Treating the Hidden Wounds: Trauma Treatment and Mental Health Recovery for Victims of Human Trafficking. Trauma Informed and Specific Services


Given this range of challenges, what do we know about the way systems and services can best respond to the complex and multiple needs of trafficking victims?  One especially useful framework characterizes two broad categories of service delivery: trauma informed services, appropriate for all systems of care in which victims may present; and trauma specific services, designed to treat the actual symptoms of physical or sexual abuse in specialty treatment programs (Harris & Fallot, 2001).

This framework is especially appropriate to working with trafficked women and girls since they are likely to present in a variety of systems of care for other than their trauma-related needs.  Trauma informed services can promote a sensitive and relevant response regardless of where a victim seeks help, and can also improve the identification of victims.  At the same time, trafficking victims are likely to need more specific and long-term trauma treatment.  The distinction between trauma informed and trauma specific services can help providers better pinpoint where their services are located on the continuum and what it might take (including training, supervision, additional program components and networking) to create a more continuous and comprehensive system for victims of human trafficking.

Trauma informed services encompass two distinctly different things.  According to Harris & Fallot (2001), to be trauma informed means, first, to know the history of past and current abuse in the life of your clients.  This information allows for a more integrated and appropriate approach to meeting their needs.  But second, to be trauma informed means to understand the role that violence and victimization play in the lives of most consumers of services and to use that understanding to design service systems that accommodate the vulnerabilities of trauma survivors and allow services to be delivered in a way that will facilitate consumer participation in treatment. (Harris & Fallot, 2001, pp. 4-5)  Trauma informed services are generally developed to treat primary problems other than trauma, by building capacity within those systems of care where survivors of trauma may present (i.e., homeless shelters, substance abuse treatment programs, the criminal/juvenile justice systems, mental health programs, medical programs, etc.).  Regardless of the agency or systems primary mission, trauma informed services are committed to providing services in a manner that is welcoming and appropriate to the special needs of trauma survivors.  Both the identification of victims, and successful treatment of their trauma, can be improved by having trauma informed services provided in multiple systems. 

Trauma specific services, on the other hand, are likely to be found with specialty mental health programs or providers, although they clearly could be developed in other medical settings, homeless shelters, or other systems of care.  They are generally accessed by referral to those doing the clinical work.  A variety of trauma specific techniques are in the repertoire of these services.  Among them may be grounding techniques to help manage dissociative symptoms; desensitization therapies to help make painful images more tolerable; and certain behavioral therapies which teach skills for coping with post-trauma effects (Harris & Fallot, 2001).  These therapies can be delivered individually or in groups, and are often augmented by other complimentary approaches, including culturally relevant material.

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