308 – Streamlining Connection to Survivor Services with Technology


Dr. Sandie Morgan is joined by Melissa Yao and Alexis Byers as the three discuss the role of technology in connecting survivors to services.

Melissa Yao

Melissa Yao 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. She was a guest on Episode #220 of the Ending Human Trafficking Podcast.

Alexis Byers

Alexis Byers is the referral program manager at the National Trafficking Sheltered Alliance. She graduated from college in 2021, with a degree in political science, and a minor in security and Conflict Studies, and now she’s working on a master’s in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

Key Points

  • Technology has brought about opportunities to improve the accessibility of resources for survivors. National Trafficking Sheltered Alliance has created a three pillar approach to make a difference in the accessibility of survivor services.
  • NTSA’s three pillar approach begins with membership, providing the public with a vast range of resources. Within the three pillar approach is a referral system and accreditation program that ensures the best quality of service and standards of care.
  • The TIRA app (Trafficking Interruption Resource Agent) allows survivors to filter their searches for services with their own needs and preferences, giving them a voice in their own journey.
  • When a referral form is filled out, within 24 hours of the business week, it is sent out to programs that match the survivor’s preferences directly. However, there is emergency placement available through NTSA’s partnership with Safe Shelter Collaborative.
  • When placements are not the right fit, survivors blame themselves, often causing a cycle of returning to unsafe environments. NTSA aims to change this cycle by including survivors in the decision-making of their life.



Sandra Morgan 0:00
You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking Podcast. This is episode #308: Streamlining Connection to Survivor Services With Technology.

Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking Podcast here at Vanguard University’s Global Center for Women and Justice in Orange County, California. My name is Dr. Sandie Morgan, and I’m your host. This is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. I’m excited to welcome Melissa Yao from the National Trafficking Sheltered Alliance. She was a guest on episode #220. We’ll put that episode link in the show notes, but if you’re looking for it right now, because you want to listen to it before this episode, then just look for #220. Melissa 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. I want to emphasize ‘increasing access’ because that is what really contributes to empowerment. I’m also excited that Melissa brought a colleague with her, Alexis Byers. Alexis is the referral program manager at the Alliance. She graduated from college in 2021, with a degree in political science, and a minor in security and Conflict Studies, and now she’s working on a master’s in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. I want to actually emphasize my welcome and excitement about having you here, Alexis, because I believe it’s important for young people, just finishing college, to understand how quickly they can use their expertise to make a difference. So you’re both welcome and I’m glad you’re here.

Melissa Yao 2:47
Well we are thrilled to be here, Dr. Morgan, we’re very excited to share some success that we’ve seen in five years of facilitating a referral system throughout the US, in hopes that it can inspire others to find ways to help survivors overcome their trauma by finding the right place for them to recover. It’s all that we focus on, and we’re thrilled to be able to share some successes with your audience.

Alexis Byers 3:18
Thank you so much for having us. I completely agree that it’s so important to know that the minute that you do graduate from college, you do have the ability to kind of make a change almost immediately using the skills that you learned through school.

Sandra Morgan 3:33
That’s so great. Okay, so I’m excited to talk about how technology is improving access to resources. Especially because so much of the conversation lately has been about the harms of technology, but technology, the other side of the coin, brings amazing opportunity. So as the response to human trafficking here increases, the need for service providers to collaborate and stay connected is more important than ever. So let’s start, Melissa with some of the principles of NTSA. Tell us how you have basically developed three pathways to make a difference.

Melissa Yao 4:28
Great question, Dr. Morgan. I served in direct service with survivors for over seven years, and much like many of my colleagues listening to this podcast, became very disheartened and discouraged with the number of survivors that as they’re working towards overcoming their trauma, because the program wasn’t the best fit for them, often left and went back into the trafficking situation. I couldn’t help, years ago, think ‘What if they had been in a program that was a better fit?’ I can’t help but think of when you go to the Cheesecake Factory, let’s say you’re craving a burger, and you’ve got the Cheesecake Factory menu, and it is like a book. There’s so many options and it becomes overwhelming. We go there and we kind of default to maybe the first few things on the menu, when really, there might be some great hidden gems. But when you go to Five Guys, you know what you’re getting. Okay, Dr. Morgan, you’re in California, maybe I should have said In-n-Out? For those of you that haven’t had it, there’s a secret menu that I highly recommend.

Sandra Morgan 5:36
Actually, on the streets of Athens, Greece, when you go to a souvlaki place, you’ve got three choices. That’s it.

Melissa Yao 5:45
Yes. I wanted to move away from defaulting to asking agencies, “Do you have a bed?” and they offered so much more than just the bed. Some of these agencies are the Cheesecake Factory, they offer a holistic approach, and for some survivors, that’s what they need. They need high accountability, high structure, 24-hour supervision, they really need that all encompassing experience to help them overcome. For others, they just need a burger, and all of these extras are simply overwhelming to them. What we’ve tried to do is shift the question from, “Do you have a bed?,” back to the survivor themselves asking, “What are you looking for, to help you overcome your trauma?” With a database of over 120 agencies, we’re able to give them that choice. We have a three pillar approach. One is our membership, almost like a trade association, and anybody across the globe, you’re welcome to look into it. We have resources on trauma informed care training, deescalation, how do you serve survivors well? We even have information on marketing, and accounting, and all of those things. On top of that, because of the network, we’re able to facilitate this referral system, and to date, in the past five years, we’ve facilitated over 2000 referrals. We couldn’t be more excited about that. Lastly, what we wanted to ensure is that when we were partnering with these agencies, they were offering quality service. We created standards of care, along with an accreditation program for them to go through to ensure that they are offering the best services that they possibly can.

Sandra Morgan 7:36
My favorite part of this model, as I’ve watched the industry expand and mature, is that element of accountability and that accreditation, It gives me a lot of confidence when I refer someone through the Alliance.

Melissa Yao 7:59
For sure, Dr. Morgan! But can I tell you my favorite part of the standards of care and accreditation?

Sandra Morgan 8:06

Melissa Yao 8:07
We get calls at least once, oftentimes twice a month, with a complaint about an agency and how they’re serving the survivor. And most of the time, that complaint is coming from a survivor themselves. What I love so much about that is we’ve now become a place where survivors feel like they can have a voice in their recovery, they can have a voice in when they’ve experienced hurt or trauma. Because this is coming from a survivor, often, and Dr. Morgan I’m confident to say often, when we follow up with these agencies, when we send them our standards of care to talk about why the hurt and the harm was caused, we see a transformation in the services they’re offered. I’ll give you an example. We had an agency that we got formal complaints from survivors because the agency was using their stories, their images, and who they were in their marketing, and their social media, in their fundraising efforts, and these survivors felt so betrayed. They weren’t even part of the program anymore and the agency was still profiting from their story. Where could they report that to? There’s nowhere to report that so they reached out to us. We had a call with the agency, and they humbly apologized. They acknowledged that it was actually former leadership, that these new leaders had only been in place for two or three months, they had a whole new board. We sent them our standards of care on ethical story telling, on media and survivors, and they were able to present that to their board to implement those policies as they move forward to offer much better services for those survivors.

Sandra Morgan 9:51
So anyone listening anywhere, can ask you for those standards of care?

Melissa Yao 9:58
Yes, it’s right on our website. Please feel free to utilize it.

Sandra Morgan 10:01
All right, we’ll put that link in the show notes. This is a great place to transition from the survivor voice, the survivor input on this, that’s significant in the process. We all know that if someone makes us, for instance, go on a diet to lose a few kilos, we would like to have some control. We don’t want things to happen to us. So in order to even amplify that voice, and empower survivors, I’m really excited about the new app. We’re gonna go over to you, Alexis, and will you tell us what this new exciting tool is?

Alexis Byers 10:50
Yes, of course. The app that we’ve been working on is called TIRA. This is an app that will actually transform our referral system from using a form directly on the website and using me to do all of the filtering and finding of programs, and it’ll all be within this app. So survivors themselves, friends and family, advocates, law enforcement, the list goes on and on, are able to actually go into this app, fill out basically all the information of both their needs and their preferences, right?Because that’s what’s so important, is that autonomy of survivors, and we want to promote the autonomy and allow them to feel seen and heard, and that’s what this app is about. It’s by showing them exactly what is available throughout the country, and allowing them to decide where the next part of their journey begins, and continues on.

Sandra Morgan 11:46
I love that. For me, because I’ve been in this so long, I know we’ve dreamed about this kind of app, and we’ve waited. We wanted it to be like ordering groceries online, and it feels that way when you talk about it. Can you actually give me a better understanding of the full title of TIRA? It says Trafficking Interruption Resource Agent. How did you come up with that name?

Melissa Yao 12:19
Oh, actually, we partnered with REST based out of Seattle, Washington, they are a direct service provider right in the heart of the city, Amanda Hightower, who is a brilliant anti-trafficking leader, along with Microsoft and people that just have brilliant marketing brains came up with it, and we’re so excited to get to implement it. I cannot take any credit, I’m not that creative, but I personally think it’s brilliant. What I love, and Dr. Morgan, you alluded to this, we’ve been waiting so long for this, because it’s almost like survivors now have a customizable Airbnb experience. And for those of you listening that have ever utilized Airbnb, and it’s a global app, so many of you probably have, what you’re able to do is you choose what you want to filter through. What happens when you have too many filters? Nothing shows up, so then you as the user get to choose which filters you’re willing to compromise on, to still have the experience you’re looking for. So whether it’s your budget, whether it’s the number of bedrooms, whether you can bring your dog, you prioritize what your filters are to ensure you have the number of options available, and survivors are gonna get to do that, Dr. Morgan. They’re gonna get to decide. Do they filter out if they bring their emotional support animal, they bring their children, they are on addiction medication, they are not a biological female? They can filter all of that, they can choose if they want to be in downtown New York City, or Birmingham, Alabama, because it’s up to them, and I love that they get that choice.

Sandra Morgan 14:01
Okay, so Alexis, what does the word interruption mean, in this?

Alexis Byers 14:07
When we’re talking about interruption, when a survivor is in the life, this is their experience, and this is the trauma that they’re going through. When we are talking about interruption, we’re actually interrupting that process of the things that they’re going through, the trauma they are going through, we’re interrupting it, and we’re pivoting, right? So we’re going to bring them to a place of healing, and their ability to actually say that they are going to go into a program, they want to go into a program, and that’s the next part of their journey.

Sandra Morgan 14:44
Wow. So do you think that this will change how many times survivors end up in multiple placements? And by that I’m thinking about how many times I’ve been part of placing someone into a circumstance, it wasn’t a good fit, now we have to move, there’s disappointment on both sides, there’s lost time, resources, maybe even new trauma from that. So my question is about how this technology may contribute to avoiding further complexity.

Alexis Byers 15:34
I would say that when we’re talking about a placement that might not fit completely, that is an inevitable type of situation that we can’t stop completely. However, when a survivor has the ability to actually put in what they’re looking for in a program, as well as put in all of their experience they have, any nuances that are about them as a human, and they have the ability to actually look at a program and look into a program, and then vice versa, on the service provider side. The service provider is actually able to look at all of the details of the survivor, look at what they have been through, look at what they need. That type of connection and that type of visibility on both sides is what would actually potentially help to eliminate the level of misplacement or having to go into multiple programs at one point.

Sandra Morgan 16:26
Okay, because streamlining, I put that in the title here, because I think that’s an important improvement in this delivery. So let’s talk about when this is going to be available. We’re kind of like talking about the future launch, but it’s coming up very soon.

Melissa Yao 16:49
So exciting for this. Dr. Morgan, we have been working on this for over three years now, and we’re literally finally, in the home stretch. We’ve developed this in a four phase process and we are finished with three. So we have one more phase left. We are, hopefully, within six months of launching the app. Now, that doesn’t limit you utilizing the services currently. Alexis is brilliant and right now you get to get to know her because it’s not through the app, but the app will be utilized. Hopefully, we can officially launch it within the next six months.

Sandra Morgan 17:26
So tell us how someone connects with Alexis, right now.

Alexis Byers 17:32
So when survivors, or advocates, or law enforcement, any of those types are looking for any type of placement, they’re able to go directly onto our website, and under the referral section of the website, there’s a referral form. That is where they have the ability to actually fill it out and it comes directly to me, and then that is how we connect and work through the process.

Sandra Morgan 17:56
So even a survivor can go online and fill that out without, so to speak, a middleman?

Alexis Byers 18:04

Melissa Yao 18:05
In fact, Dr. Morgan, the majority of our referrals are self referrals.

Sandra Morgan 18:10
Wow, that’s amazing. So already, there’s an element of empowerment through this direct access, not having to have a case manager, or advocate, someone else. And for law enforcement, especially in areas where there’s no organized task force, having a place to go when you suddenly are presented with someone in a situation that needs to exit, it’s amazing to be able to go online, say here’s what we’ve got, and what can you do? How long is that process? Is that going to take a couple of weeks and we have to house somebody in a hotel? What usually happens?

Alexis Byers 19:02
When somebody does actually fill out the form, we usually say that we will respond within 24 hours within the business week, so the Monday through Friday. When I respond, that means that I sent that referral out to all of the programs that match directly, so you know that your referral is going out within 24 hours of the typical business day. Once that referral is actually sent out, it takes about one and a half to two weeks to actually place them. Now I know that for people in the life, or people who are trying to get out of the life, that one and a half to two weeks could be detrimental and actually incredibly concerning for them if they have nowhere to go. That is why we do partnerships, like with an incredible network of emergency shelters, Safe Shelter Collaborative. We have a partnership with them where I actually have the ability to put in a referral for the survivor themselves, saying that they need an emergency placement. So we actually have the perfect line from an emergency shelter into this long term placement while we’re waiting for the placement to happen.

Sandra Morgan 20:10
Wow. So when the app is in the final phase, and is immediately accessible, how will that change the timeline?

Melissa Yao 20:23
Well honestly Dr. Morgan, I know that a week and a half feels like eternity sometimes, but when we’re looking at it in the context of a two to three year commitment, because that’s the average length of these residential programs, we want to ensure that the survivors are making a decision knowing what their options are. So if they’re getting calls from, let’s say, seven agencies that they’re able to interview, and one of them prioritizes workforce development, the other one prioritizes clinical healing, they can choose what their priorities are. That does take time to have these interviews, do some assessments, maybe they even get to talk to survivors currently in the program. I love that they can have that choice, but there does need to be that stop gap, there does need to be that emergency placement where they can be safe for a few days to be able to make that decision. I think one of the reasons, for years we’ve seen such a high recidivism rate, is because we’ve seen survivors get placed within 24 hours of an identification, and it wasn’t a good fit. One, they carry a tremendous amount of shame and blame when the program doesn’t work for them, because they take that ownership. Then, oftentimes they’re back into the life and maybe they ask for help again from another program, and it fails them again, and it’s this terrible, terrible cycle and you take years to finally overcome that trauma. Let’s change that by giving them a chance to really decide what the next few years of their life is going to look like and what their priorities are.

Sandra Morgan 21:59
I love that. That is truly trauma informed, and it also falls into the continuum of care model. So that’s truly best practice. As I’m listening to all of this, my sense is that there are listeners who are really interested in becoming part of this alliance. Can you tell us how someone could start that kind of process?

Melissa Yao 22:33
Right on our website, shelteredalliance.org, which I’m sure Dr. Morgan will share with all of you, you just sign up and become a part of our community. We have over five hours of training on trauma informed care. We have hours of utilizing staff development, utilizing volunteers, fundraising, the resources that you need to launch, or maintain, or be sustainable is all right there, available. But on top of that, you get to be a part of the community, because if there’s one thing I know about all of you that work directly with survivors, is that you are lonely, and that you feel isolated. But you don’t have to be that way, you can be a part of a community. You can message members directly saying, “What is your smoking policy?” Truly. What is your marijuana policy? What do you do when they want to bring their emotionally supportive peacock?

Sandra Morgan 23:33
Oh, my goodness. Oh, my goodness.

Melissa Yao 23:36
You can ask what others are doing because you’re not alone. You’re not alone. Don’t work siloed, work with a community, build those bridges.

Sandra Morgan 23:43
That’s so good. That is so good. I’m so grateful for this conversation. I’m going to give you each one minute for your last remarks to our listening community and an encouraging word for us.

Melissa Yao 24:00
My thing is, work together. And that’s tricky, because we have opinions, we have different approaches, but I would just say when we’re working with victims, survivors, people with lived experience, the reality is, is we cannot be so arrogant to believe that there’s a one size fits all. Maybe you have a program that looks different than yours, and you get frustrated at those differences, but I would encourage you to celebrate those differences. Because for some survivors that might be exactly what they need, and for others, your program is so perfect. So celebrate the differences, while encouraging enhanced quality of care through standards of care. Don’t work alone.

Alexis Byers 24:49
When it comes to my specific role within NTSA, I get to hear from both sides, whether that’s the survivor side but also the service provider side. The biggest message that I have is that we are there to support all of the sides, because we all have to work together in order to actually be able to place survivors and get them the help that they want and need. Then also, that every single part of this kind of battle is valid and valid in what they’re looking for, valid for what they’re providing, valid for what they are needing. That is something that I think is so important for all of us to remember, that we are all going towards the same goal, we are all trying to achieve the same thing and we need every single last person who is a part of this in order to do it.

Sandra Morgan 25:41
What a great way to end this episode. We all need to work together. Everybody knows, collaboration is my favorite word. Thank you both so much for being on this episode of Ending Human Trafficking. Now for our listeners, we’re inviting you if you haven’t already, to take the next step and join our community. Go over to endinghumantrafficking.org. You can find the resources we’ve mentioned in this conversation, and subscribe. Every two weeks, you’ll get an email with the latest release. There’s one more thing, now is the time to start planning for Ensure Justice 2024. Our theme is Keeping Our Children Safe Online. The conference will be at the Global Center for Women and Justice here at Vanguard University. I’m also inviting you to follow our Instagram account, eht_podcast. We want to grow our community. So thank you everybody for being here, and I’ll be back in two weeks.

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