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  • Writer's pictureHope Center Indy

Insightful Findings from National Study on Survivor Experiences

Last year, members from our Hope Center team attended a leaders' conference hosted by the Institute for Shelter Care, where a national study on the role of faith in the healing journeys of sex trafficking survivors was revealed. As proud members of the Institute, we're excited to share a summary of this study with the perspectives of survivors, including those of our own program graduates, whose voices are integral to this revealing study.

The Institute for Shelter Care's 2023 Fortify Retreat was an insightful week, where we got to learn alongside shelter leaders from across the country. We are blessed to be part of this cohort!

A Summary of The Study

A significant number of domestic anti-trafficking shelters (roughly 66%) identify as Christian organizations and prioritize incorporating their faith into their care approach. This has prompted discussions about the dynamics of faith in care settings, especially as society increasingly questions religious affiliations.

To understand the impact, the Institute conducted an anonymous study to glean from those who are the least biased and the most invested: the survivors. The survey, which involved 153 shelters and received 158 responses, revealed a positive attitude toward the integration of faith practices into restorative care programs, highlighting the value survivors place on spiritual support throughout their healing journey. The study surveyed survivors in these shelters, aged 15 to 69 with an average age of 20-49.

Key Findings

  • 81% of this survivor population grew up with some exposure to faith/religion, but “falling away” (29.75%) or a bad experience with religious people (22.78%) were reasons that they had left the faith.

  • Many of these survivors chose to apply for a faith-based program because they either wanted to reconnect with their faith (47%) or wanted to become a person of faith (28%).

The Value of Faith Practices

Research strongly indicates that faith plays a critical role in enhancing mental health and assisting in coping with tragedy. Studies reveal that engaging in spiritual activities correlates with lower anxiety, depression, and improved overall well-being.

For survivors of sex trafficking, spirituality has been an essential element in their healing, offering ways to reconstruct their worldview and cope with trauma. The Institute for Shelter Care underlines the importance of these findings, emphasizing the need for feedback from survivors to ensure that spiritual care in Christian communities aids, rather than hinders, healing.

Choosing Shelter Placement

The study on shelter referrals and intakes measures whether Christian shelters discriminate based on religious beliefs when accepting survivors into their programs. None of the 42 participating shelters reported using faith as a criterion for accepting or declining referrals.

This is crucial because one of the main principles of victim-centered care is to ensure that individuals have the ability to make independent choices and work towards their own goals. According to the responses, reintegrating or incorporating faith into their lives was a goal for 75.32% of the survivors.

Impression of Christians Before

About a quarter of the respondents reported having had past negative experiences with religious individuals. Here is one survivor's initial impression:*

*Throughout the report, survivor comments are presented as submitted including any grammatical or typographical errors. Only identifying information has been omitted. 

Contributions to Spiritual Growth

Survivors of sex trafficking indicated that community involvement was the most influential factor in their spiritual growth within faith-based programs. More than 70% of participants with at least 12 months in a program emphasized the importance of belonging, inclusion, and acceptance. Despite some initial negative expectations about feeling judged by religious groups, the majority of survivors (87.34%) reported a sense of acceptance rather than judgment in these programs, underscoring community as a key component of their healing journey.

Perception of Christians Now

For those who held initial unfavorable opinions of Christians, a substantial shift occurred after participating in a faith-based program, with the vast majority reporting a favorable shift in perception. The feedback suggests that Christian care provided by these programs is not focused on proselytizing but rather on fostering an environment for personal spiritual journeys. Authentic, committed, and non-judgmental relationships emerged as a central theme among the transformed impressions.

Personal Choice

Respondents were questioned about the decisions they made regarding their faith journeys as a result of participating in faith-based programs. While five participants reported no influence on their personal choices, 123 respondents revealed that their participation in the program had led to various personal decisions. These responses generally fell into five primary categories.

  1. Personal Commitment or Reconnection to Faith: The majority of survey respondents chose a faith-based program to either reconnect with their faith (47%) or become a person of faith (28%), with many achieving these personal goals.

  2. Forgiving Others: Despite the concept of forgiveness only being directly mentioned once in the survey, it emerged as the most common personal choice among respondents, with many seeking to forgive others, including specific individuals or in general terms, as a way to let go of pain.

  3. Adoption of Practices: The responses highlighted individuals committing to practices such as regular Bible reading, independent church attendance, being less judgmental, and engaging in consistent prayer.

  4. Forgiving Oneself: In anti-trafficking culture, the focus on shifting an individual's identity from "victim" to "survivor" sometimes misses addressing the deep-seated issue of self-blame, highlighting that forgiving oneself is a crucial aspect of spiritual healing.

  5. Change in Perspective: A few responses provide insight into how survivors are reevaluating their past, envisioning their future, and redefining their relationships.

Research shows that spirituality often plays a key role in helping survivors of sexual violence recover from their psychological and emotional wounds. A solid spiritual connection can give survivors support, new insights, and strength. It is significant to heal not just the mind, but also the heart, dealing with feelings like abandonment for a complete healing process. Even though some professionals may underestimate spirituality's importance, survivors consistently highlight its value in their healing. This challenges the belief that faith is unnecessary or even harmful during the restoration process of survivors and emphasizes that including faith can be helpful for those who want it as part of their journey.

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