Sea to Sea: Voices from the Canadian Anti-Trafficking Community – Part IV
Written by Helen Roos
I was asked to draft this blog on what is needed to foster a mentality and working culture of a team, and even further, expound on what that looks like in anti-human trafficking work. A challenge indeed, because what we know are core elements of teamwork in theory can be very challenging in practice in the human trafficking field.
It is safe to say that many communities across our global village are seeking to develop collaborative teams. In Canada, we are young in this field and the majority of communities are in the foundational Forming stage of team development. Groups of law enforcement investigators, social services, victim services, housing, medical professionals including sexual assault, addictions and mental health specialists and community-based volunteers are actively engaging to learn about their respective roles and responsibilities, mandates, functions and expertise. They are learning to identify shared values and principles, which hopefully creates a team culture rooted in a victim-centered, inclusive and non-judgmental approach. They are taking the time to nurture their group relationship, identifying whether joint protocols are possible or even necessary, and reducing egos that block the local responses required for prevention, victim response, survivor rehabilitation and secure financial viability or sustainability.
At best, they are driven to bring forward evidence-based recommendations, lessons learned and insights for successful policy, program and local outreach interventions.
Over time, the culture of the team or “community coalition” inevitably works through the necessary Storming phase: the usual period of challenge and discomfort as the interdisciplinary boundaries are tested. While we are all made to believe that teams must share power and decision-making in some consensus model, the reality in the field of human trafficking is that each professional and organization are experts in their own field and must be supported to act within their niche along the continuum of care. Team members work on the goal of “do no harm”; practicing developing their victim-centered reflex, and must trust and respect the interdisciplinary mix of skill, competence and commitment to the wellbeing of survivors.
This is often where tension arises in the initial relationship-building and action phase, particularly where police must work collaboratively with community-based organizations that may have long histories of actively advocating against the police. The team culture is developed through the development of joint training modules, delivery of training within the community across key stakeholders and due credence given to each member’s respective roles and responsibilities. For survivors invited to participate as a valued team member, they see others working in the interest of victims and striving to break down systemic barriers and processes. It can be very healing, rehabilitative to bring their voice to policy and program interventions, and even secure gainful employment as professionals within the field.
Over time, the team gels and experiences the Norming phase. After working out the interpersonal and procedural hiccups, teams begin working effectively together. As a team rooted in core principles, language and purpose, members form a well-oiled machine, each representing their respective function, expertise and experience, and train other frontline workers or new professional recruits. They gain comfort when responding to suspected cases or actual calls, and mobilize effectively as required along the continuum of care. They foster the team culture and reflect and advocate the model at organizational, systemic and community levels.
It is not always easy to maintain the cohesiveness of community teams. In fact, I think it is often the exception rather than the norm because there are many elements that can negatively affect the cohesiveness of the team complement and the philosophical underpinning of the group culture.
Firstly, there are deeply entrenched political and ideological frameworks that drive the delivery of social services and the meting out of community-based resources. This power imbalance can cause overt divisions of interest away from the direct needs of survivors: particularly along gender lines and gaps in services and response. Secondly, the transient nature of 2-year term rotations of police officers in designated vice or human trafficking units, or the ebb and flow of frontline victim services or shelter workers due to attrition or career progression, is a structural flaw in the veracity of effective team relations and maintaining a strong working culture.
Is there any perfect model that guarantees a mentality or team culture in the fight against human trafficking?
There is not doubt that there are many team models being practiced from designated lead organizations to fluid networks based on trust and professional relationships. However, I believe that team can quickly risk becoming simply process-driven and agenda-driven administrative entities if they are devoid of the diverse voices or participation of survivors.
Alternatively, I strongly advocate that in order to develop a strong team mentality, groups should heed the call, “Nothing about us, or for us, without us.” Otherwise, our team mentality or approach will be rooted in an academic knowledge of exploitation, or reactive from our positions of power and administrative authority.