People in need of help don’t always show up automatically on counselors’ doorsteps and request services. Sometimes counselors have to be intentional about first forming connections with potential clients and inviting them to investigate the therapeutic process. In other instances, counselors may need to get out of their offices and connect directly with people in their own environments to even make them conscious of counseling and let them know that help is available
The American Counseling Association members we spoke to for this article have engaged in different kinds of outreach and advocacy efforts so they can better assist communities in need. In the process, they have deepened their own understanding of different cultures and client populations.
Human sex trafficking is not something that is limited to developing nations. The practice also goes on in the United States and is more common than most people would ever imagine, according to Stacey Litam.
A doctoral student in counselor education and supervision at Kent State University in Ohio, Litam also works as a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and clinical resident at Moore Counseling and Mediation Services in the Cleveland/Akron area. The practice, which specializes in mental health and substance abuse treatment and mediation, has developed a partnership with the Cleveland court system to identify and assist women who have been or are currently being trafficked for sex.
The practice’s CEO, Martina Moore, has a doctoral degree in counselor education and advocates for trafficking survivors, but it was the Cleveland Municipal Court that approached Moore with the idea of collaborating to create a human trafficking docket (a list of legal cases to be tried in court), says Litam, who became part of the collaborative team at the time of her hire in October 2014. Litam notes that fellow Ohio city Toledo has the fourth-highest rate of human sex trafficking cases in the United States, and she suspects that the success of that city’s human trafficking task force influenced Cleveland’s decision to find ways to identify and help trafficking survivors. Moore Counseling staff members had previous experience working with the Cleveland Municipal Court on other specialized dockets, such as those being heard in drug court.
The Cleveland Specialized Human Trafficking Court Docket identifies women who have been charged with solicitation of prostitution and assigns them to probation officers who work with Moore Counseling to set up an evaluation. Litam conducts the evaluations, looking for criteria indicating that a sex worker is being trafficked or has been trafficked in the past. Sexual trafficking is defined as the recruitment, harboring and transportation of a person for a sexual act using force, fraud or coercion, Litam explains.
For many Americans, the phrase sexual trafficking conjures up images of kidnapping and forced servitude, of someplace “other” or foreign. Litam acknowledges that she held those same perceptions before she began working with the trafficking docket.
“When I first I got into this [work], I thought it was an issue that other countries dealt with,” says Litam, a board member of the Ohio branch of the Association for Humanistic Counseling, a division of ACA. However, she quickly learned that a substantial percentage of women and girls who engage in sex work are actually trafficked.
“I have probably completed about 45 assessments, and about three-quarters of those women met the criteria for trafficking,” says Litam, who adds that trafficking is “very insidious and pervasive.”
“A single woman might meet a man who helps her pay for food for her child or helps her with the rent,” Litam explains. “And then the guy says, ‘If you loved me, you would do this [have sex for money].’ He’s not using violence, but if the woman doesn’t do it, she may lose her housing or her child will go hungry.”
Another tactic that lures women into sex trafficking is a seduction of sorts, Litam says. A trafficker will pursue a romantic relationship with a woman, lavishing her with praise and gifts, until suddenly the woman “owes” him for the “gifts” of fine jewelry or nice clothing and has to pay off her debt, Litam continues.
In other instances, sex trafficking is all about survival, Litam notes, citing the experience of children living on the streets as an all-too-frequent example. “Children who are trafficked are usually runaways, ‘throwaways’ or [in many cases] LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender],” she explains. “Once they are on the street, they will be approached by a trafficker within 48 hours. Imagine that — you are an adolescent, and you are alone and need help. Traffickers are really good at finding them.”
Indeed, traffickers possess many of the skills associated with predators, such as the ability to sniff out the “wounded” and vulnerable, Litam continues. For many adult women who are trafficked, their journey to the streets began years earlier, because they were either trafficked or sexually abused as a child. In other cases, she says, women get caught up in trafficking to feed an addiction.
If Litam’s evaluation determines that a woman has been trafficked, she is eligible — after serving jail time for any solicitation charges — for the voluntary rehabilitation program that Moore Counseling has designed. The two-year program includes mental health counseling, intensive outpatient or residential treatment, substance abuse treatment and group counseling.
Trafficking survivors and women who are still being trafficked often live in unstable environments — typically with other women under the control of a trafficker, in housing they have a hard time paying for, with people who have substance abuse problems or in a home where they are being abused. In some instances, they may even be homeless. Living under such precarious circumstances makes it more difficult for these women to get off the street, let alone seek assistance for substance abuse or mental health issues, Litam points out.
“The two-year duration [of the rehabilitation program] was established in the hope that within this time period, our services would stabilize the client’s mental health, provide addiction treatment and aftercare, and help the client establish safe and stable housing,” Litam says. “Ultimately, I would like to see clients attend at least eight counseling sessions with me. Or, if the client is in need of substance use treatment, I would love for her to complete intensive outpatient treatment and aftercare while meeting with me once a week and perhaps continue to receive counseling afterward if needed.”
However, multiple factors keep many of the women from committing to the full program. “Women do not want to disclose,” Litam says. “I’ve never had a woman say outright, ‘Help me.’”
Some women aren’t ready to leave their traffickers, and those who stay, even if they are willing to come to counseling, are up against a fundamental problem. To the trafficker, time is money.
The women come to Moore Counseling and the rehabilitation program after spending time in jail, which can be as long as five days. By that time, the trafficker is already angry because he’s losing money, Litam explains. So the women are very vigilant and fearful of any time they spend away. Even an hour away will be noticed and questioned, Litam says.
“The benefit of counseling has to outweigh the cost of being away,” Litam says. Most of the women who are still being trafficked determine that isn’t the case, she concludes sadly. Many of the women who are eligible for the rehabilitation program will attend only a few sessions — or even just a single session. Litam says she treats each session as if it were the last one because, in many instances, it might be.
At a bare minimum, Litam makes sure that the women get a card that includes the phone number for the national human trafficking hotline. She also talks with them about having a safety plan, which involves figuring out where they can go, even if only temporarily, if they feel they are in danger. She encourages them to always have a “go” bag prepacked with any necessary personal items. Litam may also use motivational interviewing to help a client explore her ambivalence about her addiction or toward her relationship with her trafficker.
Women aren’t necessarily ready to engage in intensive counseling even if they are no longer being trafficked, Litam says. On average, trafficking survivors come in for four or five sessions before stopping, she says. But it’s not uncommon for these women to contact the program to begin counseling again a few weeks or months after their initial round, she adds.
“Some women may need to briefly touch on the trauma for a few sessions, take a few weeks off, then come back,” Litam explains. “I always welcome the women back when they do call. Trauma work is not on my time; it is on theirs.”
Litam uses a variety of techniques based on the client’s history and current circumstances. “Of course, every survivor will present with different needs depending on her individual resources and history. It’s whatever the client needs,” she emphasizes. “Sometimes they just want to sit and talk and not be judged. Sometimes it’s [the conversation] just about how worried they are about their child.”
One of Litam’s clients has made a significant amount of progress using creative-based interventions to express and release her trauma experiences. “We have also focused on addressing and reframing the cognitive distortions she developed while being trafficked,” Litam says.
Another of Litam’s clients has taken what she has learned through psychoeducation about how trauma affects the brain and applied it to her emotional regulation. “[She] finds peace in her ability to self-regulate her emotions outside of our sessions, has identified triggers and uses diaphragmatic breathing and progressive muscle relaxation as part of her daily self-care routine,” Litam says.
With other clients, Litam uses narrative exposure therapy to help them integrate complex trauma experiences into the context of their lives. “Establishing a timeline may look like placing a piece of rope on the ground with one end representing ‘birth’ and a balled up end representing ‘life that has yet to be lived.’ Clients place objects along the rope to represent positive and traumatic events along their timeline,” Litam explains. “Processing the trauma narrative in a safe place empowers clients to habituate to the trauma. Also, clients can feel empowered to see that much of [their] life has yet to unfold. It is a beautiful reminder and metaphor that things can get better.”
Litam also started a women’s resilience group at the practice where she works. She established it primarily to serve as an extra source of support for her female clients who have been trafficked, but she didn’t want the participants to feel labeled in that way, so she opened the group up to other female clients as well. She says the group represents a place where any woman can feel comfortable seeking peer support. Litam and several other counselors facilitate the group, which meets weekly.
Litam’s advocacy work doesn’t stop at her office door. She is also raising awareness within the law enforcement community about the prevalence of sex trafficking. Currently, she is working with a probation officer to set up a trafficking panel to better educate police officers.
Litam says police officers often lock up women for solicitation without looking for signs of coercion, even if the woman has visible bruises or other injuries. Her hope is that greater awareness by police officers about how common sex trafficking is might lead to earlier intervention and assistance for those being trafficked.
Litam is also an adjunct professor at Northeast Ohio Medical University, where she teaches students to use empathic communication in their patient interviews and examinations to look for signs that an individual is being trafficked or might be in danger. These indicators include constantly watching the door and being hypervigilant of her surroundings and the passage of time (time for which a trafficker will be wondering why she isn’t out making money).
Litam is also excited about research she is conducting with Jesse Bach, executive director of The Imagine Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Cleveland dedicated to ending human trafficking. Litam and Bach are studying human sex trafficker behavioral patterns, demographics and other characteristics in an attempt to establish a kind of trafficking “typology.” Their hope is that by identifying how different human sex traffickers operate, they can better understand how women (or men) are selected and kept under the trafficker’s control. Litam thinks that understanding these factors will also help identify intervention methods that might be more successful when counseling survivors and those currently being trafficked.
“Take, for example, a survivor who came from an unstable home and lacked a strong support system. Unfortunately, traffickers are predators and are excellent at identifying vulnerable women,” she says. “After months of ‘courting’ behaviors in which the trafficker convinces the woman he loves her and showers her with nice things, she may become conflicted in her ability to resist when he finally asks her to engage in commercial sex acts. This woman may need more intensive counseling on topics such as establishing appropriate boundaries, increasing self-efficacy, building strong support systems and CBT [cognitive behavior therapy] techniques.”
Litam says working with survivors and victims of human sex trafficking has become her passion. She believes that she can help these individuals not only by using her counseling skills with them but also by raising awareness of the prevalence of human sex trafficking.
“I would love for the average counselor to know that this is not a problem specific to Third World countries or inner cities, but that it is everywhere,” Litam says. She emphasizes that no neighborhood is exempt from human trafficking, regardless of whether that neighborhood is located in an upper-class suburb, a small town or even a rural area.
‘Learning’ rather than ‘teaching’
Counseling must always start with an understanding of the client’s cultural values, says Rachael Goodman, an assistant professor in the counseling and development program at George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax, Virginia. This is one of the underlying tenets of counseling and a thread woven through all that counseling students learn as they work toward their degrees. However, Goodman says, experiencing others’ cultural traditions firsthand can impart an understanding that is more powerful than anything learned in the classroom.
In 2013, Goodman, as part of an effort facilitated by Counselors Without Borders, helped lead a group of GMU graduate students on a trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. There they spent time with the people of the Oglala Lakota Nation as they prepared for and performed their annual Sun Dance ritual. Counselors Without Borders, founded by ACA member Fred Bemak, a professor of counseling and development and director of the Diversity Research and Action Center at GMU, is an organization committed to providing culturally sensitive humanitarian counseling in post-disaster situations.
Goodman thought it was particularly important for the students, who were taking a cross-cultural counseling class, to be exposed to other traditions. “It’s important for us [counselors] not to simply impose what might be misaligned Western models,” she says. “With any community, understanding what their traditions are is important for social justice so that we are not exacerbating marginalization.”
Goodman, who is also a member of Counselors for Social Justice, a division of ACA, planned the trip to coincide with the Sun Dance ritual so the counseling students could see practices that have both spiritual significance and a healing purpose for the Lakota people. A girl’s coming-of-age ceremony was also taking place at the same time.
Goodman and the students arrived before the ceremonies began to help with the preparations. For Lakota traditional services, the ground must be prepared in a certain way — for instance, the students helped build a circular space and a traditional arbor. (Because the Sun Dance is so sacred to the Lakota, Goodman says she is not comfortable giving details about the ritual). The counseling group also helped the young women with their rituals such as quilting and quillwork, which involves dyeing porcupine quills for use in traditional art.
These ceremonies have many healing and spiritual elements, perhaps the most important of which is a reclaiming of the Lakota culture, Goodman says. “It’s very important because of the history of genocide,” she elaborates. “For a long time, the United States government outlawed a number of native practices. The idea that you [as a Lakota person] wouldn’t be able to practice these ceremonies is in itself a trauma, so being able to perform them again is healing in itself.”
The Lakota are reclaiming not just their traditional ceremonies but also their native language, which was also outlawed for a long time, Goodman says. The group she led spent time with school students who were taking a language immersion class intended to sustain and widen the use of the Lakota language.
“I wasn’t aware of the importance of language in spirituality,” Goodman says. “They [the ceremonies] are conducted in Lakota, and if you don’t know [the language], you would have trouble understanding spiritual traditions.”
Goodman and her group also learned about the Lakota method of equine assistance therapy, which she describes as an interesting mix of Western culture and native practices. She says that for the Lakota, the horse doesn’t serve simply as a “feedback” instrument but rather is part of a person’s healthy connection to nature and all beings.
Goodman says all of the activities the group participated in taught the counseling students not only about Native American cultural practices but also helped them realize that counseling and therapy don’t necessarily have to occur in a formal, 50-minute, one-on-one sit-down. Counselors can provide support to clients and communities simply by listening, understanding and witnessing, she says.
Something else that struck Goodman during the trip was how the historical trauma of the Lakota is still very much a part of their present challenges. The people she spoke with emphasized that while the media and even well-meaning helping professionals often focus on issues such as substance abuse and violence on Native American reservations, they are seeing only the surface issues and not recognizing the historical trauma that underlies it all.
The people of Pine Ridge also had a parting message for Goodman and her group: “Let people know. Go back and tell our stories.”
Creative college counseling
Sometimes the biggest need for outreach is in a counselor’s own backyard — or campus. College students remain one of the counseling profession’s most underserved populations, not because there aren’t counselors available to help students but because these students are unlikely to come to the college counseling center for help, even when they desperately need it.
Research indicates that many college and university students aren’t just stressed, but depressed and anxious as well. In fact, 42.4 percent of the almost 75,000 undergraduate students who completed the 2015 annual American College Health Association National College Health Assessment reported experiencing more than average stress within the past 12 months, and 10.3 percent reported feeling tremendous stress. When asked about depression and anxiety during the previous 12 months, 35.3 percent of survey respondents reported feeling so depressed that it was difficult for them to function; 57.7 percent indicated feeling overwhelming anxiety.
At the same time, only a fraction of students in distress appear to be seeking help. The 275 college and university counseling centers that participated in the 2014 National Survey of College Counseling, an annual report sponsored by the American College Counseling Association (ACCA), a division of ACA, reported that only 10.9 percent of college or university students had sought services at a campus counseling center in the past year.
Clearly, “build it and they will come” is not a fitting slogan for campus counseling centers. Tamara Knapp-Grosz, who was the director of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) counseling center for 15 years, wondered what might happen if the center was proactive about going to the students instead. She started the process by offering workshops on depression at the counseling center and at various other campus meeting facilities, but most students still chose to stay away.
“I started thinking, ‘What is the goal of outreach?’” says Knapp-Grosz, an ACA member who is leaving SCAD to become director of the counseling center at the University of North Texas. First and foremost, she believes college counseling outreach should build a connection not only between the counseling center and the students but also between the students themselves because they have the potential to serve as secondary sources of support for one another.
But Knapp-Grosz, who had become interested in positive psychology during the beginning of her tenure at SCAD, was also struck by the idea of creating “shifts in the energy and atmosphere” during stressful times such as final exams. As she and the counseling center staff brainstormed ways to bring some positivity and levity to the students, their first creative outreach endeavor was born.
When stress levels got high, the counseling center staff and interns would visit various classrooms and celebrate a famous artist’s birthday. Knapp-Grosz, the immediate past president of ACCA, wanted to truly personalize the events and target the students by their areas of study, so the birthday parties were specific to the students’ specialties. For instance, a class of painting students might celebrate Van Gogh’s birthday with a themed cake and trivia. A birthday party for Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, thrown for students in the sequential arts (narratives accompanied by illustration such as those found in comic strips, graphic novels and storyboards), produced laughing and dancing, she notes. Word would spread throughout the building about the birthday parties, attracting additional students to join the celebrations.
The birthday party tradition continues through the present day, and Knapp-Grosz believes the benefits extend beyond providing students a brief break from stress. “Students start to connect with each other,” she points out.
They also start to connect with the counseling center personnel. Fliers detailing the services that the counseling center offers are always available at the parties, but that is secondary to the influence of the interactions between the counseling staff and the students, Knapp-Grosz asserts. By being at these “parties,” counseling staff are introducing themselves in a nonthreatening way and helping students become familiar with mental health professionals, perhaps even demystifying their role in the process, she says.
Other in-classroom interventions include “brain breakers,” a brief interval during which a counseling center staff member arrives with a limbo stick and music and invites students to limbo.
Yet another outreach tool, the Pizza Fairy, has achieved almost cultlike status, Knapp-Grosz says with amusement. The Pizza Fairy is a counseling center staff member who shows up in the student residence halls with free pizzas (accompanied by counseling center fliers) that are donated by a local hospital. There is no set schedule, so it is always a surprise when the Pizza Fairy appears.
“He’s become almost an urban legend,” Knapp-Grosz says. “People will text each other about it — ‘Have you seen him? Is he coming?’” In fact, students have even shown up at the counseling center looking for the Pizza Fairy, she notes with satisfaction.
The creative outreach doesn’t stop there. The counseling center has also featured Doughnut Divas who dressed up in costumes and handed out doughnuts in front of classroom buildings in the morning. The Doughnut Divas were replaced by Granola Goddesses when the students requested healthier food.
Then there is a certain iconic character in a big red suit who makes appearances on campus. “Toward the end of the quarter, we do ‘psycho Santa,’” Knapp-Grosz explains. “[Staff members or interns] put on a typical Santa costume but with goofy socks or something, and we’ll have an article about [topics like the] holiday blues. They [the Santas] usually go to the dining halls and hand out candy canes. We’ll sometimes have elves and reindeer too.”
The creative outreach seems to have paid off. Knapp-Grosz notes that over time, use of the counseling center at SCAD has risen to include approximately 50 percent of the student population.
The unconventional approach to outreach also seems to benefit the counseling center staff, Knapp-Grosz observes. “You have less burnout and compassion fatigue,” she says. “It’s refreshing to be out and about, and we are interacting with a broader student population.”
Knapp-Grosz says that before she starts making similar outreach plans at her new job at the University of North Texas, she will need to meet the center staff and learn more about the needs of the student population. She does, however, have an idea involving therapy dogs, inspired by her own dog, a standard poodle. As a breed, poodles have a penchant for dancing.
“If it fits the culture, I would like to have poodle dancing [in the classroom or other campus locations],” Knapp-Grosz says with a laugh. “I just think that would be really cool.”
Connecting with communities
Advocacy and outreach are two of the values at the core of the counseling profession, says ACA President Thelma Duffey, who has made counselor advocacy and outreach one of her presidential initiatives.
“I think counseling outreach provides a way for us to connect with our communities and to participate in advocacy and services,” she says. “It’s an opportunity for counselors to contribute to their communities by offering their areas of knowledge and expertise — at times to people who feel, and sometimes are, unsupported or disconnected.”
To contact the individuals interviewed for this article, email:
- Stacey Litam at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rachael Goodman at email@example.com
- Tamara Knapp-Grosz at firstname.lastname@example.org
Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at email@example.com.
Letters to the editor: firstname.lastname@example.org