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Michelle Contreras

Media Advisory/Press Release

Latina Mental Health Therapist Consults in U.S. Human Trafficking

June 14, 2010–Boston (West Roxbury), MA—Michelle Contreras is a licensed psychologist in Guatemala. Entering her final year as a doctoral student at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology (MSPP), and an active participant in its Latino Mental Health Training Program, where her training has intensified in working with Latino populations with severe mental health issues, Contreras is also part of a team of clinicians working with Project REACH, a human trafficking program that operates across the United States. Clinicians from Project REACH provide training and consultation to providers working with survivors of human trafficking, and offer brief mental health services to trafficking victims in the United States.

Contreras frequently works on both labor and sexual trafficking cases for Project REACH and upon receiving her doctorate she not only intends to concentrate on psychological rehabilitation with trafficking survivors, but will provide educational information about trafficking in Guatemalan villages where the servitude begins.

Latin American victims of trafficking seeking work in the United States are lured across the border by local traffickers commonly from their own communities according to Contreras. “There are large sophisticated trafficking rings, which are difficult to track, who will promise a victim a job in the United States where they end up working up to sixteen-hour days with no pay. Once the person begins working in a job that is arranged by the trafficker, the victims have to use their wages to pay back the trafficker for transport to the United States, plus the cost of living expenses like rent and food, usually also provided by the trafficker. The debt is never resolved because the trafficker will always demand more money,” she said.

According to Dr. Elizabeth Hopper, Program Director for Project REACH, people have become more aware of human trafficking in recent years, leading to an increased number of victims identified, and improvements in the help that is available for victims.

Throughout the country, traffickers will utilize typical transit routes or circuits. In New England, trafficking routes run from New York, through Connecticut and Rhode Island, up to Boston and sometimes Maine. In the mid-Atlantic, there are trafficking circuits linking both to the north and to the south; in the Southeast, there is a route from Florida up through Georgia, South and North Carolina; in the Southwest, the trafficking circuit includes Phoenix, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas; and in the Northwest, it includes Seattle, Portland and San Francisco.

While the victims are found throughout the United States, Hopper sees higher volumes in Texas, New York, California and Florida. “Over the years, Project REACH has also assisted a number of victims in Boston and Massachusetts, including about half labor trafficking and half sexual trafficking cases. There is also a large effort here looking at identifying domestic trafficking victims,” she said.

“Once survivors have settled into some kind of housing and the crisis calms down, mental health problems will begin to emerge and health providers will call us in for assistance,” explained Hopper.

Trafficking is a form of enslavement which not only can leave a physical mark, but leaves a mark on the mind. As an example, Contreras speaks of a 14-year old girl enticed into the United States and forced to engage in prostitution throughout her teens. With no vocational skills, no ability to relate to others, and alone in the world, the girl will return to her trafficker because he is familiar and prostitution is the only thing she knows. “Someone like that will not only need vocational and medical assistance, but will need a great deal of specialized counseling,” she said.

With the critical need for mental health assistance in the number of human trafficking cases, Hopper acknowledges that her team of six to eight mental health professionals, including Contreras, cannot be everywhere at one time. According to Hopper, “we focus on educating providers about trauma. It is sometimes difficult for providers to pay attention to how a victim is struggling emotionally because of the extent of the survivor’s day-to-day needs: housing, medical care, and legal assistance, while at the same time urging the survivor to participate in the investigation or persecution of their trafficker. I see our program as a beacon to highlight the psychological needs of trafficking survivors and to assist providers in offering quality mental health services,” she said.

Along with consulting for Project REACH, Contreras continues with her doctoral project including interviewing providers in Guatemala about their responses to potential cases of human trafficking. She is interested in learning more about victims who slip through the cracks. “My ultimate objective is to improve victim identification, one of the main concerns of the United States government. It is estimated that between 14,500 and 17,500 people are trafficked into the United States each year, but between 2003 and 2008, less than 320 trafficking victims were certified by the government each year. My plan is to find out more about the people we couldn’t help in the United States,” she explained.

Founded in 1974 as a non-profit institution of higher education, the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology is a preeminent school of psychology that integrates rigorous academic instruction with extensive field education and close attention to professional development. The School assumes an ongoing social responsibility to create programs to educate specialists of many disciplines in order to meet the evolving mental health needs of society. MSPP is committed to bringing psychologists into nearly every facet of modern life through its graduate programs in Clinical, Counseling, Forensic, Organizational and School Psychology. Located in Boston, Massachusetts, MSPP is fully accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, and the American Psychological Association.

Updated 6/15/10

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