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Community-based Research Aims to Improve Support for Sex Trafficking Survivors

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VERMILLION, S.D. – Two University of South Dakota faculty members are partnering with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Sioux Falls agency Call to Freedom to better understand what sex trafficking survivors think about the services they receive — and to learn what services they find most helpful.
Bridget Diamond-Welch, associate professor of family medicine, and Shana Cerny, associate professor of occupational therapy, are two scholars on a team of investigators on the project, a collaboration among survivors, practitioners and researchers. It is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice–National Institute of Justice.
Along with Diamond-Welch and Cerny, other project team members include Katie Edwards, principal investigator and director of the Interpersonal Violence Research Laboratory and associate professor of CYFS and educational psychology at the University of Nebraska; Becky Rasmussen, executive director of Call to Freedom; Ashton Ekdom, program development and occupational therapy manager, Call to Freedom; and Lorey Wheeler, CYFS research associate professor and co-director of the Nebraska Academy of Methodology, Analytics and Psychometrics.
“There are few existing models for how to effectively treat survivors of sex trafficking,” Diamond-Welch explained. “This research project will talk to survivors about what they have found useful and what else they need. Agencies across the United States will be able to apply the findings from this research to better serve their community members who are survivors of sex trafficking.”
From January 2022 – December 2023, information will be gathered from sex trafficking survivors who have received, or are receiving, services at Call to Freedom, a nonprofit organization in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, that provides comprehensive, ongoing and coordinated trauma-informed services to survivors.
Call to Freedom offers emergency addiction services coordination, case management, employment and housing support services, and occupational therapy. The organization also partners with community-based providers to help survivors access mental health care, medical and dental services, and legal services.
Additionally, researchers will interview 135 survivors with varying levels of Call to Freedom services to learn why they used specific services and how those services aided their recovery, and to gather input on how to improve services. Findings will be used to create a toolkit with information to help practitioners effectively support sex trafficking survivors, including best practices for evaluating available services.
“For survivors of sex trafficking, trust can understandably be hard for them,” said Rasmussen. “If a survivor came to us for help and we weren’t successful in helping, or didn’t help enough, we want to know why.”
Rasmussen noted that in 2016 — Call to Freedom’s first year — the center served 30 sex trafficking survivors. As of September 2021, the center had 216. Forty-two percent were Native Americans.
“There are few existing models for how to effectively treat survivors of sex trafficking,” said Cerny. “This research project will talk to survivors about what they have found useful and what else they need. Agencies across the United States will be able to apply the findings from this research to better serve their community members who are survivors of sex trafficking.”
USD’s Sanford School of Medicine is nationally known for excellence. With its award-winning curriculum, the school prepares medical students to practice in all fields of medicine and is particularly recognized and ranked for its reputation in family medicine and rural medicine. In addition to the M.D., it offers graduate degrees in basic biomedical science, sustains a vibrant and forward-looking research agenda, and is home to the interdisciplinary Center for Brain and Behavioral Research.
USD’s School of Health Sciences is a national leader in interprofessional health sciences education. South Dakota’s comprehensive School of Health Sciences develops scholars, practitioners and leaders in health and human services, including addiction counselors, dental hygienists, health science practitioners, medical laboratory scientists, nurses, occupational therapists, physical therapists, physician assistants, public health practitioners and social workers.
Founded in 1862 and the first university in the Dakotas, the University of South Dakota is the only public liberal arts university in the state, with 202 undergraduate and 84 graduate programs in the College of Arts & Sciences, School of Education, Knudson School of Law, Sanford School of Medicine, School of Health Sciences, Beacom School of Business and College of Fine Arts. With an enrollment of nearly 10,000 students and more than 400 faculty, USD has a 16:1 student/faculty ratio, and it ranks among the best in academics and affordability. USD’s 18 athletic programs compete at the NCAA Division I level.

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