BY: Tina Valila, LCSW, Director of Youth Services and Sonja Solberg Potter, Senior Director of Operations
While the partial government shutdown has ended, it’s effects may be long-lasting for the most vulnerable in our communities. The safety net so many relied upon to keep food on their tables and a roof over their heads was stripped away creating a feeling of desperation and re-traumatization of going without.
For over a month, we heard heart wrenching stories about the government shutdown and the effects on Federal employees and their families. And while these stories are important, another group of people directly impacted by the shutdown were the individuals that access government benefits such as SNAP food benefits and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Fights over a wall created real barriers and instability for highly vulnerable populations.
My Life My Choice serves some of the most vulnerable children and young adults in the community—victims and survivors of the commercial sexual exploitation of children. As minors they were victimized at the intersection of poverty, racism, and sexism, and therefore need these federal benefits to find safety and stability as young adults. Food stamps, domestic violence programming, and financial assistance are services that they rely on. At the threat of losing these benefits and safety net, many of our young people became even more vulnerable, increasing their likelihood of re-victimization. Recovery from human trafficking is a long journey riddled with steps forward and back. Most of our girls we work with do not have friends and family as a safety net during tough times. Below are two stories of two of our mentees who sought support from their My Life My Choice Mentor during the recent shutdown.
While on a visit with her mentor, Brenda, a 21-year-old mother of a two month old, talked about a phone call from her Department of Children and Families (DCF) worker informing her that there was no funding for her SNAP benefits. It was suggested that she try and make what she has last until mid-March, or until the government has reopened. Brenda, who has already survived so much, having been exploited in the sex industry for two years until age 18. She turned to her mentor and said, “I am desperate and I won’t let my son go without”.
Genesis, age 20, was told the same by her caseworker at the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA). Genesis had been working with My Life My Choice for 5 years. During this time she was able to exit the commercial sex industry, become a mother, earn her GED, and enroll in a certificate program for a career in the medical field. She has worked incredibly hard to keep a roof over her head while attending school and being a full-time parent. It is imperative that she receive monthly benefits so that she is able to continue to provide for herself and her family. She called her mentor crying, “Now what am I going to do? I did all of this for nothing! Now I am going to have to do things I don’t want to do”.
We know these are just two stories out of thousands. Their feelings of desperation and need to do whatever was needed to protect their children was real, and fortunately in these instances their mentors were able to support them – helping keep them from the dangers of the commercial sex industry.
While our mentees are extremely vulnerable, they are also some of the most resilient girls and women anyone will ever meet. We will continue to support survivors of commercial sexual exploitation during these uncertain times and let our mentees know that they are not alone. But even with our support, the threat of additional shutdowns is very real barrier, and it is prohibiting the stability and support that they so desperately need to continue to thrive. Without these necessary resources, where would they be left?