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Consultant: My mom started grooming me at age 10 for human trafficking

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Eric Harris, a human trafficking field consultant, knows firsthand how long and difficult it can be for trafficking survivors to identify what happened or what is happening to them.

“My mom at age 10 started grooming me for human trafficking,” Harris said. “That’s when I was being sexually exploited daily by multiple people every day for a period of about almost eight months.” 

Harris says he realized at age 36 that he was a trafficking survivor. He says most survivors in Indiana are trafficked by loved ones, which means a lot of what they experience is normalized, making it more difficult to understand wrong from right.

“Let’s imagine you just walked away from a very violent, very on your toes, live-or-die mode, and you’re exiting, and you would think, you know, as a service provider, ‘Oh, that’s got to be a huge relief.’ No, it doesn’t matter. It takes years,” Harris said.

It’s a big reason why Indianapolis-based Point of View Story, which serves survivors of commercial sexual exploitation, is bringing a new kind of therapy to trafficking survivors. Six short films, not made to raise public awareness, open the door for healing for people who need it most.

(Image Provided/Point of View Story)

Mark Steenbarger, filmmaker and creator of Point of View Story, said, “Our films are helping (survivors) to see … what coercion looks like, the subtleties of it, the nuances of (it). We’re able to show what it looks like when somebody is attacking your identity.”

Steenbarger says he worked with several trauma therapists and even survivors themselves to understand their experiences, language and emotions so he could create the films as an intervention tool used in therapy.

“We were hoping that would create’ a ha’ moments where the client would just be able to see something they haven’t seen before,” Steenbarger said.

Mark Steenbarger is a filmmaker and creator with Point of View Story. (WISH Photo/Jasmine Minor)

Steenbarger tells I-Team 8 the films are only 3 to 8 minutes each. They’re all kept open-ended so that when it’s finished therapists or counselors can focus on the conversation with their clients. He says the idea is to help survivors better identify their experiences by seeing it play out in a way that’s not triggering or traumatic, but instead healing.

“I would say that most of them do not recognize that they are experiencing trafficking I’d say probably like 75% to 80% when they’re in it, and, even in the beginnings of it, I would say probably 100%,” explained Whitney Cloin, a trauma therapist for Saxifrage Counseling & Advocacy.

Cloin says she is one of the 20 agencies and counting who have access to the Point of View Story films. She says she hasn’t yet used them with any clients, but, after watching one, initially she says they can help therapists combat what’s called “complex trauma.”

Whitney Cloin is a trauma therapist for Saxifrage Counseling & Advocacy. (WISH Photo)

“A lot of times what my clients are experiencing is not post-traumatic stress disorder,” Cloin said. “That’s the complex part is that it’s like multiple things that have happened to them throughout their life” instead of one single event.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is what therapists and counselors use to make official diagnoses and to charge insurance. However, complex trauma is not recognized by the manual, which, Cloin says, means she can’t always properly diagnose her clients and therefore give them the specific treatments they need.

“That’s not in my click-down box for diagnosing. So, you have to get a little bit more creative in what you are diagnosing them.”

I-Team asked Harris if he could have identified earlier what happened to him, would it have changed his life.

Eric Harris is a human trafficking field consultant. (WISH Photo)

“I think ultimately if I would have had the moment to be pulled to the side and actually been spoken to as a young teenager, and be respected and validated for what I’ve said, I probably would have never experienced a quarter of the things I did,” Harris said. “It wasn’t until I connected with other survivors, after I told them this story, they said, ‘Your mom tricked you out.’ I mean that opened the door to start the healing.”

Point of View Story compliments its films with a 64-page facilitators’ guide that lets facilitators know what questions to ask, what to be looking for, and how to guide clients through the experience.

Cloin says, in the past, she leaned on documentaries as visuals to help her clients be more open and vulnerable. However, she says, documentaries are often long and made for outside audiences. She explains many times she will only get 45 to 60 minutes with a survivor, never knowing if she will end up seeing them again.

Steenbarger says that’s why they wanted to keep the films short, so less time is spent on viewing and more time is spent on survivors finding freedom. “It’s the most purpose-filing, giving work I’ve ever done.”

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