Filling in the Service Gaps for Portland’s Sexually Exploited Children
An Interview with Co-Founder Cassandra Eichenberger LCSW, RN
By: Amanda Ewing for NWSocialWorkers.com
Cassie Eichenberger, the co-founder of A Village for One, was kind enough to sit down and share a bit about what she does, why she does it, and who can help. A Village for One is a Portland based non-profit organization, currently in it’s fundraising stage, that will provide services to commercially sexually exploited youth. The vision of A Village for One is to create a home, on a piece of land, where minors will find healing and stability, after a life that has left them hurting. This is as much a piece about people doing extraordinary things as it is a call to the community to partner in an extraordinary way.
So Cassie, what drew you to want to help victims of trafficking?
Well first of all, what surprised me is that I managed to go through a Bachelors degree in human development, and then a Masters degree in social work and I never heard about sex trafficking. So, when I got to Portland, I started working as an outpatient community based counselor for high-risk youth, and that’s when I heard about it. So what was shocking to me was that it was prevalent in the community that I grew up in but I never heard about it, and then I could go through two academic degrees that were highly related to the welfare of children and never have an understanding of it, other than on an international level. Then I began working with the youth and quickly became frustrated that there were not adequate services for them. So that was what drew me. For one, it was a lack of education, and the fact that these were the kids in my own backyard. And secondly, I saw that we were spending so much money incarcerating these kids, and putting them into psychiatric hospitals instead of spending money on the services that they needed—they were literally being left with nothing. So the money was being spent, but it was being spent so ineffectively. The idea that they were victims was not being accepted, and instead, society was criminalizing them and having conversations about whether or not they had “chosen the life.” So I really wanted to see a transition in the thought processes within the community to really see these kids as victims and not as sex workers who had chosen this lifestyle.
I think this attitude is often taken when they are considered a run-away youth. They are seen as “making the choice” to be on the street and are often not considered victims when they are victimized. Would you agree?
Right. And we need to ask, what led them to being there? Because most of them have experienced some form of abuse prior to being trafficked. When they end up homeless, they are so vulnerable because within 48 hours, 1 in 3 are recruited by a pimp. So we have our kids, in our community, out there on the street, being bought and sold by the people, most often men, from within our same community. So this was a huge push for me, because I couldn’t sit back and say, “Yeah, this is ok with me.”
How would you describe the needs of victims of sexual exploitation?
Well it’s a wide range, but what we’re focusing on in our house is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This simple model, which is well known in social work, is so important. For these kids, we have to start at the bottom. Do they have food, shelter, safety? The problem is that so many well-intentioned people want to focus on the trauma therapy, but then the kid is back in the traumatic environment later that day. We can’t expect a child to walk through trauma therapy and then face trauma at the same time and have it be effective. So right away we need to provide for their basic needs so that they don’t feel the need to provide for those by trading sexual acts. After this, they need a community that understands that they are victims and that it takes a lot of time to heal. So many people will experience some type of sexual abuse in their lifetime, and it’s always a struggle to heal from that. But these kids have experienced repeated traumatization. A kid that has been raped multiple times a day, seven days a week, for five years is not going to be rescued and say, “Oh you rescued me, I’m all better now.” No, it’s going to take a long time and a lot of dedication to see healing in their lives. Their brains have literally rewired to deal with the abuse, and now they need time to rewire and acclimate to a life that is not full of ongoing traumatization. The compounded trauma that takes place over the years results in complex PTSD, which is something that we’re just starting to research and learn about in the mental health field. This type of trauma becomes normalized at a certain point, as the child has to find a way to adapt and accept what is happening to them. So this process of healing will take years, and that’s hard because this is an instant gratification society.
So time is huge, the understanding of the community, and appropriate resources that meet their basic needs…
Yes, the basic needs are key but they also need to be given without expecting anything in return. Their exploiters may have clothed and housed them but it came at the price of sexual acts. And then the community gives them what they need but then expects them to act a certain way. So in both ways, there is an expectation in order to receive food and shelter, and I am of the belief that kids should receive these basics without any expectations.
How long has the home been a dream of yours?
Well my business partner Austin and I have known each other since high school and we chose different career paths, but we ended up with a passion for the same issue. And when we reconnected about our desire to help these victims, Austin began saying, “We’re going to build a home for these kids.” I always said, “Oh no way, I have never wanted to be a business owner. I’ll work for someone else but I don’t want to do it myself.” But then we quickly became very frustrated because no one was doing it. So it’s hard, because there are so few homes out there for kids from this population, it’s hard to get people to fund you without proof that what you want to do will work. So far, the Agnew Family Foundation has been a huge supporter of ours and their grant has helped to show people that we are getting there, and that this house will become a reality.
And why did you choose a home?
We realize that the non-profit world is competitive, and we’re not trying to take business away from anybody. What we want to do is fill a gap. We have worked professionally with this population for ten years and we have a pretty good understanding of what is there and what isn’t. Specialized residential services are just not there for these kids that need them so desperately. We are looking forward to collaborating with other agencies to get these kids the services that they need.
What are the services that you envision a child receiving while in the home?
Mental health services, skills training, basic physical health services like preventative care and dental work, mentoring services, job skills, and because we are going to be on some land, we would like to provide farm and animal care opportunities which has been proven to be an evidence based treatment method.
Will this be a long term or short-term stay home?
Well we realize that some kids are going to need to be with us longer than others. Our goal is about a year stay for each kid, less if they feel ready to leave and have somewhere to go, and longer if they are still in need of support.
How close are you to reaching your goal?
Well we incorporated in 2012 and applied for our 501c(3) in 2013. We were just approved for that last year. We’re hoping to have some land donated if possible. So there is no set date, but we are hoping to have land that we are working on building or renovating a home on by next year. A more short term goal is to start providing outpatient mental health services for this community in the coming months which will serve the kids but will also provide revenue to continue our fundraising activities for the home.
Ten years from now, what do you hope a Village for One will look like?
There will be a house for boys and a house for girls. An outpatient community support clinic, which will include mental health and support groups for parents, and also transitional services for kids who are aged out.
What does your volunteer base look like right now?
Well we have a very small volunteer base right now. We have a board of five people, but we don’t have too many people outside of that. It’s hard because people really want to help the kids directly and it’s coming from a good place, but it’s hard to explain that these kids really need to be protected and to be worked with by those individuals who have been fully trained to help them and who will be there long-term.
What type of volunteers would be most helpful for you right now?
We need people to be on the auction and banquet committee, which is one of our major fundraisers, people to join us with marketing skills, and volunteers who are willing to meet monthly or bi-monthly to help us with the continued fundraising aspects. And we would really like to get more men involved. A male presence standing up for this issue says a lot when the majority of purchasers and perpetrators of this crime are men. Another helpful volunteer activity that anyone can do is ask their organizations, churches or social groups to have us come and speak about this issue as well as our mission.
How can the social work community help you reach your goal?
Talk about it more. Friends and colleagues really need to be sharing the information about this issue with each other. Also, this issue needs to be part of the general education for those in the social work arena because right now, it really isn’t. And the reality is, if these students are eventually going to work in schools, counseling, child welfare, or any part of the community really, they need to know the warning signs so they can identify it when it’s happening. I think it needs to be just as important in the clinical realm as suicide assessments or mental status exams. And then of course, we need more social workers who are committed to this population and who are willing to dedicate themselves to this work.
What can average citizens do?
Education is huge, educate yourself and share what you know with others. And don’t become a patron of the sex industry, including pornography. Portland is a sex destination and has more sex related industries per capita than Vegas. But this only takes place because the demand is so high. This makes it so that our kids grow up in a place where exploitation is normalized. Reduce the demand to reduce the supply. And giving to our cause and causes like ours is so huge too. There are many ways to give and our website also has a store to buy apparel which promotes our message of how everyone can make a difference with this issue.
Can you think of anything else that you feel is important for the community to know about the work you’re doing and how they can help?
We want this to be about the community uniting. It is important for the kids to know that the community came together to provide these supports for them and that not everyone they encounter is a bad person who wants something from them or will harm them. Monthly financial commitments and volunteers in the areas that we talked about would also be paramount.
Cassie has her Bachelor’s degree in Human, Development and Family Science with minors in psychology and sociology, a Masters in Social Work, and is a Registered Nurse. After receiving her MSW, and attaining her LCSW, she recognized the need for the medical community to understand the specific needs of sexually exploited children and teens. This is what prompted her to obtain her nursing degree and she plans to use it to educate as well as to provide medical services to the youth that will eventually be served in the Village for One home. Cassie’s business partner, Austin Burres, has a Masters of Science and Doctorate in Clinical Psychology.
Image credit: A Village for One at http://childsextrafficking.org/