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CSE Institute Survivor Symposium: Lessons Learned by #ListeningToSurvivors

Posted: April 4, 2017

On March 9-10, 2017, the Villanova Law Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation hosted an innovative two-day symposium focused on engaging the survivor community in advocacy, healing, and criminal justice. Survivor leaders from across the country convened at the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law to lead a series of workshops on topics ranging from advocacy to law enforcement tactics to issues of intersectionality and more. Lawyers, law students, professors, police officers, social workers, and public interest professionals were among the engaged participants who attended. Even before the first day concluded, it was clear the symposium was effectuating its primary goal: teaching others to become effective allies and advocates by listening to survivors.

Among the many highlights of the symposium, Alisa Bernard, Survivor Advocacy Coordinator for the Organization for Prostitution Survivors, and Autumn Burris, Founding Director of Survivors for Solutions, focused on techniques for engaging survivors in sex trafficking advocacy and gave instructional training on how to be effective advocates [1]. Complementing their advocacy training, Audrey Morrisey, who runs the educational, training, and public awareness initiatives at My Life My Choice, presented a framework for survivor mentoring that is sure to strengthen the survivor leader movement across the country [2].

While symposium participants got an in-depth look at the current state of the survivor leader movement, they also had the invaluable experience of hearing from Kathleen Mitchell and Vednita Carter, trailblazers in this field. In 1989, Ms. Mitchell founded the first county-jail-based program for prostituted women. Her program at the Durango jail established direct victim services to survivors, which include counseling, addiction recovery, education, life skills training, job placement, and transitional housing. Ms. Carter is the founder of Breaking Free, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending all forms of prostitution and sex trafficking, and she was recently honored by President Barack Obama with the Lifetime Achievement Award for her work to end commercial sexual exploitation.

Together Ms. Mitchell and Ms. Carter joined forces to present “Housing, Social Services, and Resources for Court and Criminal Justice Involved Women” [3]. In this interactive workshop, participants were assigned to play the role of either escort, exotic dancer, streetwalker, or case worker. Participants considered the benefits, wages, attire, and employment atmosphere of each “profession.” This exercise illuminated the lack of personal autonomy experienced by escorts, exotic dancers, and streetwalkers—as compared to the salaried role of case workers—and helped to debunk the myth of the “profession” of prostitution. Ms. Mitchell and Ms. Carter also highlighted how lack of personal choice makes it difficult for prostituted persons to transition into their lives post-victimization.

Ms. Carter also teamed up with Dr. Marlene Carson, founder of Rahab’s Hideaway, a fully comprehensive residential treatment facility for victims of domestic minor sex trafficking, and C.E.O. of The Switch, a National Anti-Trafficking Network. Together Ms. Carter and Dr. Carson presented on the intersectionality of women of color and the world of commercial sexual exploitation [4]. Attendees learned that, because girls and women of color tend to be among the most vulnerable in society, they are often specifically targeted by traffickers. Consequently, women and girls of color disproportionately become victims of sex trafficking. Dr. Carson also presented “Pimping and Third Party Control: Mental Masters – How Traffickers Develop, Control, and Manipulate the Minds of Victims” [5]. Besides focusing on traffickers’ tactics, Dr. Carson offered valuable insight on how to be an effective ally, explaining that the paternalistic approach often employed by well-meaning police officers and prosecutors actually mimics the demanding nature of traffickers and fails to show respect for the autonomy of individual survivors. She offered tips for a collaborative approach to working with survivors that appropriately entrusts survivors to know what is in their own best interest.

Through two amazing presentations by Shamere McKenzie—the founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Sun Gate Foundation, an anti-trafficking organization that provides educational opportunities for survivors of human trafficking, and Anti-trafficking Program Director for the Salvation Army of Central Maryland—participants learned about the difficult obstacles survivors face in attempting to re-integrate into society and about the “Bottom Girl Phenomenon” [6]. As a former bottom girl herself, Ms. McKenzie was uniquely qualified to teach about the psychological controls employed by traffickers that can turn a prostituted person into an active participant in recruiting others into prostitution—a “bottom girl.” Ms. McKenzie’s presentation was especially informative for law enforcement officials and prosecutors in the room who often view the bottom girl as a trafficker, rather than the victim she truly is. Ms. McKenzie concluded the workshop with a brainstorming session focused on the inadequacies of current state and federal laws in addressing the bottom girl phenomenon.

Marian Hatcher—a recipient of the Presidential Lifetime Achievement Award from President Obama, Senior Project Manager for the Office of Public Policy, and Human Trafficking Coordinator for the Cook County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO)—also conducted a workshop with special importance for police and prosecutors. In her presentation on “Law Enforcement Tactics for Demand Reduction,” Ms. Hatcher presented data on the demographics of buyers and survivors, emphasized the need for targeting demand, and provided invaluable insight to aid others in shifting the policing paradigm to focus on reducing demand [7]. In her detailed presentation, Ms. Hatcher drew on her extensive experience as the coordinator of several of the CCSO’s anti-trafficking efforts, including the National Johns Suppression Initiative (NJSI). The NJSI is a national coalition of more than 80 law enforcement agencies and nearly 200 partners, including the FBI and Homeland Security, that targets the buyers of sex as the driving force of sex trafficking. In one recent example of the NJSI’s success, 30 law enforcement agencies across 15 states arrested 723 sex buyers and 29 sex traffickers during a two-and-a-half week sting operation conducted in conjunction with Super Bowl LI.

With much of the Symposium’s focus on prostituted women, Jerome Elam added a unique voice and perspective to this learning opportunity. Mr. Elam, President and CEO of Trafficking in America Task Force, presented “Trafficked Boys: Bringing Male Victims of Sex Trafficking Out of the Shadows.” A survivor himself, Mr. Elam explained the unique problems associated with locating trafficked boys and aiding male survivors through trauma-focused healing. Because the channels used to traffic male—as opposed to female—victims are not as well-known by law enforcement, male victims and their traffickers are significantly more elusive. Additionally, the needs of male victims are often quite different than those of women and girls. Mr. Elam suggested that, because traffickers are most often men themselves, having a female available to counsel a male human trafficking victim is an effective way to establish a trusted relationship.

Symposium participants also had the phenomenal opportunity to learn how survivors and law enforcement professionals can collaborate to effectively combat human trafficking, while simultaneously providing appropriate support services for survivors [8]. In their workshop, “Prosecuting Trafficking Cases Using Survivor Expert Testimony,” Rebecca Bender—founder of the Rebecca Bender Initiative (RBI), a non-profit that provides trainings and consulting to first responders and investigators across America—and Jane Anderson—Attorney Advisor for Aequitas—teamed up to provide a comprehensive and innovative outlook on the utility of involving survivors in all stages of trafficking investigations and prosecutions. Ms. Bender explained the methods survivors employ to assist police officers in their investigations and described how these techniques facilitate connections with survivors, thereby helping them to share their stories and aid police and prosecutors.

By all measures, the symposium was an overwhelming success, and direct conversation with survivors clearly helped to broaden the attendees’ perspectives on the complexity of human trafficking, its innumerable victims, and the importance of focusing on survivor-centered services. #ListenToSurvivors.


[1] See Alisa Bernard, Survivor Leadership in Human Trafficking Task Forces, YouTube (Mar. 24, 2017),; Alisa Bernard, Writing Workshop for Survivors, YouTube (Mar. 29, 2017),; Autum Burris, Engaging the Survivor Community in Policy and Legislative Advocacy, YouTube (Mar. 22, 2017),

[2] Audrey Morrisey, Survivor Mentoring Model: Lessons Learned, YouTube (Mar. 24, 2017),

[3] Vednita Carter & Kathleen Mitchell, Housing, Social Services and Resources for Court and Criminal Justice Involved Women, YouTube (Mar. 23, 2017),

[4] Vednita Carter & Marlene Carson, Intersectionality of Commericial Sexual Exploitation and Women of Color, YouTube (Mar. 23, 2017),

[5] Marlene Carson, Pimping and Third Party Control: Mental Masters – How Traffickers Develop, Control, Manipulate the Minds of Victims, YouTube (Mar. 24, 2017),

[6] Shamere McKenzie, Bottom Girl Phenomenon, YouTube (Mar. 20, 2017),

[7] See Marian Hatcher, Law Enforcement Tactics for Demand Reduction, YouTube (Mar. 24, 2017),

[8] Rebecca Bender & Jane Anderson, Prosecuting Trafficking Cases Using Survivor Expert Testimony, (Mar. 29, 2017),


All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University.

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