Allegheny Health Network and a local nonprofit are teaming up to provide a new psychological care program for survivors of sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation
The pilot program, which includes intensive group therapy sessions three times a week for three hours a day, is modeled after a similar program provided by AHN Women’s Behavioral Health for mother-baby mental health treatment. Grants from the nonprofit Staunton Farm Foundation started supporting the work in July, and will last for 12 months.
The partnership began when research from Annalisa Gibbs, the founder and executive director of the local nonprofit Eden’s Farm, which provides resources to survivors of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, found that there didn’t seem to be any intensive outpatient program designed specifically for that population.
Human trafficking, often referred to as modern slavery, is using of force, fraud or coercion to obtain labor or a sex act. Commercial sexual exploitation can include prostitution and trading sex for anything of substance, such as food or a place to stay.
Ms. Gibbs then connected with Dr. Sarah Homitsky, a psychiatrist and the medical director for AHN’s Women’s Behavioral Health program, and the duo began collaborating to create such a program.
Dr. Homitsky said the goal is to provide support to those who have experienced “profound” psychological damage from chronic trauma.
“I think the hope is that we can provide sustainable, trauma-informed care for individuals,” she said. “We can create an environment that provides a sense of safety and support that fosters trusting relationships, and allows these individuals to get the psychological support that they need and deserve.”
Dr. Homitsky said the program fits into the mission of AHN Women’s Behavioral Health to provide mental health services to all women in the Pittsburgh community. The division has more than 15 psychotherapists who have trauma-informed training, and can bring different therapy styles meant for individuals with chronic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.
The therapy group can support as many as 10 women at a time, Dr. Homitsky said, while adding that the program doesn’t “intend to turn anyone away” and can also help through one-on-one therapy. She said the program, based at West Penn Hospital in Bloomfield, has enrolled a few people so far.
Ms. Gibbs said a major challenge to providing care is that there’s “probably no real way” to determine the true number of survivors, as many don’t self-identify as one.
“I think we haven’t explored fully and brought attention to how widespread it is,” she said.
She added that the AHN partnership builds upon other new services launched this year by Eden’s Farm. She said her organization opened a supportive home in February for survivors, which provides free stays for either three months or an entire year. Those staying at the home receive case management, opportunities for employment and other supporting services.
Ms. Gibbs said Eden’s Farm is eager to form partnerships in the community, adding that “only working together are we able to more widespread assist survivors.”
Continuing to raise awareness about sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation is crucial, Ms. Gibbs said, so more survivors can get support.
“Even though it’s a really detailed and specific area, this area affects so many people that that lightbulb just doesn’t hit. It’s not like, ‘Oh, that’s what it is,’” she said. “I think by getting the word out there and the education out there about this, people will be able to link it and attach it better.”FROM PPG