Trauma-Informed: A Necessary Approach for Hope and Healing

On April 29, Suamhirs Piraino-Guzman was awarded the Special Courage Award by The Office for Victims of Crime (which falls under the umbrella of the Justice Department), for his tireless efforts to educate others about human trafficking in the U.S. and around the world.  According to the press release, the award “honors a victim or survivor who has shown exceptional perseverance or determination. It may also acknowledge one who has acted bravely to aid a victim or to prevent victimization.” Much of his work, which includes speaking before The Office on Trafficking in Persons at the Department of Health and Human Services and serving on the first U.S. Advisory Board Council Human Trafficking, has focused on bringing awareness to the effects of trafficking on men and boys. 

Suamhirs is not only a powerful advocate for victims everywhere, but a testament to the need for trauma-informed care. He was fourteen years old when he was kidnapped and trafficked from his native Honduras to California in 2004. A police raid eventually saved him from the physical abuse but resulted in a roller coaster ride that further exacerbated his trauma.  Suamhirs was shuffled from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to a mental health facility and group home. Later, his placement with a foster family brought no stability, for they returned him to immigration officials for deportation. He was then identified as a trafficking victim and permitted to remain in the U.S. foster care system, but he never received the necessary emotional support to help him deal with what he had gone through.

Suamhirs’ experience is a classic example of re-victimization – not at the hands of traffickers, which is how the term is most often used, but those who may have the best of intentions but lack the necessary tools to address the mental and emotional effects of trauma. It literally rewires the brain, hijacking the fight or flight response designed to keep us safe and sending it to overdrive. As a result, the person remains in a hypervigilant state and can develop complex PTSD, sleep disorders, and numerous other physical and mental health challenges. One study found that 23% of survivors try to take their own lives, compared with 3% of the general population.

A trauma-informed approach is a holistic one, taking into account all effects of trauma when working with and on behalf of victims. First, those trained in this approach are able to immediately spot signs of trauma so that the individual is not treated like a criminal. They also understand its complexities, for example, how the PTSD experienced by someone who has been in combat looks different from that of one who has been trafficked or subjected to intimate partner violence.  Treatment includes methods that help individuals feel grounded and safe in their bodies, such as meditation, breathwork, and yoga, in addition to talk therapy. Most importantly, care providers create a safe space for victims to process and heal from their experiences without fear of being blamed or invalidated.

The ways in which government agencies and law enforcement fight trafficking have evolved significantly in the eighteen years since Suamhirs’ abduction, and they continue to do so as awareness of the far-reaching effects of this epidemic increases. For example, New Hampshire just recently passed two bills that prevents the prosecution of victims for illegal activities they were forced into (i.e. theft and prostitution), and removes the two-year limit on seeking compensation. In the meantime, his story, and those of countless others, serve as reminders that rescue from trafficking is not the end of their ordeal, but the moment the real work of healing begins.