189 – Lessons Learned Serving Domestic Survivors of Sex Trafficking

Dr. Sandie Morgan and Dave Stachowiak inquire about lessons learned from The Lighthouse, a transitional living program for young women who are survivors of sex trafficking, from the program supervisor, Polly Williams. Polly has over 18 years of experience in all aspects of working with youth including those experiencing homelessness, mental health challenges, and substance abuse. She developed and implemented Orangewood Foundation’s The Lighthouse in 2016 using a framework of trauma-informed care, harm reduction, and a survivor-centered approach. Polly introduces a thoughtful report and review of 11 learned lessons from this program.

Key Points

  • At The Lighthouse, a victim-centered approach is giving the power back over to the trafficked victims and empowering them to say what their needs are, what their concerns are, and for them to lead survivor-driven services.
  • #1 Labels – It is important to take an individualist approach to labels because some residents embraced being labeled as “victim” or “survivor”, while others were reminded of their past traumas.
  • #2 Curriculum – Having a daily, structured curriculum held residents back from societal reintegration, an individualized program was needed to empower the women.
  • #3 Trust – At The Lighthouse, there’s a large emphasis on trust to promote safety, security, and ultimately to reduce detrimental behaviors through a “restorative justice approach”.
  • #4 Cell Phones – Creating safety protocols together, both residents and staff, prevented controlling actions that triggered and re-traumatized residents.
  • #5 Staff – Having staff that can provide guidance and suggestions rather than being hyper-vigilant is significant in creating a therapeutic environment.
  • #6 Life Skill Development – They found that role modeling life skills is more effective and impactful in comparison to life skill groups.
  • #7 Resident Guidelines – Residents and staff collectively create guidelines in order to have realistic expectations for each other and create a sense of empowerment.
  • #8 Case Management – Residents responded more favorably towards case management when meetings occurred offsite at their chosen locations.
  • #9 Interviews – During interviews they do not require details of time in ‘the life’ and take breaks when needed in order to minimize risks of re-traumatization.
  • #10 Applicants Under 18 – An applicant aged 17 years, turning 18 within the next month, has the option to spend her days at The Lighthouse, to relieve the stress and anxiety of moving to a new program.
  • #11 Reducing Length of Time Back in ‘The Life” – When a resident chose to self-exit The Lighthouse and go back to her trafficker, staff pro-actively remained in contact. The goal was to reduce her length of time back in ‘the life’, through the provision of compassionate and unconditional support, and two months later she asked to come “home.”

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Transcript

Dave: [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 189, Lessons Learned Serving Domestic Survivors of Sex Trafficking.

Production Credits: [00:00:10] Produced by Innovate Learning, maximizing human potential.

Dave: [00:00:31] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie: [00:00:36] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

Dave: [00:00:38] 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, we have been on a journey together for the last eight years in producing the show and really aiming to do if not all three of those at least one of those every time we get together studying the issues, being a voice, and ultimately making a difference in bringing an end to this terrible thing that we all are working hard to end. And today a conversation that I know will help us all to learn some more lessons, correct?

Sandie: [00:01:12] Absolutely.

Dave: [00:01:14] Well we are thrilled to welcome to the show today Polly Williams. Polly has over 18 years of experience in all aspects of working with youth including those experiencing homelessness, mental health challenges, and substance abuse. Polly’s love of working with young people came from extensive practical experiences as an outreach worker on the streets of Melbourne, Australia where she provided crisis response, harm reduction, needle exchange, and overdose support to homeless youth. Polly also, spent six years working at Venice Beach as Director of Programs at Safe Place for Youth, in which she developed, implemented and managed their street-based outreach, case management, drop-in, and onsite therapeutic programming. Polly is currently the program supervisor of Orangewood Foundation’s The Lighthouse, a transitional living program for young women who are survivors of sex trafficking. Polly developed and implemented the program in 2016 using a framework of trauma-informed care, harm reduction, and a survivor-centered approach. Polly, Sandie and I are so, glad to welcome you to the show.

Polly: [00:02:20] Thank you for having me.

Sandie: [00:02:21] Well we’re excited and I know that your rich background contributes significantly to how you approach working with the young women in your care. And so, I thought we should kind of revisit a couple of important priorities in delivering care for survivors and that would be looking at the victim-centered approach, how that works, and how you implement it at The Lighthouse.

Polly: [00:02:54] Sure, so, victim-centered approach really is the concept by which we live and breathe when we work with our young women at our transitional living program. The way that we work with a victim-centered approach is that we provide, and we give the power back over to the young lady who’s being trafficked for them to tell us what their needs are, what their concerns are, and for them to lead us in their journey. So, their priority might be around their health, maybe around getting into education, maybe around safety. So, we work with them and they lead us. We support them in their journey.

Sandie: [00:03:34] Wow. So, this idea of empowering them and then it becomes survivor driven services, really.

Polly: [00:03:45] Absolutely.

Sandie: [00:03:46] Yeah. So, that is very counter. I mean you know I’m a pediatric nurse by my background and so, I would come, and I have a protocol and I follow that. I don’t go around to my patients and say How would you like me to serve you. And so, I have conversations with people who don’t get that. What is the rationale what drives you to be so, responsive to Survivor empowerment?

Polly: [00:04:17] You know it is so, important that the survivor take back the control that they’ve lost while they were in that trafficking experience. You know from not being able to choose what clothes to wear, how to have their hair, what they can eat, when they could sleep, everything is taken away. So, our very first role is we need to give that power back. And that’s not always easy, especially for those who have been trafficked for you know quite a long time, being given that power back is uneasy. You know, what does that look like? How does that feel? So, we really walk hand in hand with these young women who come into our program and we allow them to decide what they want to eat for their first meal when they come out, what groceries would they like to buy. So, we go right back to the very basics. When a resident first comes in we go to Target and allow them to pick out what clothes, what underwear, what shoes, what socks they want. So, we start right at the very beginning. This is your life, you are now in control, you make the decisions.

Sandie: [00:05:22] Wow. And that is very counter to most service provider programs where we’re trying to scale up and we want to serve a lot of people. So, here’s the menu if you don’t like it wait till next time. So, you have a very different approach. And I loved when I read the report, which I think that’s downloadable online too so, we’ll put a link to that. Because you hit on what that empowerment looks like in the context of the culture that you grow at The Lighthouse- in case of management, in safety planning. And here are the components, the recipe if you will, building trust, promoting autonomy, promoting positive behavior change, understanding and maintaining safety, empowerment, understanding victimization, goal development, and obtainment and leadership opportunities. And I just thought that’s a recipe for success for any kid, any kid. But we know that you work with a very unique population. So, I’d like to talk through the lessons you’ve learned since you implemented this two years ago. So, let’s look at lesson number one.

Polly: [00:06:46] Awesome. It seems like so, long ago but you know it was only two years ago, but it’s been an amazing two-year journey. And I’m just so, proud of where we are right now, and the team that we have, and the young women who we’ve worked with and we’ve touched. It’s been amazing.

Sandie: [00:07:01] And you deserve to be really proud of that too. It’s a great model. So, lesson number one?

Polly: [00:07:10] Lesson number one, labels. We often hear the word victim, you know victim-centered approach and they were a victim. And then we often hear the word survivor. So, we came in thinking what you know Survivor sounds a little less traumatizing. So, we kept saying survivors, and our young ladies were saying to us we don’t want to be called either. And we kind of like oh hang on we’re trying to empower you to be survivors. And they’re like we just want to be known as any other regular young lady, like we just like the same music, we want to watch the same shows, we want to be able to experience college and going to school, and we don’t want to be reminded every day of our past. So, that was really interesting for us to take on board and have a conversation with our young ladies. Okay, well what does that look like? Because we also, want to not only respect you know where you’re coming from, but we also, need to still have conversations about things that have happened in order to support you in your journey from victimization through to healing. So, we work very much on a one to one basis with young women in terms of if they want to call themselves a survivor, we embrace that. If another one of our young ladies is I don’t want to even hear that word because it’s triggering and reminding, that’s okay, we don’t do that either. So, it’s so, individual, you know if one’s journey in healing is so, different so, we’ll just respect whether the emphasis is coming in terms of labels and where they see themselves.

Sandie: [00:08:39] I’m with them. I don’t want to label. I really bristle when people try to label me. I’m not that one dimensional so, totally invite me over, I’ll fit right in. How about the second lesson, you guys created an amazing curriculum.

Polly: [00:08:57] Oh my, yes. So, about six months before we opened, actually I wrote all the policies and procedures, curriculum, I got a lot of feedback from a lot of other people. You know we had to have a structured curriculum whereby the young ladies would come into the program and you know out of bed at 7:00 in the morning, have breakfast and then go to group therapy, and then they’ve got something else therapeutic, and all their day had to be structured. That never really felt right for me but that was the feedback I was getting so, we implemented it with our first maybe three young women that we had, and it was horrific. Not only did the young women not want to participate in what we had. You know they didn’t want to get out of bed to go to group therapy. And so, then the conflicts with the staff of trying to get them out of bed, there was no therapeutic component to it. And so, what we did, we just stepped back. And it was like we’re working with individuals here. We can’t put them in a curriculum whereby one of our young ladies has been out of the life may be for a week or is another young lady who’s been out of the life for two years. But we’re putting them in the same curriculum and starting them from the beginning. And that’s not where they were at. So, we threw that out and we went back to every one of our young women is an individual with individual needs and wants and we need to work with them individually. So, the whole curriculum went out and so, everything now is around the individual’s needs. And so, how we meet them on a different level.

Sandie: [00:10:31] Wow that’s very intense. It’s difficult to scale up with that. So, how many residents are you set to receive?

Polly: [00:10:41] We can have up to six young ladies at any one time. And since we’ve opened we’ve had 11 residents come through.

Sandie: [00:10:49] All right let’s move on to the lesson learned Number three.

Polly: [00:10:54] Trust. So, this was a big one. You know we had staff working with us with an expectation that the moment the young people come in they’re going to trust the staff, they’re going to trust what we say, and trust what we do. And very early on we learned that that trust needs to be gained, and that happens over time. And not only that though, we as staff and caregivers we need to show that we actually trust young people in order for young people to feel that they can trust us. So, the way that we changed the culture here at The Lighthouse was that young person comes in, we trust that young person 100 percent what they say to us, what they do, we’re trusting that they’re being honest with us and we start from there. We don’t start with a suspicion around oh maybe they’re back on the play or maybe they’re doing that or that, we start with you’ve come in here for a reason and we trust that you’ve come here for a reason. So, we start from a very different level. And we’ve found that the trust that the residents now have in staff is to the point where they tell us so, much, they tell us too much. You know, like I don’t want to hear everything that happened on the weekend or you know when you went out that kind of stuff. It is such a different level now that it really has this family kind of feeling and value about us, which is really quite beautiful.

Sandie: [00:12:15] And when I was reading what you wrote there I was really taken with this statement, through a restorative justice approach. Can you expand a little bit on what that restorative justice approach looks like?

Polly: [00:12:31] Yes sure. So, the way that we look at that is if a young person let’s say for instance if the person has a bad day and got really upset, and in their room say they punched a wall for example. So, instead of us excluding that young person for violence and being a risk for everyone else, we have a conversation with that young person about ok well what was going on at that point and then we talk about what could we do next time. And then we work with that young person to patch that wall. So, the young person they work with our maintenance person to come in and together they patch that wall together. So, they’re learning from the experience with that. We also, in terms of restorative justice too, if a young person maybe says something or does something that is upset someone else we bring the residents together to have a conversation about it and work as adults to kind of smooth things over.

Sandie: [00:13:29] I could use some practice in that area. OK. Let’s look at lesson learned number four.

Polly: [00:13:38] OK, this was a big one. Getting a lot of feedback from those who worked in group homes when we were setting up The Lighthouse and how to develop it, there was a lot of conversation about how the residents shouldn’t have cell phones as they would be calling their traffickers and would have traffickers lined outside the house and that’s such a risk. So, we started off, and it’s embarrassing to say, that we started off not having any cell phones in the house. And we thought we were creating safety. The young ladies could have a safe phone list and once a day uses the house phone to make a call to someone. When the young lady started attending school, community college, or working we provided them with a flip phone. We thought we were doing the right thing and the flip phone so, they could call if they felt unsafe or for pick up. What we then found is that the girls were so, embarrassed creating new friends so, not only were they anxious about creating new friends at a community college but then to pull out a flip phone? And what we were doing we were just setting them up. We were just traumatizing them, they didn’t want to be around friends, they didn’t want to go to school because we were embarrassing them. But we thought we were doing the right thing by saving them by having this safety there. And so, it never sat well with me so, we met with our residents and I was like guys this is not working, and they’re like No we’re embarrassed. I said you need phones, what are we going to do about it. And the really cool thing was that the girls were so, receptive. We sat down, and we talked through it, and then together the residents and staff wrote up protocols about safety about using phones. And that includes turning off locators, that includes protocols around not taking photos inside the house or of each other or posting on social media. Then other social media protocol. And a lot of conversation about how to be safe with a phone. And that changed a lot. Again, in terms of you know the staff against residents over phone use just totally changed the environment of the house again.

Sandie: [00:15:41] Wow. And those are good safety rules for anybody that’s concerned about their young people and taking the phones away, we’ve all learned is probably not going to work. So, this is a life lesson, not just an aftercare lesson I think.

Polly: [00:15:58] Exactly. And the other thing too was that in some ways I felt we were setting up our young ladies to try and smuggle things in. So, we’re trying to you know teach and work with our young ladies that a lot of the maladaptive behaviors that they’d had to work within group homes or when they were being trafficked and hide and steal you know that those things that kept them alive that they didn’t need to do that once they came to The Lighthouse. But by putting up some of these rules and barriers they were having to resort back to that. So, it was like we’re saying one thing we’re trying to do one thing, but then we’re then reinforcing something else. So, it wasn’t working at all.

Sandie: [00:16:40] Well I’m kind of looking forward to hearing from some of our listeners who do a lot of aftercare and how they respond to that. So, e-mail me people and tell me have you taken the phones away, or are you thinking about giving them back? Let’s go on to lesson learned number five.

Polly: [00:16:58] So, it has literally taken two years to get to a place where we have an amazing staff. The way that we first staffed The Lighthouse predominately was with those who had worked in group homes. And those who work in group homes, they have a really tough job and I respect the work they do. However, with The Lighthouse, the culture and what I was trying to create is very much more of a therapeutic environment whereby we are intentional, and we have authentic relationships, and we are not punitive, and we have conversations. So, those working in group homes are often wired and hyper-vigilant because there’s thing always going on. You know who’s doing what? Where’s that young person? What are they about to do? And always on the lookout. So, that energy was coming into The Lighthouse to start with and that would have been counterproductive to the therapeutic energy I was trying to bring in. So, it takes a while to get a balance in a program. But you know the staff we have now are very much able to work therapeutically. And one of the great assets of the staff we have now is that they’re okay with letting go of control. They don’t need to control our young women and everything they do. They can step back and allow our young women to make mistakes because it’s age appropriate and it’s developmentally appropriate that they’re going to make mistakes. And the young women know that we’re still here when something happens and that’s quite a beautiful feeling to have staff like that.

Sandie: [00:18:33] Wow. What kind of training do you require?

Polly: [00:18:38] Well staff do CSEC 101 and 102 and then every month we do official development training with an outside LCSW. And we do that with topics that the staff has requested. So, one month that might be around boundaries, it may be around the impact of trauma on cognitive development, so, depending on what kind of themes are coming up in the house we will then do a session on that to help learn kind of whether young women are coming from and learn skills that the staff can then implement to work more effectively with those young women.

Sandie: [00:19:15] So, one of your practices that absolutely blew me away is you include your residence in the staff hiring process. Tell me about that.

Polly: [00:19:27] That’s a bit of fun actually. So, my director and I we always do the very first interview to screen and then the second interview, yes, we have our young women come on the panel and we provide a little bit of direction in terms of some kind of areas of question which are usually discarded which is cool. And the young women go for it. It is kind of like an interrogation but that’s the feedback I’ve got from the staff. They’re like oh yeah that was an interrogation. But the young women are awesome. They’re like OK, so, with all these scenarios you know if I came home at this time in the morning and I was doing this what are you going to say to me, or if this happened what are you going to do, you know if I’m playing my music really loud or you know and it’s really cool because it puts the staff or the potential staff member in a position whereby they really need to answer these questions because our young women can just see through everything you know their survival mode has been to read people so, they can just read these staff members like there’s no tomorrow. And it’s really empowering for our young women to be in that position whereby they can say yay or nay and just that part of that empowerment as well and being a leader on the panel.

Sandie: [00:20:42] All right. So, yeah I’d love to be a fly on a wall and watch that. So, moving on to lesson learned number six, life skill development.

Polly: [00:20:52] So, this goes back to when we originally had the curriculum and there were times of the day which would be you know life skill groups. Well, I don’t know what 18, 19, or 20-year-old kind of wants to go to a life skill group, but our young women certainly didn’t. And again, it was push and pull with the staff and we didn’t get anywhere. So, when we moved to the individual programming of each young woman we did away with the group time. And so, what we do now, and it just works so, beautifully, is that our staff are role models. And so, they will work individually with each of the young women depending on what life skill it might be. So, say for example one of our young ladies is washing the dishes, our staff member will wash the dishes with her and may just be like oh hey you know let’s put a bit more soap in here. And so, they learn from doing and from watching the staff. A couple of our young women have come in, they’ve never used a washing machine before and we don’t make a big deal of it, we just make it really natural. It’s like hey come on let’s just go put the washing machine on now and they do it together. You know packing the dishwasher, hey I just need a little bit of help, you know can you come and help me stack the dishwasher. And so, they stack the dishwasher together. So, nothing is embarrassing. Everything is just like it would be if you were learning from your mom or your big sister at home. You know you pick up those things from watching the role modeling and that’s what our staff members do as well. You know our staff members don’t necessarily cook for our residents. They cook with them, you know who wants spaghetti tonight? OK, well if you want spaghetti to let’s come up with, let’s go make the spaghetti now. So, it’s not about doing for it’s doing with the young women pick up and are learning without even learning, which is the best kind of learning.

Sandie: [00:22:40] It’s so, natural. When I first started you know going through your lessons learned. I thought Oh wow. They kicked out the curriculum and then I got down and found out you do have guidelines. So, for those listeners who started freaking out, there are some guidelines. So, talk about that.

Polly: [00:22:58] Yes. We have what we call guidelines that the young ladies didn’t like the word rules which was fine. And so, we sat with our residents to write the guidelines. We really wanted our young ladies to have ownership and the best way of ownership is if they come up with some of these themselves. And so, we sat and we went through everything from how to use a phone, what curfew should be like, to house chores, everything like that. And it was really interesting because the residents’ ideas on what some of these guidelines were like it was so, much more punitive than mine that a lot of the things that they were saying was they would have already been kind of excluded from the program had that been a guideline. And I’m like you guys realize that this relates to you too and then they’re like oh yeah OK let’s not put that in. You know so, I’m there saying well you know you guys are young women and adults, so, during the week maybe your curfew should be midnight. Oh no, everybody should be home by 9:00 and nothing good happens at night later on. Oh, you want your curfew at 9:00? Well yeah you know, and it was a lot of back and forth. It was really funny but it’s such a great learning experience for these young ladies and it was so, empowering for them to come up with the guidelines on how the House runs.

Sandie: [00:24:20] And that seems to be the theme that’s empowerment.

Polly: [00:24:20] Exactly and every time we have a new young woman come in our residents who have been here longer talk through what the guidelines are, and they’ve got the ownership. And so, then when they get they pass that on to the next young lady coming in.

Sandie: [00:24:38] Okay. And I’ve got four minutes left in our timeslot and we have eight, nine, ten, and eleven. So, let’s hit like 30 seconds on case management.

Polly: [00:24:48] OK. So, case management we threw the rule book out with case management and we do case management wherever the young person wants to do it. So, that might be on the beach, it may be at Starbucks, it may be riding a bike. Case management is individualized and the young person we work at where the young person wants to work at and we meet the needs and the goals that they set in their own time pace.

Sandie: [00:25:12] And I don’t want to rush too much but that lesson learned number nine about interviews. Can you just hit the highlights about that?

Polly: [00:25:20] So, when we interview each young lady we don’t necessarily need their whole life story and we just ask that young lady provide information that she feels that we might need in order to make a decision whether or not she may be a good candidate for the house. If there’s any kind of signs of distress or uncomfortable we then finish kind of off the interview and we can pick it up at another time. And the interview is in two stages, it’s with myself to start with and then we have our case manager do the second interview, and then the young lady comes into the House and meets our other residents and other staff and then we put it back on to the young lady whether or not she feels it’s a good fit to come to the house. And again, we empower her to make that decision whether or not she wants to come in or not.

Sandie: [00:26:09] Okay. And one of the issues in working with this age group is sometimes because you’re set up for 18, sometimes you have kids that are really close to that. So, how do you manage that, how would you address that?

Polly: [00:26:23] If the young lady is turning 18 you know in say like a month or two months, we’ll start working with them then. If they’re at home with a parent or a caregiver or if they’re in a group home, they can come to The Lighthouse during the day, they can start setting up their bedrooms, have lunch, come and have dinner, and then we’ll drop them back at night because we don’t have a license for them to stay overnight with us. And the day they turn 18 they move in and the process is really smooth. It really decreases a lot of anxiety and we have a celebration because it’s their first night and we have a party and we have food and a good laugh and it’s pretty cool.

Sandie: [00:27:02] I love that. And I think it’s really evident that the Stages of Change are principles that you follow along with this and we’ve talked about that I’ll put a link to previous podcasts on stages of change, but lesson learned number eleven absolutely blew me away and we’re going to close with this story.

Polly: [00:27:23] So, we had a young lady with us for quite a few months at The Lighthouse and as we know it’s not always the first time a young person leaves the life that they’re going to stay out of the life, that this young lady decided to return to her trafficker. So, what we did is we were really proactive with her. We kept in contact with her by cell, by text. We would check in, hi how are you going, we really miss you, are you doing okay. Every couple of weeks we’d meet up for coffee, just check in, help give her some hygiene, buy her a meal, kept checking in checking in. She knew that we still really cared and really would want her back at the program. And one way to ensure that she kept meeting with us was that we had her mail so, we would get her mail. After about three months she asked if she could return. And we met with her and went through you know guidelines and expectations on her return. And she came back home, and when she came back the residents had all written a big welcome home message on the board. And she was back with us and it was really great to see her come back and where she is now from where she was just before she came back, she’s in a totally different space. But as she says she needed that to leave, and go back to that life, and feel again what it was like to be out of it and not want to be back there and in that situation and violated and abused. But she said that was part of her journey needing to go back to feel that to get out of it again.

Sandie: [00:28:57] I love that story that the other residents said welcome home. And I think we all can agree that that sense of belonging is a huge step in real empowerment and moving on from where they were. And the cover of your report has a matt with the word home on it. And so, kudos to you for such a great project plan. I know it’s going to be evolving and maybe next year you’ll have more lessons learned to share with us.

Polly: [00:29:35] I’m sure we will, for sure.

Sandie: [00:29:37] So, thank you so, much, Polly. And we’re going to put links in the show notes to the things that we talked about here today and we will have you come back and give us some updates. OK?

Polly: [00:29:51] Awesome, thank you, Sandie, appreciate it so, much.

Dave: [00:29:54] Thank you so, much, Polly. Thank you so, much, Sandie. Sandie, you just hear so, much learning in this conversation. You know so, much of what we do as part of this podcast, part of this Global Center for Women and Justice, is all about learning and Polly is such a great example of how her organization is continuing to learn. And we are inviting you to take that step with us as well in continuing your learning. I Hope you’ll hop online and download a copy of Sandie’s book, The Five Things You Must Know, a quick start guide ending human trafficking. It isn’t the end of the wisdom on that of course, it’s the beginning. It will teach you the five critical things that we’ve identified that you should know before you join the fight against human trafficking. You can access that by going to endinghumantrafficking.org. If today’s conversation has brought up a question for you, you could also, reach by e-mail feedback@endinghumantrafficking.org. And we’re just a few months away from the next Ensure Justice conference coming up March 1st and 2nd here in Southern California 2019. For more on that go over to ensurejustice.com to register early. And Sandie, I’ll see you again in two weeks.

Sandie: [00:31:07] Thanks, Dave.

Dave: [00:31:08] Thanks, everybody.

Sandie Morgan

Sandie Morgan, PhD, RN is recognized globally for her expertise in combatting human trafficking and working to end violence against women. As Director of Vanguard University’s Global Center for Women & Justice (GCWJ), she oversees the Women’s Studies Minor as well as teaching Family Violence and Human Trafficking.
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