Starting over: How to help human trafficking survivors rebuild their financial lives
Financial literacy is key to a survivor’s freedom.
When Beth Jacobs was coerced into prostitution as a teenager, her traffickers took her identification, social security card, and all of her money. Every day, she was told how much money she needed to make, usually between $500 and $1,500. All of the money went to her traffickers, and if she was short, she owed them more.
Traffickers often leave survivors with no money, poor credit, and limited knowledge of their own personal finances. In addition to the intense physical and emotional abuse that Jacobs endured, she was stripped of her financial independence, presenting her with obstacles long after her trafficking situation ended.
“Getting out is the easy part. We aren’t rescued, we rescue ourselves. Putting your life together is the hard part,” says Jacobs, now an advocate for human trafficking survivors.
The financial trauma Jacobs endured is common among trafficking victims, says Tina Frundt, a survivor who founded Courtney’s House, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that supports survivors of human trafficking. Frundt says most victims she encounters are working for little, deprived of basic needs, and constantly under financial pressure.
Many traffickers open bank accounts in their victims’ names and use them to conduct illegal business, according to Jacobs. This insulates the trafficker from law enforcement or the IRS and leaves the victim to deal with the ramifications.
As a result, most survivors have no credit history or a spotty one tied to their trafficker. Frundt, for example, found out that her trafficker had leased a building he used for illegal activity in her name. Many survivors have no money or mounds of debt, compounding the already daunting challenge of finding housing, pursuing an education, getting a job, or securing a loan.
Financial literacy is key to a survivor’s freedom, but there are few financial support services for survivors. To fill the gap, service providers can help survivors in a number of ways.
Point survivors to financial support programs
Organizations looking to help survivors manage their finances and repair bad credit should consider financial literacy training necessary for individuals who struggle to access traditional financial services. Assets for Independence, a program that did not receive federally appropriated funds for fiscal year 2017, remains an instructive model for cities and states to follow. The program provided financial literacy education to low-income individuals and helped them set up Individual Development Accounts, a type of savings account. In this model, account holders set savings goals for housing or education and are eligible to receive matching funds for dollars saved. Additionally, nonprofits such as United Way provide financial literacy classes and job training to members of vulnerable communities.
Help survivors access credit repair loans
Service providers can partner with Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) to help survivors access nontraditional loans to repair bad credit. CDFI programs give survivors in tenuous financial situations the chance to rebuild their credit with minimal risk. Some programs allow survivors to pay down debt on a monthly basis then report the payments to credit agencies to improve their credit rating. If program participants have difficulty paying according to schedule, missed payments can be renegotiated.
Connect survivors to Social Security
Many human trafficking survivors are eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the federal Social Security program for those with disabilities. However, some applicants may be denied SSI due to missed appointments, inadequate documentation, or lack of a current address or phone number for follow-up communications. To bridge these gaps, social support agencies can enroll in SOAR, a program from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
SOAR trains service providers on the SSI application, documentation needs, and eligibility criteria. Applications that used the SOAR model were almost twice as likely to be approved as those that did not, according to a 2016 analysis.
In assisting survivors, Jacobs says it’s critical to acknowledge that their financial situation is not a result of choice or bad decisions. Part of a trafficker’s control over a victim is stripping them of financial independence, and many survivors escape with nothing.
“It’s so hard to do it yourself when you have nothing,” Jacobs says.