeland has affected their children, parents and other family members. I honor my clients’ positions in their families and allow them to discuss these other people in session because these family members might be extensions of self.

Your clients are the experts on their experiences of their culture and their perspectives on it. Many clients from racial or ethnic minorities might be walking into your office with the same questions: Will the therapist understand my culture? Will the therapist respect my culture?

As the counselor, you have the power to initiate a conversation about these unspoken questions, make these concerns explicit and address them. Respect and acknowledge differences while also connecting on commonalities such as the feelings of loss, guilt and shame.

Counselors working with this population must also acknowledge the political and social climate in which these refugees are entering the United States. Experiences and fears of discrimination and prejudice have contributed to increased anxiety, depression and traumatic stress among Arab Americans in the United States. Adding clients’ past traumatic experiences to these experiences can lead many to isolate themselves further.

Therapists in the United States inundated with negative images of the Middle East might be at risk of holding unexamined negative stereotypes and beliefs about Middle Eastern people and their cultures. The therapeutic space can become a place of risk for further harming vulnerable clients, or it can provide an opportunity to give clients a chance to experience understanding and support.

In bringing a spirit of Syrian hospitality into my work as a counselor, I am able to communicate a warmth and welcoming to my clients. As my clients walk a tightrope over an ocean — behind them loss and in front of them both danger and opportunity — I hope the therapeutic space offers rest and reflection. A good host is usually invited as a guest. I attempt to be invited as a guest into my clients’ lives so that I can work with them to build bridges over those oceans.

 

“Light is more important than the lantern. The poem more important than the notebook.” — Nizar Qabbani

 

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Shadin Atiyeh is a master’s-level licensed professional counselor in Michigan, national certified counselor and approved clinical supervisor. She is currently a doctoral student in counselor education and supervision and a department manager within a refugee resettlement and social services agency. She has five years of experience providing clinical services, case management and employment services with vulnerable populations, including refugees and other immigrants, survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault, and families experiencing homelessness. She also serves as a clinical supervision for counseling interns and prelicensure counselors. Contact her at shadin.atiyeh@waldenu.edu.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Counseling survivors of human trafficking

By Lamerial McRae and Letitia Browne-James October 9, 2017

Millions of human trafficking victims exist across the globe. In the United States, hundreds of thousands of victims experience trafficking. As society expands and evolves, human trafficking perpetrators find new ways to recruit and victimize others. The evolution of perpetration ensues because of increases in accessing technology, shifting state and federal laws, and changing criminal investigation methods within communities. Human trafficking continues to evolve into a new way of enslaving human beings, stripping individuals of basic rights and freedoms, while skirting the legal issues of slavery and ownership.

Human traffickers often recruit individuals by offering the fantasy of increased happiness, stability, relationship success and financial freedom. Human traffickers, often referred to as “pimps” or “playboys,” may recruit a female or male victim with promises of a better quality of life, including, but not limited to money, security and safe shelter. These perpetrators often present as charming and recruit their victims using lies and manipulation. They prey on victims from vulnerable populations, including those with low socioeconomic status (SES), biological females, children and adolescents, immigrants and LGBTQ+ youth. The fact that these vulnerable populations often remain dependent on others or experience institutionalized marginalization allows for perpetrators to paint the picture of a better life, both in terms of finance and social support. Thus, counselors must understand the cycle of perpetration and victimization to pinpoint potential victims among clients.

As a starting point, counselors must understand the nature of the phenomenon and seek ways to identify potential risk and protective factors. Counselors must learn to assess and address possible victimization with effective rapport building and intervention. For example, youth may display delinquent behavior (e.g., truancy, sexual misconduct, drug use) as a symptom of coercion and threats by a perpetrator. Perpetrators often experience greater ease when recruiting teenagers because of their tendency to be influenced by others. Sadly, when teenagers fall victim to a human trafficker, they are subjected to the victim-blaming phenomenon.

Thus, to build therapeutic rapport from a nonjudgmental framework, counselors need to understand the true source of teenagers’ behavior rather than labeling them as inappropriate or delinquent. As counselors increase their understanding of risk and protective factors, the profession may be able to conceptualize human trafficking as a systemic problem from a broad perspective.

 

Risk and protective factors

Several risk and protective factors exist for those falling victim to human trafficking. Risk factors include the following demographics and experiences. Risk factors, which are not limited to the list provided, may change over time with the help of counselors.

  • Low SES
  • Previous or current substance abuse
  • Social vulnerability (e.g., children, females, LGBTQ+ individuals)
  • Limited education.

Protective factors, referred to as strengths in counseling, include the following demographics and experiences. Counselors must foster protective factors and strengths in clients to reduce the risk of falling victim to trafficking.

  • Education
  • Family stability
  • Strong social support networks
  • Mental and emotional health

Counselors should understand these risk and protective factors to assess potential risks for human trafficking and to focus on increasing protective factors in counseling. For example, counselors may use a family counseling approach when working with survivors to increase their connections to loved ones and family. Throughout the process of recruiting and selling human trafficking victims, counselors may notice several risk and protective factors playing a role in the process.

 

Human trafficking business model and counseling implications

Human trafficking remains a mysterious and misunderstood phenomenon. Because of a lack of understanding about the effects of human trafficking on our society, counselors are charged with educating themselves to best address and assess individuals for victimization.

Counselors should recognize that survivors of sex trafficking require additional techniques (to those used with other clients) to build rapport with them and to reduce the mistrust that they commonly have about people. To best serve survivors, treatment approaches need to remain centered on survivors, empower them, provide safety and involve a multidisciplinary approach. In addition, professional counselors working extensively with sex trafficking survivors hold legal and ethical responsibilities to provide appropriate services and identify strategies to overcome barriers to their treatment, including specialized and intensive training.

To begin, counselors must understand the human trafficking business model to conceptualize the systemic issue and the moving parts that contribute to the continuing cycle. To highlight some of the societal and professional impacts, consider the parallel of the human trafficking business model to the process of manufacturing goods. The human trafficking business model includes the following stages of grooming and distribution:

1) The supplier recruits the victim.

2) The manufacturer grooms the victim.

3) The retailer determines price and then markets the victim.

4) The retailer sells and the consumer purchases the victim.

The human trafficking business model is a sophisticated process, not always linear in nature, and it functions as a well-established industry. Thus, the need exists to explore each of the model to better understand how to help victims and break the cycle.

Stage 1: Supplying victims. The supplier, also known as the initial human trafficking perpetrator, displays high levels of mental health concerns (e.g., antisocial personality traits) and shows little concern for the basic human rights of others. When victims enter this stage, counselors may find that these individuals report troubles at home, low SES, depression, anxiety and truant behavior. These factors contribute to their need to survive. Unfortunately, this may result in a perpetrator using charm or manipulation to attract the victims. Perpetrators remove victims’ identification, passports and other valuables to trap them in the world of human trafficking.

Clinical assessment is vital at this stage and remains an ongoing process. Counselors may want to ease survivors into telling their stories, paying special attention to the therapeutic relationship. Thus, the most valuable interventions at this stage include active listening and reflection. When administering specific assessment instruments, counselors will want to measure attitudes about victimization and perpetration and prevalence rates of violence. Counselors must use both open- and closed-ended questions to directly address potential victimization. Nonverbally, counselors will want to avoid direct eye contact and limit their use of touch because of victims’ trauma and abuse history.

Stage 2: Grooming victims. This stage involves moving human trafficking victims from the supplier to the manufacturer. Perpetrators continue to display high levels of antisocial behaviors and major mental health concerns; survivors present with mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety and addiction. Substance abuse concerns usually present when perpetrators force their victims to engage in substance use to coerce and control their behaviors, often resulting in addiction.

Counselors must use clinical assessment and maintain that ongoing process. In addition, because survivors have been manufactured as a human trafficking product, their levels of abuse and mistrust often appear high when they present to counseling. Therefore, counselors must focus on the therapeutic relationship as victims provide information about their experiences in trafficking. Counselors should pay special attention to reducing the stigma of substance use and mental health concerns, especially considering that victims develop these concerns because of coercion and violence.

Stage 3: Marketing victims. This stage involves moving survivors from the manufacturer to the retailer. At this stage, human trafficking perpetrators focus on the marketing and sales aspect of their exploitation. For example, based on the quality of their goods (i.e., victim age, appearance) and market demand, perpetrators determine the price for selling each of their victims. At this stage, survivors present with major depressive, dissociative and addiction disorders.

At this stage, counselors again use clinical assessment to understand the survivor’s story while maintaining a trustworthy therapeutic relationship. As previously stated, severe mental health concerns present because of the violence and abuse that victims experience. Thus, counselors need to use evidenced-based practices to treat depression and dissociative symptoms. Some of the most helpful interventions to treat these mental health concerns include grounding and relaxation techniques.

When focusing on grounding, counselors must engage the client’s physical world to assist the person in becoming present in the moment. For example, counselors may ask clients to locate an object in the room and provide an in-depth description. Relaxation techniques to practice include deep breathing and mindfulness meditation. Both types of techniques allow clients to practice coping skills during sessions that can translate to their everyday life experiences.

Stage 4: Selling victims. As retailers push survivors toward the consumers, the perpetrators continue to focus on marketing strategies and targeting potential consumers. Perpetrators often target large events (e.g., the Super Bowl, national political conventions) to take advantage of the crowds and high demand for paid sexual services. Those paying for the sex services, the consumers, exhibit low levels of depression and anxiety. These consumers often report avoiding relationship concerns or other mental health concerns, resulting in a desire to seek out sexual activity.

Because survivors have been a part of ongoing abuse and a cycle of victimization that they cannot break, counselors must use a systemic approach to providing services. For example, counselors need to provide information on shelters and building connections with family. Counselors may incorporate the use of technology and location services, safety words and discussing location with loved ones at all times.

 

Case example         

Toney, an 18-year-old multiracial, cisgender male, moved away from his caregivers’ home about one year ago and currently lives with a friend. He moved because of safety issues in his home and within the nearby neighborhood. When Toney was 16, his father died during a gang-related shootout at their home. Thus, Toney often felt afraid of engaging in a similar lifestyle and enduring similar consequences. Toney’s mother suffered from a severe substance use disorder that led to eviction from their rental home because she could not afford the rent. Toney and his mother became homeless.

While Toney was homeless, Kevin, a childhood friend, suggested that Toney come live with him temporarily as long as Toney obtained a job and contributed to the rent and utility bills. One day, Toney answered the front door, and a young adult male appearing to be about Toney’s age attempted to sell him a magazine subscription. Toney disclosed to the salesman that he was financially strapped. The young man told Toney about the large sums of money he made while selling magazine subscriptions and offered to put him in contact with the owner. Toney was intrigued by the idea of alleviating his financial troubles, and the young male immediately scheduled a meeting with the owner for later that night.

That evening, Toney met with the young salesman and the business owner in an abandoned parking lot, bought their sales pitch and decided to go to work. The business owner told Toney that he would need to move six hours away to another state because there was a high demand for work there and he would not have to pay any rent or utility bills. The business owner promised Toney the opportunity to travel and see many areas of the country while working in the job.

Thus, Toney left a day later to live in a weekly hotel in a new city with his new manager and several others. Upon arriving, the manager took them to a warehouse to pick up the product. They all began working the next day.

After a few weeks, Toney began grasping the reality of his situation. The job of trying to sell magazine subscriptions was strenuous and exhausting. He often worked 10- to 12-hour days while receiving limited rest and food. When Toney voiced concerns about the number of work hours he put in each day, his manager threatened him. The threats later escalated to physical assault when Toney again voiced his concern and when the manager perceived him to be underperforming at the job.

No matter how hard Toney tried, he could not meet the daily sales goal that the manager set for employees. When Toney failed to meet the daily sales quota, the manager either denied him his nightly meal or forced him to sleep outside of the hotel on the streets. As a result, Toney rarely ate and often did not receive the money he had earned while working. He was told that he would receive the money once the team had completed its sales goals for the area and had moved on to another city.

One day, while trying to sell magazines to a homeowner who declined to buy anything, Toney became agitated and started crying. He told the homeowner that he was in trouble and begged her to help him get home, across state lines. The homeowner had recently watched a documentary on human trafficking and invited Toney to use her phone to call the authorities.

The police arrived and took Toney’s statement about his work experiences. Fortunately, the responding officer had recently attended a departmental training on human trafficking, and she took Toney to the police station for further questioning and support. The officer connected Toney with a local nonprofit organization that provided multidisciplinary services, including professional counseling, to survivors of human trafficking. The organization offered shelter and provided Toney with career development services to help him obtain legitimate work. The shelter’s ultimate goal was to move Toney back to his hometown.

In counseling sessions with Toney, the counselor focused on direct questions to assess the nature of the human trafficking Toney had experienced. For example, “Did anyone threaten you or your loved ones?” and “Did you have difficulty leaving the work that you did selling door-to-door merchandise?” While initially reluctant, Toney eventually responded with answers that indicated his victimization. For example, he reported that his manager used threats and power and control tactics (such as denying Toney food, money and shelter) to force him to work.

Following assessment, Toney received counseling services focused on recovering from the abuse he had endured. Toney felt validated because he was not alone while accepting that he had fallen victim to human trafficking. The counselor and Toney focused on crisis intervention and stabilization in the beginning, which included discussions about adjunct services and basic needs assessments (e.g., food and clothing, job obtainment). Next, the counselor and Toney addressed the trauma, focusing on decreasing anxiety-provoking cues and scaffolding into addressing more severe cues and triggers. All the while, Toney and the counselor developed several grounding and relaxation techniques to use both in their sessions and in Toney’s real-world experiences.

One of the most valuable grounding techniques made use of a rock that Toney could hold whenever he felt distressed. The counselor taught Toney how to become present, while holding the rock, through discussions about the texture, shape and weight of the rock. Discussing these tactile experiences allowed Toney to focus on the here-and-now rather than attempting to escape feelings and thoughts.

Toney and the counselor also used a breathing method in which Toney would take a deep breath through his nostrils for at least three seconds and exhale through his mouth for three seconds. They determined that he needed to take at least three deep breaths during the exercise so that he could calm down.

In the final stages of counseling, Toney and the counselor developed an action plan to help him avoid falling victim to trafficking. That does not mean, however, that Toney took responsibility for the actions of others. Toney and the counselor reviewed the different needs he may have and how to meet those needs in a helpful manner.

While focusing on the trauma from human trafficking victimization, the counselor worked with Toney on obtaining a job at a local fast food restaurant. They chose this restaurant so that he could easily transfer to another store in his hometown once he felt comfortable with the transition. After three months, Toney finally returned home and moved back in with his friend, Kevin. He remained employed as a fast food line cook and began seeking education at a local culinary institute.

 

 

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Lamerial McRae is an assistant professor at Stetson University and a licensed mental health counselor in Florida. Her research and clinical interests include counselor identity development and gatekeeping; adult and child survivors of trauma, abuse and intimate partner violence; marriages, couples and families; LGBTQ issues in counseling and human trafficking. Contact her at ljacobso@stetson.edu.

Letitia Browne-James is a licensed mental health counselor, clinical supervisor and national certified counselor. She is a clinical manager at a large behavioral health agency in Central Florida and is in the final year of her doctoral program at Walden University, where she is pursuing a degree in counselor education and supervision with a specialization in counseling and social change. She has presented at professional counseling conferences nationally and internationally on various topics, including human trafficking.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.