A Guide for Survivors of Sex Trafficking During COVID-19

The invisible barriers of social distancing can feel similar to those similar invisible restrictions placed on survivors when they were trafficked.

By: Cristian Eduardo, Survivor Leader & Shobana Powell, LCSW, Director of Survivor Leadership Institute at Sanctuary for Families

Disclaimer: Please note this article may be triggering as it goes into detail about the coercive tactics of traffickers. The purpose of this is to empower survivors and service providers with psychoeducation on how COVID-19 might be particularly triggering for survivors of human trafficking, but we acknowledge that this information might be challenging to read for some. It is written for survivors of sex trafficking who are no longer being trafficked. This guide was written by a survivor of sex and labor trafficking and a licensed mental health clinician.   

It’s okay to feel how you feel

It is important to talk about how trauma can manifest in different ways, and there is no shame, blame or guilt for being triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. If you are feeling this way, know that you are not alone.  Many survivors are feeling similarly.  It is ok if you can identify with any of these feelings. In many ways, it makes sense after the experiences you have lived through

Why might COVID-19 feel particularly triggering or activating for survivors of human trafficking?

Psychological coercion is a powerful form of psychological abuse that can be used to create an environment of fear.  The ever-changing nature of how our communities respond to COVID-19 can mirror the psychological coercion tactics utilized by traffickers.  Many survivors of trafficking felt they could not exit their trafficking situation due to emotional, financial, and psychological barriers, as opposed to physical ones.  As Judith Herman states in her book Trauma and Recovery, “Physical barriers to escape are rare. In most homes, even the most oppressive, there are no bars on the windows, no barbed wire fences… The barriers to escape are generally invisible. They are nonetheless extremely powerful.”  The invisible barriers of social distancing can feel similar to those similar invisible restrictions placed on survivors when they were trafficked.

8 Methods of Psychological Coercion

Research has shown that traffickers often use tactics of psychological coercion similar to those used to elicit false confessions from prisoners of war: isolation, disconnection and distrust, debilitation and exhaustion, threats, moments of hope, intimidation, humiliation and emotional abuse, and unpredictable expectationsBelow, we will outline how social distancing and our current climate with COVID-19 may remind survivors of feelings and experiences of power and control when they were being exploited.

1. Isolation

Isolation involves cutting off or restricting contact from family members and friends. It can also consist of control over your physical, emotional and digital movement and connections, such as monitoring and restricting your transportation, access to your workplace, your phone, etc. 

How does COVID-19 mirror Isolation?

With social distancing, you are kept physically away from your support network. You might also lack full control over your transportation, such as where you are allowed to go and how long you can stay.  For some, a safe space you once had access to may no longer be accessible.  For example, due to social distancing, many survivors can no longer access a family member, friend or community organization that felt safe.  The sense of isolation many of us are feeling due to social distancing does not come close to comparing to the level of isolation most survivors have experienced. However, it can remind survivors of how it felt when they were being trafficked, and if you are feeling that way, it is valid and makes perfect sense after all you have overcome.

Tips on Coping with Isolation

Stay connected virtually in the safest and most comfortable way that you can, whether that might be text, phone call, social media, videoconference, etc. 

  • Why videoconferencing might be triggering: Please note that videoconferencing itself may be triggering for many survivors of trafficking, especially if the sexual exploitation involved cameras and/or online chat rooms.  We advise service providers to be mindful of this and give survivors choice in how they connect with you virtually.  We also recommend service providers do not videoconference from their bed. Videoconferencing from a bedroom setting can be especially triggering for survivors under any circumstances, but especially when interacting with an individual in a role of power, as in the past many survivors were exploited by those with power in a bedroom setting. It is important for service providers to be mindful of their power.  
  • Why certain camera angles might be triggering: Be mindful of the angle at which a survivor might be viewing you if you are videoconferencing. For example, when your device is below you, it can look like a survivor is looking at you from your lap, which can be extremely triggering for survivors of sex trafficking and other forms of sexual violence. Instead, we recommend positioning your camera a few inches higher than eye level, facing slightly down towards you. 
  • Why phone calls, texts and social media might be triggering:  Many survivors had to interact with sex buyers over the phone, text, or social media so even telephone communication and texting can be triggering. Again, we advise that the power to decide what type of virtual communication you use during this time lies with the survivor.  

2. Controlling Understanding of Reality

Traffickers often make themselves the single source of information and connection to the outside world, which further enhances their power in the relationship. Traffickers also often blame survivors for their own exploitation and abuse.  They also often constantly call, text, email and social media the survivors to maintain even a virtual presence and power in their life. It can feel like you have no escape from the trafficker.  

How does COVID-19 mirror Disconnection and Distrust?

With social distancing, it can feel like our only sources of information is the news and our virtual platforms.  This can feel similar to trafficking in that we are expected to trust sources outside of ourselves for information.  This can be particularly challenging for survivors of trafficking whose trust has often been broken by their primary source of information, namely their exploiters.  With social distancing, we can also feel inundated and overwhelmed by the constant bombardment of information via text, phone calls, email, and social media. It can similarly feel like you have no escape from what others want us to hear, see and think about. For some, it can feel like once again, others are controlling you and what you are exposed to.  

Tips on Coping with Disconnection and Distrust

  • Trusted Sources: Use trusted sources of information, especially those from trauma-informed organizations who have in mind the impact of the information they share.   
  • Assert Your Power: Create a Routine:  If you feel overwhelmed by the overload of information, turn off notifications about updates of current situations.  Instead, you can schedule a time for yourself to check those updates, so you can be in control of when and how you receive information.  

3. Debilitation and Exhaustion

Traffickers often demand that survivors are exploited by sex buyers for prolonged periods of time, oftentimes without adequate sleep or food.  Traffickers often control survivors’ meals, sleep patterns, showers, and access to medical care. When traffickers induce such debilitation and exhaustion for survivors, survivors often struggle with chronic stress and physical ailments as a result of the exploitation.  

How does COVID-19 mirror Debilitation & Exhaustion?

With self-quarantining, we lose control over our access to food, sleep and oftentimes medical care. The current climate of fear around COVID-19 can also contribute to survivors’ chronic stress, as many are struggling with fear of exposure, fear of the unknown, fear of things worsening, fear of getting sick, fear of death, etc. For survivors trafficking, these feelings of fear, anxiety and unpredictability can be triggering in and of itself, as these are common feelings survivors experienced during their exploitation.  

Tips on Coping with Debilitation & Exhaustion

During quarantine, self-awareness is important.  You can create a journal and keep track of your feelings and symptoms (if you have any). Writing them down can help you feel more in control by recognizing patterns of times of day or triggers that may be leading to your anxiety.  It can also help you acknowledge the feelings, and then begin to focus on solutions, such as connecting with a trusted friend, processing with your therapist, or doing a self-care activity such as mindfulness, meditation, reading, cooking, drawing, or whatever else brings you peace.  

See here for a link to 3 free online trauma-sensitive meditations. 

4. Threats

In order to maintain power and control over survivors, traffickers often threaten to kill the survivors, their children, their loved ones, or their pets. They also often threaten to take away their children.  As many survivors may be undocumented or have mental health issues, the fear of losing your children may be very real.  Traffickers might also threaten to die by suicide if a survivor leaves or threaten to abandon a survivor if they no longer participate in the sex industry, which can be particularly challenging if a survivor has been isolated and has no one else in their life. Traffickers might also threaten to disclose a survivor’s immigration status, medical conditions and/or sexual/gender identity. 

How does COVID-19 mirror Threats?

If you or someone in your home is sick, you might fear your children being taken away or losing a loved one. You might worry about who would care for your pet if you had to be hospitalized. You might also worry about the disclosure of your personal medical information.  Again, oftentimes when survivors feel similar to feeling to something they experienced while being trafficked, it can be very triggering.  In this case, the nature of COVID-19 can feel very life-threatening for oneself and loved ones.  

Tips on Coping with Threats

  • Please see our Guide to Safety Planning during COVID-19, which includes tips on identifying the safest room in the house and creating a peaceful space for yourself.
  • Please check out Clear Fear and Calm Harm, free apps for trauma-sensitive grounding exercises, recommended by a survivor of trafficking.

5. Moments of Hope

Traffickers often use promises, gifts, rewards and apologizing to enhance the trauma bond with the survivor.  By using occasional indulgences, a survivor might feel the trafficker can offer them glimpses of light in a world of darkness, which furthers the feelings of power and control the trafficker has over the survivor.  

How does COVID-19 mirror Moments of Hope?

With COVID-19, anything that might serve as a distraction from negative media and news can feel like a small reward or gift. These moments of positivity can be beneficial, but the challenge is when it feels they are holding more power than they should.  For example, survivors might be more vulnerable to re-exploitation if a new abuser can offer a sense of relief from the current climate of fear.  

Tips on Coping with Moments of Hope

Diversify your sources of positivity and healthy escape. It is okay to lean on loved ones during this time, but it is helpful to be aware of how someone might exploit their power dynamics during this time. Instead, have a few key trusted friends or family from whom you seek support.  Have a few positive outlets for your time, whether it is for self-care alone or through a virtual community.  

6. Intimidation

Traffickers may demonstrate control over the survivor’s fate, making them feel like no matter what the survivor does, the trafficker will get their way.  They often use privilege and real or false connections to powerful individuals or systems to intimidate survivors and make them feel there is no way out and their trafficker will find out about every move they make.  

How does COVID-19 mirror Intimidation?

The spread of the coronavirus can feel like you are not in control of your own fate.   

Tips on Coping with Intimidation

Assert the power you do have over your situation. Follow the recommendations from trusted sources about how you can minimize risk for yourself and your loved ones. If you feel out of control, remind yourself of the things you are doing to stay safe.  

7. Humiliation and Emotional Abuse

In the world of trafficking, survivors can experience verbal abuse, breaking down one’s spirit and self-worth.  Oftentimes, traffickers will break down a survivor’s self-worth and tie their sense of self to the trafficker’s opinion of them.  Traffickers and sex buyers also might involve survivors in degrading sexual acts or the harming of others, which can further impact one’s self-worth. 

How does COVID-19 mirror Humiliation and Emotional Abuse?

During this time with the coronavirus, we know many people are struggling with blame, physical abuse and verbal abuse and harassment due to their race, gender, and background. This feeling of verbal abuse and being put down or targeted can remind a survivor of how they felt when they were trafficked.  For many survivors, the verbal abuse takes the longest to heal from, so enduring verbal abuse during life after exploitation can be particularly triggering.

Tips on Coping with Humiliation and Emotional Abuse

It is not okay to be harassed or abused for any reason. The current situation is not an excuse for any form of abuse, racism, discrimination, or exploitation. Remember you are not alone.  Connect with safe and trusted loved ones to remind yourself of who you are. Write positive self-affirming statements and put them on your walls or write them on your mirror so you can be reminded daily of your strengths.  If you do not have safe or trusted people in your life, follow organizations and leaders you trusted online, such as Sanctuary for Families or our partner organizations. Even though we are not together in person, we are together in spirit.  Seeing positive, trauma-sensitive posts online can be another way to remember you are not alone. 

8. Unpredictable Expectations

Traffickers often expect and enforce rigid and unrealistic rules.  Their rules are often changing constantly, so a survivor never feels secure or is never sure if they are doing what they are supposed to.  Traffickers then often have unpredictable physical or verbal outbursts and incidents of violence for a survivor failing to comply with these unrealistic and ever-changing demands. Survivors often blame themselves, feeling they “deserved” the punishment or abuse because they failed to follow the rules.   

How does COVID-19 mirror Unpredictable Expectations?

The ‘rules” or recommendations around COVID-19 are constantly changing and can feel very similar to rules traffickers enforced when a survivor was being exploited.  For example, traffickers often have rules about not contacting or speaking with anyone outside of the trafficker and the sex buyers.  Social distancing can remind a survivor of times when their trafficker did not allow them to interact with others and controlled who they could contact and how. Survivors may feel high levels of anxiety around complying with social distancing recommendations and/or might feel a strong desire to not comply because it feels like someone else controlling your behavior. It might also be particularly frustrating to see others not complying with safety recommendations.  

Tips on Coping with Unpredictable Expectations

Keep a brief list of safety recommendations from a trusted source and if you feel the need to review it, remember you are in control of how you respond.  You can set a schedule for yourself, choosing to check it at a planned time each day or week.   

Remember: You Are Not Alone 

Most importantly, just remember if you are feeling particularly anxious or triggered during this time, you are not alone. Your feelings and experiences make sense after everything your body, brain, and soul have overcome. Give yourself a break, show yourself the empathy you would show your survivor community, and never forget how far you have come in your healing journey. The community of survivors of trafficking is thousands strong, and even if we cannot be together, we are with you.  


Baldwin, S.B., Fehfrenbacher, A.E., & Eisenman, D.P.  2015. Psychological Coercion in Human Trafficking: An Application of Biderman’s Framework. 

Biderman. 1957. Communist Attempts to Elicit False Confessions from Air Force Prisoners of War.  

Hopper & Hidalgo. 2006. Invisible Chains: Psychological Coercion of Human Trafficking survivors.  

Renick. 2012. Power and Control Comparison. National Network to End Domestic Violence.  

Support Camp Hope

This summer, Sanctuary will be leading Camp HOPE America: New York. Learn how this trauma-informed camp is helping young victims of domestic violence heal and find hope again.

Bria Diemer is a Communications Intern at Sanctuary and a rising Junior at Pace University where she studies film and creative writing.

Summer camp is something we do as children because it seems fun and exciting – and because our parents want us out of the house. We swim in open waters and over-eat junk food and gossip about nothing with strangers who somehow already feel like life-long friends. Summer camp is something we need as children because it is a place to meet people and hear stories and have fun in a way only kids can. At home, there’s homework and chores and other impending childhood responsibilities. But at camp, there’s nothing to do but scream and laugh and be yourself. It’s an easy escape from the real world, from home, wherever that may be.

But for many kids, home is something to escape from. According to estimates, between 2 and 10 million children will be exposed to domestic violence each year in America. This trauma makes children more susceptible to short- and long-term emotional, social and behavioral difficulties such as increased anxiety, depression, isolation, physical and psychological aggression and a predisposition to continue the cycle of abuse. Ages 12-17 are some of the most formative years for human development, and the presence of trauma can prevent healthy, effective growth. Trauma forces children to bypass their childhood entirely, leaving no time for s’mores and rock climbing.


Every day, Sanctuary for Families works with families that have experienced violence and abuse. And while we and other service providers offer services for the entire family, adolescent kids are often an underserved group. This summer, Sanctuary is partnering with Camp HOPE America to establish Camp HOPE America: New York, which will run from August 20-24. Thirty children ages 12 to 17, (15 girls and 15 boys) will participate in a week-long camp in upstate New York. Sanctuary was asked to pilot the first Camp HOPE America affiliate serving children in the New York City metropolitan area. Over the course of the week campers will enjoy classic camp activities such as swimming, high ropes courses, nightly campfires, team building activities, a trip to a planetarium, zip lining, canoeing, art, and a talent show. And thanks to Sanctuary’s partnership with the Fresh Air Fund, the camp will take place on 2,000 acres of land including two beautiful lakes, mountain overlooks and forested trails in Fishkill, New York.

Camp HOPE America is the first camping and mentoring initiative focused on children exposed to domestic violence. Initially beginning in California, Camp HOPE has developed into a nationwide effort spanning over five states. This year, an estimated 1,500 children and young adults will benefit from all that Camp HOPE America has to offer.

Counselors at the camp have been trained to use a trauma-informed approach when working with the children. Trauma-informed care means understanding a person entirely, and taking their traumas and resulting coping mechanisms into consideration when attempting to understand certain behaviors. “We want to know what happened before this, what were the factors that led up to this? It’s important to understand the root of the issue before addressing the actual issue,” says Bridget Shanahan, co-director of the New York camp. A person’s exposure to trauma influences each area of human development— physical, mental, behavioral, social, spiritual —which is why a trauma-informed method most effectively promotes healing, growth and overall hope.

Hope is the belief that your future will be better than your past and that you have the power to achieve your dreams.  While “hope” sounds like an uncomplicated, commonplace emotion, it actually proves to be an effective source of motivation, specifically for young adults. Hope can inspire roadmaps to short- and long-term goals as well as the inspiration to overcome obstacles that arise. “This camp focuses on hope rather than resiliency because hope is something you can build. Everyone can still have hope,” Shanahan explains. Each camper is given a questionnaire before, during and after the camp in effort to gauge a hope index. These ‘Hope Scores’ are an evidenced-based measure of hope, and results show that post-camp Hope Scores are increased and are sustained over time.


Childhood is a precious time that should be full of the fun and excitement, not violence and trauma. If you would like to support Sanctuary for Families’ first Camp HOPE and our youngest clients, please click here.

Recognizing Yuqing Wang: A Pillars of Change Honoree

Yuqing is a 2018 Pillars of Change honoree.

It’s National Volunteer Recognition Week! Every day this week we’ll be highlighting a Sanctuary volunteer who will be honored at our Pillars of Change Volunteer Recognition Event on May 10th. Learn more and register for Pillars of Change.

As an international student at NYU, Yuqing Wang was curious about life in New York City outside her campus and searched for volunteer opportunities on VolunteerMatch.com where she found Sanctuary for Families.

As a native Mandarin speaker, Yuqing utilizes her language skills as a volunteer interpreter for Sanctuary’s Queens Trafficking Intervention Pro Bono Program (QTIPP). In this role, Yuqing supports Sanctuary staff, pro bono attorneys, and clients every Friday at Queens Human Trafficking Intervention Court by providing interpretation for client intakes and screenings.

“Interpretation for our clients is not as simple as translating words from one language to another,” explains Lauren Chung, Administrative Assistant, Anti-Trafficking Initiative.

“Many of the clients within the QTIPP program are vulnerable immigrants from East Asia and it is very difficult for them to recount experiences of abuse and trauma.”

Despite this, Yuqing approaches these intakes with extreme sensitivity and she becomes the client’s voice for the duration of the intake. “I can recall many cases in which a client walked into the office nervous and walked out with a smile on their faces. That’s one of the things I enjoy most about volunteering,” Yuqing explains.

In just over a year of volunteering at Sanctuary, Yuqing has translated for over 60 client intakes, working with over 50 pro bono attorneys from Sanctuary’s law firm partners. As an experienced trauma-sensitive interpreter, Yuqing has also been assisting the Anti-Trafficking Initiative with developing an interpreter training for future volunteers.

Yuqing’s talents have not gone unnoticed by Sanctuary staff:

“We have come to rely on Yuqing’s insightfulness – if there’s an intake that we anticipate will be particularly sensitive, we do our best to have Yuqing interpret for that intake, trusting that her presence will ease the client.”

For Yuqing, volunteering at Sanctuary has been rewarding both personally and professionally. One thing Yuqing did not expect was the relationships she would develop with other people working on the project:

“I met Maggy last year, who is a retired lawyer and we have collaborated many times. She was incredibly kind and was happy to share her experiences with me and give me advice. If not for this volunteer opportunity, I would never have gained this friendship.”

Yuqing always brings the focus of any conversation about her work back to the clients she works with. For Yuqing, the most rewarding part of her work is ‘seeing that someone in difficulty is more relieved after our interview’.

We sincerely thank Yuqing for her compassion, sensitivity, and insight and hope she will continue working with Sanctuary for a long time to come.

We look forward to celebrating Yuqing and four other amazing volunteers at Pillars of Change on May 10, 2018! You can join us at Pillars of Change by registering now. We hope to see you there!

With DA Cy Vance’s grant, Sanctuary and STEPS to End Family Violence launch the FamilySafe Program

Thanks to a generous grant from DA Cy Vance, Sanctuary and STEPS to End Family Violence are thrilled to be launching the FamilySafe Program which will offer family-focused therapy treatment to victims of domestic violence and their children.

“By [investing in youth and families] we believe that we can limit [children] becoming involved in the criminal justice system in the first place… Law enforcement has to understand that we’re not going to prosecute and arrest our way out of the problems that we have in our society, we’re going to have to get serious about investing in our kids.”

– Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance

Back in February, Manhattan DA Cy Vance announced the grant awardees of a $58 million dollar investment into youth and families to prevent crime in Manhattan. As a recipient of nearly $1.5 million in funding over three years, Sanctuary, in partnership with STEPS to End Family Violence, is preparing to launch the FamilySafe Program. Speaking at the grantee ceremony earlier this year, Sanctuary Executive Director Hon. Judy Harris Kluger shared how the FamilySafe Program will help heal and empower New York families.

“Every year, tens of thousands of children right here in New York City witness the horror of domestic violence in their own homes. The damage is incalculable.

Exposure to domestic violence in a child’s life is associated with increased levels of high-risk behavior, like substance abuse and gang involvement. One study found men who were exposed to abuse and domestic violence as children were almost four-times more likely to become abusers than men who had not been exposed.

Thanks to the Manhattan District Attorney’s generous grant, Sanctuary for Families will work in partnership with STEPS to End Family Violence, to launch the FamilySafe Program. The program expands on our existing clinical services that strengthen relationships between parents who suffer domestic abuse and their children who witness it.

This grant will allow us to serve 225 new families – every year – providing them with intensive evidence-based treatment or with assessments for family therapy and parenting services.

This initiative will go a long way to reduce the trauma in children, improve parents’ confidence and optimism, and break the inter-generational cycle of violence for the families we serve.”

Building on over 30 years of clinical services and expertise

The launch of the FamilySafe program marks an exciting and important step forward for our clinical department. Over the last decade, research into traumatic stress and PTSD has given way to a greater understanding of the symptoms and effects of trauma as well as several therapy methods (also called evidence-based treatment) that have been proven to be effective in treating trauma victims AND their families.

Since 1985, Sanctuary has provided specialized services to children who have been victims or witnesses of domestic violence in their homes. Acutely aware of how domestic violence affects entire families, we have built a strong portfolio of trauma-focused, culturally and linguistically sensitive clinical services for domestic violence victims and their children. This portfolio is one that we are proud of and one that we continually seek to improve upon and expand. With the launch of the FamilySafe Program, our Clinical team hopes to begin a larger transition from separate counseling services for adults and their children to an attachment-focused family therapy approach (also known as dyadic family therapy) that both treats the trauma children have experienced and rebuilds the trust and attachment between the non-abusing parent and child.

Rolling out the FamilySafe Program

At this time, the roll-out of the FamilySafe Program is just beginning. Sanctuary is currently developing an assessment tool which we will integrate into our intake screenings so that we can identify families who would benefit from dyadic family therapy. With the assessment tool in place, specialized staff on-boarded, and our clinical department trained on the new process, we will begin intake.

Between Sanctuary and STEPS to End Family Violence, we aim to assess 225 families and provide intensive evidence-based, family attachment-focused treatment to 150 of those families annually. In addition to specialized treatments, STEPS and Sanctuary will each offer two to three cycles of Parenting Journey, a program which helps parents build stronger families by developing the inner strengths, life skills, and networks of resources they need to succeed. In each cycle, 8-10 families will meet for two hours a week for three to four months. Parents will be able to participate in activities, discussions, and family-style meals with complimentary childcare included.

Over the next two and a half years of the FamilySafe Program, Sanctuary will track and assess the program’s impacts. Assuming we see the positive effects we expect, we will look for ways to continue and expand the program.

Keep an eye out for more updates as we roll out this exciting new initiative!