220 – National Trafficking Sheltered Alliance: What Is It and Why Do We Need It?

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Dr. Sandie Morgan and Dave Stachowiak address residential care for human trafficking victims with Melissa Yao, the Executive Director of the National Trafficking Sheltered Alliance. Together they present some of the difficulties in the new field of aftercare, and how Melissa has taken strides to improve the industry for victims that you too can join.

Key Points

  • The field of aftercare is so new that it generally lacks certain standards set in other, more established, industries. Therefore, making the minimum standards that NTSA set so significant in developing this industry to better suit survivor needs.
  • The biggest gaps in aftercare include providing services for victims with mental health issues, physical disabilities, and women over the age of 35 or with children.
  • To overcome these gaps, it is crucial to equip and train agencies for specific needs for the community. Collaboration can accomplish this by learning from other’s successful models and implementing it in our own communities.


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Dave [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking Podcast. This is episode number 220 – National Trafficking Sheltered Alliance: What Is It and Why Do We Need It?

Production Credits [00:00:09] Produced by Innovate Learning, Maximizing Human Potential.

Dave [00:00:29] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:34] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave [00:00:37] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Sandie, I always look forward to these conversations because I am always learning something new about trafficking. And as much as we have had conversations over the years, I feel like there’s so much new to uncover. And I know that’s true for you as well, too. And today, a guest with us that’s going to help us to really understand the National Trafficking Sheltered Alliance and the need for it. And we’re glad to welcome Melissa Yao to the show today. She is the executive director of the National Trafficking Sheltered Alliance, a network of service providers committed to enhancing services and increasing access to care for survivors of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Melissa has been in direct services with survivors for over eight years and is dedicated to ensure quality care for survivors. Melissa, we’re so glad to welcome you to the show.

Melissa [00:01:36] I am thrilled to be here.

Sandie [00:01:38] It was an honor to meet you when I was in Washington, D.C. in January, and I’ve been looking forward to this conversation because I’ve been active in the aftercare world, how we provide emergency services, residential care, survivor care over the long term. And there are so many challenges. So, I’m very hopeful about our conversation today.

Melissa [00:02:06] Me, too.

Sandie [00:02:07] Okay. So, let’s kind of start with. Can you give us a 30,000-foot level perspective on the landscape of services for victims, just here nationally?

Melissa [00:02:19] Yeah. So, specifically the National Trafficking Sheltered Alliance, NTSA, we are a network of officially fifty-one long term residential programs from across the country. Although we work with about 160 direct service providers throughout the country. And there’s three key things that we do as a network based on needs that we have realized in coming together. One being that we’ve developed a referral system. And so, through our alliance referral system, we’ve been able to place in just this last year about 284 victims and helping to secure the best possible placement for the survivors. The second thing that we do is we’ve established minimum standards set with a collaboration between our members from social workers and some experts in other fields. We’ve developed what we call minimum standards that basically says if you’re going to do this care, this is kind of baseline to offer a program for survivors. And then the third thing that we’ve done is we are enhancing the quality of care by providing capacity-building or training opportunities through our annual conference, through our resource guides that we provide for our members each month, and other avenues of getting them resources.

Sandie [00:03:39] So, tell me a little bit more about the minimum standards. What is that?

Melissa [00:03:44] You know, Sandra, the thing about our minimum standards is that in other fields they’re very, very basic. But as I’m sure you probably know, the field of aftercare or care for survivors, once they’ve gotten out of the life, is so new. The average residential program has only been open for less than eight years. It’s a brand-new field. And so, because of that, certain standards that are standard in, let’s say, the domestic violence industry or rehab facilities are not standard in programs for survivors of trafficking. So, take, for instance, the fact that the average survivor has a self-harm propensity of about 50 percent. That’s pretty common knowledge for anybody that’s done direct service, and yet very few residential programs have their staff CPR certified. So, we’ve implemented as one of our minimum standards that if you’re going to do direct care, you need to be CPR certified. But there are other risk management standards that we’ve established, such as agencies need to have a nondiscrimination policy. Again, that’s very basic in more established industries, but still super new for ours. We have standards on the way that we have adequate staffing for these programs. We have things that one of the standards that we’re really excited about is the non-faith coercion clause. 90 percent of residential programs that we’re connected with are faith-based agencies. And so, what our hope is, is that we can maintain the integrity of the faith component, but also not implementing any kind of coercive practices in the program.

Sandie [00:05:21] Wow. 90 percent are faith-based. Wow. That’s a lot of resources. Okay, so you have 51 members now. I can hear some of my listeners calling me or sending me emails, so I better ask the question- how do you become a member?

Melissa [00:05:42] Call me! We want you in the community. Yes. We’re really, really passionate about getting as many people involved in this network as possible. It’s a very, very engaging network. Even our twice a month resource guide we send out has more than a 70 percent open rate. We have on our platform for members an interactive I don’t know if you want to call them blogs, but you can post questions, things that you can’t ask people outside of this community. So, what’s your cigarette policy? Do you have a blackout period or you don’t have a blackout period? How do you engage with parents when you’re dealing with minors? These are very complex issues that people outside of this community really don’t understand. I mean, I talk to alliance members that have literally had their entire house blow up in chaos because there’s a fight over who gets to hold the remote control.

Sandie [00:06:31] OK, so basically you have to be able to adapt to the moment.

Melissa [00:06:37] Yeah. Crisis management is certainly one of the tools that we try to provide for our members.

Sandie [00:06:42] So, let’s talk about the pros and cons of some of the approaches to aftercare.

Melissa [00:06:49] Oh, Sandra, this is tricky because I think that the response to trafficking is so polarizing. You have very, very strong opinions on how to care for survivors and how to join them in their journey. And it’s a very, very sensitive topic. And I think what we’re excited about, especially those working in research with NTSA, is to discover evidence-based research that helps us illustrate promising practices for this work. I think in the past it’s been more instinctual from people that have opened homes with really good intentions, but we haven’t developed standardized success metrics. And so, I hear over and over again, oh, this industry just has a high recidivism rate and we just have to embrace it. Well, what can we do as a community to figure out how to reduce that recidivism rate instead of embracing it as reality? And so, I have people on my board, such as REST in Seattle, Washington. REST is a really comprehensive program that does offer from the beginning of street outreach and text outreach all the way to long term care and support after program completion. Their approach really embraces the harm reduction philosophy, the low barrier philosophy. There’s no blackout period. It’s really much more of an independent type support process. Similarly, you have Survivor Ventures out in Virginia. They don’t necessarily provide housing. What they do, is they partner with an apartment complex in their local area to get reduced rent rates. And they also partner with local small business owners or entrepreneurs. And they empower these survivors to have stable housing that’s independent living as well as job training with these entrepreneurs. And they cover the expenses for the first three months, and they reduce the number of expenses they cover over the course of 12 months. And then you have the more traditional program centered model, which is where they come to the program. Typically, there’s a three to six-month blackout period. They offer G.E.D. or educational opportunities as well as case management to help get their records clean as possible. And it’s much more comprehensive and program centered. So, I think all of these approaches are viable. I think all of these approaches are really exciting. Each one of them sees successes and each one of them sees failure. So, let’s come together, as a network, let’s talk about what is working, what’s not working, and develop actual policies that we see as successful.

Sandie [00:09:24] So, I love the phrase you used for evidence-based promising practices. Where do you find the evidence? Because this is a new field, relatively speaking.

Melissa [00:09:37] Absolutely. And in fact, that’s why NTSA, along with REST and The Warehouse in Birmingham, Alabama, is partnering with Johns Hopkins University. We’re going after a funding opportunity through OBC right now to actually conduct the research to create these research protocols.

Sandie [00:09:54] Okay. So, it is emerging data and your members are helping contribute to that database, I assume?

Melissa [00:10:04] Oh, yeah. They’re a core of it. I am the networker. I bring people to the table, but they’re the ones doing the work and they have to be a part of it.

Sandie [00:10:12] Okay. That’s really fun. We’ll have to get you out here next year for Ensure Justice, it is our annual conference and networking is what it’s all about, bringing the community together as collaborators so that we can address the issues around ending human trafficking from every perspective. But aftercare, survivor care is an emerging conversation from the level of how we can better serve those that have been exploited in our own communities. And so, there is a justice component to how we do that. And many of our patterns and practices have been based on, well, the resources run out at eight months, or they ran out at 18 months, or the practices for blackouts are just untenable for some survivors who their only connection with any community is through their phone and giving it up is usually part of the blackout requirements. So, addressing all those issues, what happens in your community when you decide that there need to be some bigger changes? I guess I think I’m asking what happens in those bi-monthly resource letters that you send out? Does that help us address those issues?

Melissa [00:11:40] Well, I think at this point, you know, NTSA, we just formalized less than two years ago. So, as a community, we’re still trying to come together and figure out what these policies should be. That’s why we’ve called our standards our minimum standards because they’re really just basic guidelines. We’re not at this point dictating program models, but what we are providing is an opportunity for agencies to know what the other models are. So, because we offer the referral system our ARS, alliance referral system. On average, it takes 14 days to find placement for a survivor. And that’s because it gives the survivor an opportunity to interview and go through the process of multiple types of agencies to figure out what type of program is best for them because, for some survivors, they need that blackout period. They want that time where they’ve pulled away from the chaos that was surrounding them. And they can just breathe, regroup, and figure out who they are. And for others, that blackout period is very isolating and controlling. And so that wouldn’t be good for them. But we have to remember, survivors are human just like everybody else. And for anybody that has raised multiple children, every child is different, every survivor is different. And so, to assume that one type of service would fit everybody is really not accurate at all. And so, we’re working hard to provide as many different types of resources or programs as possible. So, the survivor really has agency and choice.

Sandie [00:13:14] So, tell me what happens if a survivor or a victim right now looking for placement calls ARS, your alliance referral system?

Melissa [00:13:26] Yeah. So, this process is, I think, pretty simple. We get the referrals. They can submit the referral on our Web site or email it directly to referral@shelteredalliance.org. You can go to our home page; you can see it right at the top banner. You fill that out. There’s also a screening tool that you’ll have to go through to ensure that they actually meet the criteria that the majority of our receiving agencies require. And so, once they fill that out, and within the referral, it helps to identify what type of services they’re looking for and identify any unique needs that they have. So, if they have a physical disability or if they have some type of mental issues that they have to deal with or make accommodations for, such as DID, you could put that in the form. And that way we can go through our distribution list, identify which agencies meet that criteria. We send the referral out to those. Oftentimes, that’s anywhere between five and eight agencies that meet those requirements. And then the survivor can start the interviewing process to determine which agency they choose to go to.

Sandie [00:14:28] And does someone walk through that process with them?

Melissa [00:14:32] Yeah, at this point, they typically have an advocate that helps to submit the referral. The vast majority of our referrals are coming from social workers or medical personnel. And so oftentimes they’re the ones that actually submit the referral. But certainly, we’ve had a few that it was actually the survivor themselves that walked through it. But we have a team that works through these referrals. It’s not automated at all yet at this point. It’s very hands-on, so you’ll deal with a real person.

Sandie [00:14:58] That’s really an encouraging thing to hear because there are many survivors. And I don’t I use the word many just because I’ve traveled a lot and I talk to people, but I don’t have real numbers. This is one of the issues that we face is we don’t have good data. But often survivors have timed out of whatever their resources are and really are not ready for total reintegration. And they end up falling on the sidelines in sometimes homelessness, couch surfing, that sort of thing. And when they try to find a way forward, the processes are complicated. They get discouraged and they really need someone to walk with them through the application process because at this first barrier, I don’t have that information or whatever. The response is based on a PTSD kind of response and panic, and those kinds of things are very typical, and they will stop the process because of the kinds of support that they need. And a real person makes a huge difference. If you could look at the landscape where there are no shelters that are reaching towards these kinds of minimum standards, where would you identify the biggest gaps regionally as well as in particular communities of survivors?

Melissa [00:16:32] Yeah, well, I think gaps in service for us, we have identified the fact that it’s very, very complicated, if not nearly impossible to find placement for a survivor that’s on methadone or Suboxone. Most agencies will not accept a candidate if they’re on one of those substances. And the other one is if they have acute mental health issues such as the DID, it’s really problematic if there’s not a clinician on staff to deal with the complexities with that issue. And so, it creates so much chaos, that we saw agencies actually shut down because of staff burnout. And so, they’re very hesitant to take people with a high acute mental health issue. Physical disability is also a deterrence. So, whether it’s a wheelchair or a hearing issue, if they don’t have staff to meet the support that they need, then they don’t take those. And then also, of course, you have women with children. We only have identified fifteen agencies in the entire country that will allow a survivor to bring her young children with her through the program. And of those 15, only seven actually respond to any referrals we send out.

Sandie [00:17:40] Wow. That’s surprising.

Melissa [00:17:44] Sandra, I’m just going to throw this out as well. It’s really hard to find placement for women over 35. Victims that are between 20 and 30, there are certainly resources out there for them. But you get over the age of 35, and there are less services available. I don’t know if it’s less appealing because they’re older or what, but it’s really complicated to find services for older women.

Sandie [00:18:06] Well, and I live in California and we have resources that are related to transitional age youth programs so we can find services until they turn 24 and then it becomes much more complicated after that. So, I understand that. So, how do you think we can begin to bridge those gaps?

Melissa [00:18:29] Well, I think many of these residential agencies are interested in offering services for these less served populations. It’s just a matter of equipping them and training them. So, for example, there is an agency that’s just opening in central Texas. And, you know, they called me and said, what is a need that you’d like for us to get equipped to offer? And I said, well, we really need providers that are welcoming to the trans community. And they said, if you will equip us, we will do it. And so, I’m able to connect them with my NTSA members across the country that have successfully serves the trans community for years now and have them provide training to this agency in central Texas, so they can do it and do it well. And so, equipping them, I think, is the best strategy.

Sandie [00:19:14] And this is such a great example of collaboration. So, we don’t have to do it alone, we do it together. And we have access to the institutional knowledge, the experience. And we’re able to see where people have been successful and try those models in our own community.

Melissa [00:19:34] Absolutely, Sandra. I think we’re at a place where we no longer have to learn how to do this work the hard way. We don’t have to learn lessons at the expense of the survivors. We can learn lessons from people that have already gone before us. We just have to ask for it.

Sandie [00:19:49] So, are you finding that providing resources for the community under age 18 is difficult?

Melissa [00:19:58] You know, the difficulty with serving minors is that most agencies are funded through a per diem. So, they are government-funded based on how many victims they get placed through the government agency. This makes it complicated when we have a minor that is in Alabama that still is under the custody of her parents. And the parents want to get her removed from the local area where she’s being vulnerable or trafficked. And getting her place out of state is really complicated because she’s not a ward of the government yet. Right? And so, the government hasn’t taken financial responsibility for her. And so, it’s up to the parents to provide funding to pay for her to be in an out-of-state program. That’s really difficult, it’s very expensive, particularly for a minor.

Sandie [00:20:45] And one of the other challenges is that many times the parents aren’t in the picture. So, then where does that survivor turn?

Melissa [00:20:53] Right. I mean, there are many states that don’t have any type of minor program. I’m dealing with the Well House in Alabama right now that has multiple minors that they’re trying to help find the best placement for. And so, we’re partnering with them and making as many calls as we can to expedite the placement for these minors and finding it really problematic because of jurisdictions, because of who has legal custody, and how do you navigate that when you’re crossing state lines, and then the funding issue, of course.

Sandie [00:21:22] Wow. Okay. So, talk about what it looks like to join the Sheltered Alliance. You have different levels of membership, general and associate.

Melissa [00:21:34] Yeah. So, we want as many service providers as possible to be a part of this network. And so we have created the associate level to say it’s OK if you’re just starting out, it’s OK if you don’t have any ducks in a row at all, join us and we will partner with you to help get all of that in place. That’s what the associate member is for. But then we have the general membership, our general member, as we walk through the process of them meeting our minimum requirements. We have an entire panel that walks through that to ensure it. We endeavor for it to be a fully-fledged accreditation program. I’m hoping to finalize that in the next twelve months. And to be a general member, you meet our minimum standards. But if you just want to be part of the community and glean the resources that Alliance members can offer, then the associate member is, I think, an awesome opportunity.

Sandie [00:22:25] So, your vision for survivor care over the next five years. Can you tell me what it’s going to look like because of building this incredible network?

Melissa [00:22:38] Can I just say bridges? That we’d have bridges, that we stop discounting other agencies because their program or their services was different than yours? There’s such a level of condemnation right now and assumptions being made that because the program is different than yours, yours is better than theirs. Despite the fact that I know every single agency has failures and wins. And so, let’s build these bridges, let’s communicate, let’s be open to listening and to sharing and being authentic. And then we can really ensure the very, very best quality of care for survivors.

Sandie [00:23:15] What resources are the most frequently requested from the member shelters and programs?

Melissa [00:23:28] All things staffing. Staffing is the hardest, hardest thing to deal with. Well, where do you recruit from? I mean, this is such a new industry that how many experts are out there that you can put out there on careerfinders.com or monster.com? Like looking for a residential house advocate that knows how to work with someone who experienced complex trauma. I mean, it’s very complicated to find. And because these agencies are still so new and figuring out what their program model is going to look like, they’re really struggling with finding the right people. And when they do find the right people, how do you retain them and not have significant staff burnout?

Sandie [00:24:06] Well and retaining people. The problem that I’ve also noticed is that salaries in this particular field are very low and don’t meet often the minimum standards in a community of other professionals in commensurate positions. And people want to do their very best, but eventually they have kids and bills. And so, they need to have salaries that are professional salaries.

Melissa [00:24:34] Well, going back to the fact that these are such new agencies, these agencies, some of them aren’t even clear what the legal requirements are to pay for overnight coverage. Do you pay for their sleeping hours or not? They question me on this. I mean, we’re having an entire three-hour session just on HR policies. And how do you secure the right candidate and how do you retain them? And what are the labor laws and what are discrimination policies? Because we want to equip them to retain their good employees and know when to cut it, when it’s not a good employee.

Sandie [00:25:07] Wow. Those are issues we don’t usually think about when we’re just trying to look at how do we provide well for the survivor. We also have to carry that community.

Melissa [00:25:19] And it comes back to the people, the people that are actually doing the work. We’ve got to train them, and we’ve got to find the right ones.

Sandie [00:25:25] So, many good questions that you’ve raised. I have like a list here mentally of the next conversation that we need to have about this. We’re going to be watching what you’re doing, cheering from the sidelines, promoting the ability of our friends to find out more and learn how to become part of this movement. I do, I have so many more questions, but there’s like one-minute left in here. So, I’m going to hold those. We’ll have you come back and we’ll probably have you out for Ensure Justice in 2021. Are you up for that?

Melissa [00:26:03] I would love it. Are you kidding, California, how could I say no?

Dave [00:26:07] Thank you both for this conversation today. And we’re inviting you also to take the next step. Please hop online and download a copy of Sandie’s book, The Five Things You Must Know, A QuickStart Guide to Ending Human Trafficking. The guide will teach you the five critical things that Sandie has identified that you should know before you join the fight against trafficking. You can get access by going over to endinghumantrafficking.org. That’s also the best place to find all the resources mentioned in today’s episode, all the links. And it’s also the place to reach out to us directly. Maybe this conversation today has raised a question for you. The best place to send that question is feedback@endinghumantrafficking.org and that way we can consider it for a future conversation. And we will be back again with you in two weeks. Sandie, I look forward to seeing you.

Sandie [00:27:02] Thanks, Dave.

Dave [00:27:03] Take care, everyone.

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