Not just Awareness but Action - A Hawaii Nurse’s Path Toward Sex Trafficking Restoration

September 11, 2014 Jessica Munoz Opinion 
Aftercare, Sex Trafficking

In a 2009 presentation by International Justice Mission, I was exposed to the heart breaking global atrocity of human trafficking. I knew the issue of slavery was an international problem yet was completely unaware of the scope of the issue existing right here in the "Land of the Free.”

The general populaces in the United States live under the illusion that slavery was abolished years ago; however, it is alive and well. Daily, thousands of lives are affected: youth whose childhoods are stolen are left with the trauma of being exploited, beaten, raped and sold as a commodity to ravenous buyers. Sadly, as these children and young women are brought in to receive health care, social services or to have some sort of legal involvement, they are often mislabeled as juvenile delinquents, misfits or “throw away” kids.

Rarely are they recognized as victims of a crime.

Combining my Nurses Training with Anti-Trafficking Work

When I started on this journey of awareness, I spent ample amounts of time researching the issue, attempting to grasp the scope and wanting to understand all of the many facets of this complex problem. As a health care professional, I took an oath to do no harm, yet failing to identify and intervene in the healthcare setting only contributed to further abuse. Since my nursing background was focused on working with children going through traumatic health events ranging from the emergency room, to the intensive care unit, to new diagnoses of cancer, I was no stranger to how the fragile minds of children were affected by traumatic incidences. What made this problem any different?

As my awareness of the problem grew, however, the real question became this: why has the trauma of sex trafficking slipped under the radar of those within the health care profession?

Consequently, I wrote my thesis in graduate school on the topic of human trafficking as it relates to the health care professional’s roles and responsibilities. As my understanding evolved, it was evident that I had to share the information with anyone and everyone who would listen to me talk about the plight of this population. Growing up as a ballerina, I wasn’t shy to crowds; however dancing didn’t require me to speak. I knew the challenge of facing crowds, presenting and articulating the information would be a bridge needing crossing more than once. If I refused to use my voice I would be no different than any other person who knew about the problem, but moved on with their life leaving these children in their captivity.

©Jessica Munoz

Awareness Was Only the Beginning

Awareness programs were only the first step; I quickly realized that they were only the beginning. Inevitably, as I shared about the scope of the problem, I would come to the section in my presentation about aftercare resources and rehabilitation for victims. The severely lacking resources and evidenced-based treatment modalities served as a constant reminder that awareness only goes so far. Specifically, licensed residential facilities for minors are a national need in the United States.

Unfortunately, the sophisticated and well-organized structure that the pimps operate within has had an advantage for years, leaving advocates, providers, and law enforcement to catch up. This constant catch up game —due to the lack of cohesive, operating protocols, knowledge sharing, and a collaborative approach—has been one of the biggest barriers to effective intervention. As a system, we have continued to fail this population of children given our organizational differences, ancient practices and inadequate understanding of the true scope of this problem.

My Work on the Hawaii Anti-Trafficking Task Force

As a nurse practitioner trained in emergency room functioning and interfacing with other specialties on a daily basis, I am familiar with evaluating systemic issues surrounding a population. Therefore, in 2010 I joined the Hawaii Anti-Trafficking Task Force where several agencieswho interface with victims sit at a round table committed to addressing trafficking issues in the state. This provided great opportunity to connect and build relationship with law enforcement, social service, juvenile justice staff, and providers, other NGO's.

Despite all of the represented agencies at the table, the gap between identification and placement into rehabilitation became even more obvious. Functioning protocol and intervention guidelines specifically for underage victims are necessary to avoid the re-traumatization of these children. Additionally, unless there are clear screening and identification tools and guidelines, even a safe haven facility could potentially sit empty and unused with victims remaining unidentified and untreated.

Creating an Organization: Ho'ola Na Pua

©Jessica Munoz

Our organization, Ho'ola Na Pua, has trained law enforcement, social service providers, child welfare workers, medical personnel and probation and juvenile justice workers. While recognizing the need for better identification and intervention, we also see the need to be active in preventing the problem. We have been involved in supporting legislative efforts to improve laws to better protect our children from this crime. Our school awareness program, which is essentially a “stranger danger of the 21st century”, has allowed us to reach thousands of kids with the hopes of helping them understand their risk and ultimately prevent them from ending up in the life of sex trafficking.

As the training continues, however, the gross need for a licensed facility becomes even more apparent because victims are now being identified. As an organization, in the midst of awareness raising and developing the processes, protocols and screening tools, Ho’ola Na Pua is actively engaged in the strategic process of opening the first licensed residential special treatment facility in Hawaii. The location we have identified as our site has a structure on the property that will allow us to house 32 girls —making it one of the nation’s larger sites.

The facility’s program is designed to be a long-term placement site, since rehabilitation and restoration do not occur over a few short months but instead require an in-depth and holistic approach. Our program is designed to meet the comprehensive needs of children who have been sexually exploited. In addition, we will be engaging in research surrounding best practices and treatment modalities specific to this population. We are focused on a quality multi-dimensional program that can be implanted at a lower cost than current state options which will further decrease the burden on the state. Although this is a large and often onerous task, every temptation to give up has been met with yet another victim whose story demands our commitment to placement, prosecution, and justice.

Through all of these efforts, Ho’ola Na Pua has been 100% volunteer driven. Two of the leading psychologists in the area of child trafficking have joined our team and are equally committed to a successful restorative program. A leading global expert in human trafficking with a significant background in law enforcement and strategic process development and business expert has given full support, tangible resources and commitment to our cause.

As we continue to grow, our mission is to provide a nurturing home that meets the unique needs of underage female sex trafficking victims through the utilization of individualized, comprehensive, and restorative therapies. Our vision is to provide victims of sex trafficking with a safe home, a path to restoration and healing, an increased sense of self-worth, and the ability to successfully reintegrate into their families and the community. The Hawaiian name Hoʻōla Nā Pua means “New Life for our Children.” Hoʻōla means healing and new life; pua means flower and is also a term of endearment when referring to children. Our name was blessed and given to us by a local kumu (teacher) to underscore our commitment to Hawaiian social heritage and values. .

We have reached more than 10,000 people with the message of the scope of human trafficking and the need for a collaborative community wide response. From TED Talks, to national conferences for medical and service providers, to school classrooms, we have been invited to share our vision and mission surrounding these children.

We are using our voices, skills, and talents to create an island-wide movement to change the face of sex trafficking in Hawaii. We challenge our listeners and supporters to not just be aware but also be active. The issue of child trafficking is a community responsibility and until that community becomes outraged the problem will continue unchecked.

What started as a graduate school project has morphed into a comprehensive approach to addressing with the issue of child sex trafficking in Hawaii. This year the two words that have served as an underlying theme for the organization are Perseverance and Fulfillment. We continue to persevere through the successes and failures knowing that perseverance will lead to fulfillment of our dream and the vision we have surrounding this issue. Our lives have never been the same since 2009 and will NEVER be the same.

Topics: Aftercare, Sex Trafficking

About the Author

Jessica Munoz

Jessica Munoz is the lead nurse practioner for Emergency Medicine Physicians Inc. at Pali Momi Medical Center on Oahu. She has been a resident of Hawaii for 8 years. During the past 8 years she has been a mentor to high-risk youth and a leading advocate for holistic services to this vulnerable youth population. In addition to her full time job, she is currently the president of Ho ‘ola Na Pua whose goal is to establish the first licensed special treatment facility specific for children who have been affected by this crime in Hawaii and has spent the last four years helping lead the anti-trafficking movement on the islands.