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Jan 29, 2024

Equipping pre-licensed therapists to work with human trafficking survivors

Pre-licensed therapists work in difficult situations, like with human trafficking survivors. This is how Radiant Futures supports their associate clinicians.

Carla Smith, Ph.D, LCSW, LMFT

Chief Clinical Officer

How Radiant Futures supports their associate therapists working with a complex population

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month.

Human trafficking isn’t something that happens in other countries. It’s slavery, and it’s happening all around us, either as forced labor or sex trafficking.

Forced labor can happen in legal or illegal industries — wherever a trafficker compels someone to work against their will using force, fraud, or exploitation. These are a few examples from the U.S. Department of State website:

  • Traveling sales crews
  • Agricultural workers
  • Janitorial services
  • Construction
  • Salon service workers
  • Massage parlors
  • Carnival workers
  • Factory workers (a.k.a. “sweatshops”)
  • Drug smugglers and sellers
  • Child care workers
  • Hospitality and domestic workers

Sex traffickers use similar means to compel men, women, and children into prostitution, pornography, surrogacy, and other roles.

Traffickers rob human beings of their self-efficacy, often separating them from those they love. They take away their dignity, and through one way or another, manipulate them through fear.

When trafficking survivors do get help, it takes a lot of work and time to restore their sense of safety and well-being.

Radiant Futures is a Motivo partner in Orange County, California. They've been working with domestic violence and human trafficking survivors for over 45 years. Their Chief Program Officer – Dr. Nefta Pereda, and their Associate Director of Clinical Services, Claudia Flores, LCSW shared their experiences running a clinical program staffed by pre-licensed therapists.

“Pre-licensed clinicians bring a fresh perspective and a high level of enthusiasm to their work. While they may lack the extensive experience of licensed therapists, their passion and dedication often contribute to building strong connections with survivors, and adds to the milieu of our agency as whole.”

Dr. Nefta Pereda

Chief Program Officer

Community-based organizations and government agencies like the Veterans Administration are some of the most prevalent employers for associate therapists. These agencies struggle to compete with private practice and healthcare networks for licensed professionals — in order to serve their populations, they turn to pre-licensed clinicians.

That means our most inexperienced clinicians right out of grad school work with some of the most complex populations. As long as they have reasonable caseloads, solid support and guidance from their employers and clinical supervisors, and an income that helps them pay the bills, they thrive in those situations.

What does that kind of clinician support look like?

“Building trust with pre-licensed clinicians is vital to the work we do. As an agency and a clinical supervisor, building and maintaining that trust involves providing the tools, training, and supervision necessary for clinicians to feel well-equipped to support the complexities of working with trauma survivors.”
– Claudia Flores, LCSW, Associate Director of Clinical Services, Radiant Futures

1. Have clear guidelines and protocols

“Having clear guidelines and protocols helps pre-licensed clinicians experience best practices in the field,” says Claudia Flores. “Which, in turn, increases their clinical skills and confidence to provide high-quality care for clients.” Failure to establish protocols leaves associate therapists without direction and that sets them up for frustration, interferes with their professional development, and can impinge on the client’s healing processes. When clinicians don’t have direction, clients sense it, and it shows:

  • Constant no-shows
  • Low caseloads
  • Inability to manage the intensity of sessions and provide a safe space for survivors to work through their complex trauma from their lived experiences.

2. Prioritize support for your pre-licensed clinicians

Radiant Futures partners with Motivo to provide clinical supervision. They go beyond the state requirement and provide both individual and group supervision to their clinicians — using two different clinical supervisors so their counselors get exposed to different approaches and perspectives.

External supervision keeps sessions focused on cases and clinical skills development. It also gives them the breathing room to provide other methods of professional development.

Besides clinical supervision and ongoing professional development, Radiant Futures encourages peer support among their therapists.

Both Dr. Pereda and Claudia Flores emphasize how important this is for creating a safe space for their clinicians to seek advice, share their experiences, collaborate, and confer together on complex cases.

“While on the surface this [the focus on clinical development and support] may seem like a burden," says Dr. Pereda. "It helps our organization and the work we do in the long run. so we embrace the opportunity that compels us to stay aware of employee needs as we work on transforming the survivor experience,”

3. Acknowledge the impact of trauma for associate therapists— including secondary trauma

Therapists help their clients work through their traumatic experiences. Sometimes, those experiences are going to leave an impression in their own psyches. That's the reality of therapy work. We need to acknowledge how trauma impacts everyday lives and equip clinicians with the tools to recognize how it’s affecting them. “It’s important for licensed clinicians, but especially important for pre-licensed clinicians,” Flores states.

“Therapists need to be aware of the concept of secondary trauma. How do we attend to it as clinicians? What does that look like? Take it a step further and understand ‘how is the client’s trauma impacting my work as a clinician?”

Safety planning

A safety plan is a very personal and practical blueprint that identifies all the concerns a domestic abuse or trafficking survivor needs to be aware of. When they aren't in immediate danger, they strategize what they need to do if harm becomes a risk, so they don't have to think about it in the moment.

  • When should they leave?
  • Where do they go?
  • How do they deal with particular situations?
  • What are the details they need to address to make sure they have what they need physically, emotionally, financially, and spiritually?

Therapists and social workers use safety plans throughout trauma treatment. The plan is adjusted as the client's situation changes so they continue to get what they need to feel and be safe. Traffickers may not pose a risk anymore, but that doesn't mean their mind or body allows them to feel safe.

“With the population that we work with, we surround them with the concept of safety. When we safety plan with clients, I always tell clinicians ‘Don’t forget to include yourself.” Flores adds. “You’re part of your client’s safety plan because you’re part of their support system now.”

Flores encourages clinicians to create their own safety plans --- so they anticipate how they might be affected by their work. And to put strategies in place to respond to potential secondary trauma.

4. Emphasize the importance of self-care

“Self-care isn’t just taking a walk during your 10-minute break,” says Flores.”It's really living self-care from the moment you wake up to the moment you go back to sleep. What does that trajectory mean to you as a pre-licensed professional? How are you incorporating that into your daily living and the work you do with survivors of trauma?”

5. Be flexible in this changing world

Remote work, flexible hours, or different therapy modalities provide challenges to explore, not resist.

Flores believes the way to approach challenges is through curiosity. Curiosity breeds creativity.

“What else can we do? If there’s a park across the street and it’s safe enough to walk with the client and do walk therapy — go get some Vitamin D! Get some tea and have tea time with your client as you talk. Listen to music and explore non-traditional modalities of therapy. That curiosity and willingness to try new approaches can improve the experience for our trauma survivors.”

6. Nurture your agency culture

Flores believes that working in an agency with challenging populations is good for new therapists. You’re surrounded by a team who help with everything from purchasing supplies, to providing legal services, to cleaning the therapy room. Everyone is there to serve domestic violence and trafficking survivors. They’re united in that purpose.

“That’s a plus for sure. Great pay is always going to be a plus, but if it’s not there, what other perks or what benefits balance that out?”

Radiant Futures prioritizes employee care. They work it into their fundraising goals because they believe investing in their employees only benefits their clients and their agency. That takes a wise and strategic business approach -- but that’s another way they care for their staff and their clients.

Are associate therapists up to the task of caring for human trafficking survivors?

Radiant Futures has proven over the years that yes, they are. Their education and pre-graduate internships have provided significant experience.

If the employer and clinical supervisors embrace their roles of mentors and guides — providing what they need to continue to develop their clinical skills — associate therapists are a real asset in making sure human trafficking survivors get the care they need.

Carla Smith, Ph.D, LCSW, LMFT

Chief Clinical Officer

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