Being the Lifeline for Those Impacted by Human Trafficking and Exploitation
“When it comes to survivors and victims, there has been this perception that when they are no longer being exploited, that ‘they are free,” explained Erica Howard, an advocate in Northeast Ohio for Empower Her Network.
Every day Erica and her colleagues work with survivors of trafficking to empower them to overcome the many barriers they face long after the trafficking, exploitation and abuse are over. Many survivors have extensive criminal records as a result of the activities and control of their traffickers and because of this experience, a myriad of obstacles that range from struggling to find employment, fixing broken financial history, obtaining an education and establishing safe housing.
“To see the darkest of humanity and to be able to keep going in spite of the atrocities they have experienced, it is no easy feat,” she says with admiration for her clients. “The hard days are seeing the pain from the abuse, the inability to trust and wanting more but it seems so out of reach..”
“When a person is no longer being trafficked, they have lost everything and are expected to rebuild, but there is no foundation to build upon,” she added. Educating the public on those factors and supporting individuals to move from surviving to thriving are some of the biggest challenges she faces in her work and holds the greatest rewards.
“For many of us that do this work, it is deeply personal work and we are compelled by our experiences. Experiences that we often don’t have language, context and understanding for. We just know that the experiences deeply affect and impact us in profound ways,” she reflected.
When Erica first began working with survivors of human trafficking while volunteering with a ministry program, and later in her coursework, she saw the influence of her own story and history in her career path. “I often think this work chooses you,” she professed. Recalling her own family’s painful history of addiction and exploitation, it was her own personal healing that led her to the career choices she has made that now expand that influence on the people and communities around her.
“So much of the work we do stems from the layers of strains placed on families. Generational trauma is often the result of poverty, addiction, mental illness, abuse and neglect all intertwined together,” she stressed. “Mother Teresa said if you want to bring happiness to the world, go home and love your family. If we each can do our work in the spaces we are compelled or called to work in collectively, we can help bring that love and happiness to families.”
Erica’s volunteer work led her to first complete her undergraduate degree in social work at the University of Akron followed by completing her MSW degree through the Online MSW Program at FSU, which allowed her to continue pursuing her calling. She has worked with people experiencing human trafficking for more than a decade and in her current role for three years.
Within her current organization, the focus is not only on individualized, trauma-informed support but on building a network of sustained support. “As advocates, we work in a collaborative effort with survivors to create a plan that empowers them to live out their hopes and dreams in a tangible way,” Erica expounded.
Erica and her fellow advocates continually work on creating a sense of self-actualization for their clients to choose their destination, something they have never been able to do before. They work through the collaboration of existing and growing networks of community partners and organizations, peer support and funding to help each person realize their potential and grow beyond their experiences. She also conducts trainings and leads groups for clients and community partners.
“It is a good day when someone feels their hope, dignity and peace are restored back to them,” Erica emphasized. “Every day I get to be a small part of someone’s story.”