A Survivor’s Perspective for Chaplains
Jerome Elam is a survivor of child abuse/domestic violence, child sex trafficking, and child pornography. Motivated by the painful memories of his past, Jerome found his inner strength and began to speak out about his abuse. After eight years in the United States Marine Corps, a Bachelor of Science degree, and a successful Biotechnology career, Jerome is now President and CEO of the Trafficking in America Task Force, a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) International Survivors of Trafficking Advisory Council (ISTAC), and Special Advisor on Human Trafficking to the Utah Attorney General.
Recently Jerome shared his thoughts on the unique role of chaplains in countering human trafficking.
WHY HAVE YOU GONE PUBLIC WITH YOUR STORY?
I spent 25 years with a trauma therapist dealing with the abuse I suffered being trafficked and used for child pornography. And one of the things that I really asked quite frequently was why am I here?
And I saw so many people that were murdered, that were beaten, that just didn't make it. And it really is something that you struggle with in terms of having survivor's guilt. But I really feel the answer to that question is that God put me here for a purpose. And to really go out and advocate and educate people so that not one more person suffers what I did in being trafficked from the age of five to age of 12.
So I think it's critically important that I'm here not only as a survivor, but a living testament that there's a light and a hope inside us no one can extinguish. And I really want to spread that and make sure every survivor has that in their heart. And they have the strength to keep going and get away from their trafficker, being trafficked, and really reclaim their lives.
DESCRIBE YOUR PATH FROM VICTIM TO SURVIVOR.
What really kind of launched me into therapy was I just came to this stark realization because what I tell people is that I essentially was a chaos junkie. I spent, and this is well documented in the literature, I spent the bulk of my life recreating the chaos I experienced as a child.
I mean, it's a devil you know versus the one you don't know. I would always pick relationships that would crash and burn be arguing and be just really just miserable and unhappy. So I got to a point in my life where I said, this has got to stop. So I began seeing a therapist. And through the course of seeing that therapist we began to peel back the layers of the onion and dig deep into what that trauma was.
I was very fortunate that my therapist had been a social worker for 20 years in Miami and had gone back and gotten her Ph.D. in clinical psychology, so she had a very good skill set. But still, as we know, there wasn't enough awareness about trafficking, especially of children.
So we kind of taught each other. So it took decades for me to begin to talk about what happened to me and began to peel back those layers. And it's once I began to do that, I began to heal. But I will tell you, it's something that most survivors will echo is that in therapy, especially dealing with the trauma of being trafficked as a child, I mean, it really pushes you to the edge.
God really comes and gives you that strength because it is so challenging at times to go back and revisit that trauma and begin to deal with it because what you see, especially in young children, is they're not equipped to process that trauma in its entirety. So you kind of lock it away in this behind this door. So you begin to go back and revisit that trauma. You know, you've got to go back and experience these things. But I will tell you that definitely God was such a strong force in my life. But really my wife and my kids were also incredible, an incredible force in healing me.
And I think one of the things when we talk about survivor's guilt when my kids were born and they got to the age that I was when I was trafficked, that is is a big trigger point for a lot of survivors. So but what it did for me is it really helped me heal on a different level because one of the things that you do, I mean, even though I was a five year old being trafficked by these 250 pound muscular guys, this group of pedophiles, I mean, I would always as people say, say to myself, well, I should have done something. But then I looked at my kids when five years old, 25 pounds, 30 pounds. I really came to the realization that there was actually nothing I could do as a child in a family that was complicit with my trafficking.
So I had nowhere to turn. And again I had tried to tell ten people, including an ER doctor, that I was being trafficked and no one listened to me. I mean, this was the 1960s, 1970s, and there was just no awareness. So the only person that I had to turn to was God and I was grateful that he was there. And also when we talk about God and survivors, I mean, definitely there is some anger there. You know, we talk about, well, why didn't God come and stop this from happening? And what I really realize, just like Jesus on the cross, God was there for me that entire time.
He was right there beside me the entire time I was being trafficked. Going through that same pain with me, so I realized God was always with me and that he got me through it and he has allowed me to heal so much and I can't thank him enough. So it's been such a strong force to have him in my heart and have him give me a purpose to help save others and make sure that people know they matter, victims know they matter and they're not worthless like you're conditioned to believe when you're a victim of trafficking. So I mean, I think survivor's guilt is something that we all have to kind of deal with, but we have to really embrace the idea that it was not our fault. I don't care if your child or an adult. I mean, the coercive tactics that traffickers use are so ruthless that there's no way that you can get away from them safely until the opportunity arises.
WHY IS EASTER PARTICULARLY IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Easter is incredibly important to me because, again, it's the resurrection, but it's also the reinforcement to me from God that your life is about today.
It's not about yesterday or ten years ago. It's not about what you went through or what was done to you, what you were forced to do, because a lot of survivors and victims really feel like their lives are irreparable, that they're broken. They can never get past that. But you can because every day is a blank sheet of paper you can start over with and God gives you that chance.
I mean, he really does give you that opportunity to begin your life over again and one step at a time reclaim what was taken from you. Because one of the things that we have to acknowledge as victims and survivors is that as hard as these traffickers try to break our spirit, God would not let them do that.
We kept our spirit. But we've got to rekindle that through God's help and really just go out and inspire others by our ability to find happiness, to find a purpose in our lives. And I think that, again, through God's lesson to us through Easter we really can start over again and make our lives whole.
WHY IS THE ROLE OF THE CHAPLAIN SO IMPORTANT IN COUNTERING HUMAN TRAFFICKING?
Chaplains are so incredibly important because as a Marine Corps veteran I will tell you that any place you go in the military besides a chaplain they're going to have your SRB, your service record book open with a pen in their hand. So you know that anything you say in the presence of a doctor, a psychiatrist, a dentist, whoever, that's going to be entered into your service record book.
So you know that when you're in the presence of a chaplain, that that is a private conversation that's protected. So you have the ability to really say whatever is troubling you without feeling like it's going to be written down or reported. Plus I know for myself and many others, there was this sense of peace and calm. Whenever you were around the chaplain or at a religious service, you really felt like there was a calm there, that God was really present and he was there to soothe any pain that you might have.
So definitely with a chaplain you really know that they're going to one, listen to you but they're also not going to judge you or they're not going to record anything that you have to say about what happened to you. So there's this really kind of just safe space that you have with a chaplain that you could talk about so much.
But I think it's critically important for chaplains to understand human trafficking and how victims, survivors are trafficked because they can pick up on different signs that may be there that a person was being trafficked or someone they know is being trafficked. And they can use that to slowly help someone begin to reveal this trauma that's happening to them.
And I know of so many cases where people were having were struggling in their lives in the military, whether it be alcohol, drugs, trauma. And the chaplain would always help them find that direction and give them that peace to kind of move forward. So they really are part of those first responders when it comes to identifying and helping victims of child abuse, of trafficking, domestic abuse, whatever.
But they're just a real key. I would say the only thing that comes close to a chaplain is a nurse in an exam room. I mean, there's that comfort, that feeling that there's caring. And I think that the chaplains and nurses share that in common. There's that pervasive sense of someone who cares and someone who's there for you and who's not judging you or looking at you under a microscope.
WHY DO CHAPLAINS NEED TO LEARN THE SIGNS OF TRAFFICKING?
Chaplains have to acknowledge that there is a lot to learn about identifying victims of human trafficking or child abuse. And I know several people. I know one in particular who was trafficked while she was in the military, in the Air Force and was was targeted by traffickers. But she was trafficked while she was in the Air Force. The analogy I like to make about being able to identify victims of human trafficking is that until you educate, when you walk in the forest you don't know what poison ivy looks like. You don't know when a rattlesnake is dangerous. And so you educate yourself about those things.
And so, again, when we educate ourselves and we expand our knowledge, we can begin to recognize the signs that are there of someone who has been trafficked. And I know for a fact that trauma is very pervasive in members of the military. A lot of people like myself join the military to get away from an abusive situation.
So again, it's about recognizing the signs. And I would also add another example in that I really feel like human trafficking is where domestic violence was 20 years ago. 20 years ago victims didn't speak out, really didn't have a lot of guidance in how to recognize victims of domestic violence. But now we do. So I will guarantee you that a chaplain is able to identify someone who's at risk or is a victim of domestic violence.
And again, once they have that knowledge about victims of human trafficking and survivors of human trafficking, they'll be able to identify those individuals as quickly as they do victims of domestic violence. It's a matter of having that knowledge. The challenge here is that you've got to have the nuances, recognize the nuances that go along with someone who's been trafficked or a victim of trafficking.
And once you have that knowledge, that instruction, you begin to pick up on those signs of someone who is being abused or trafficked. And again, I think that there will be so many cases that went unrecognized that will be recognized once chaplains have that training on how to spot a victim of human trafficking or child abuse.
WHY ARE CHAPLAINS UNIQUELY POSITIONED TO HELP PREVENT TRAFFICKING AND TO HELP ITS SURVIVORS?
I think chaplains are well equipped to offer spiritual guidance, prayer and comfort. But this is a multifaceted trauma. I mean, most typically we rarely see a case of human trafficking without substance abuse involved. So typically there's alcoholism or substance abuse or another addiction involved that goes along with that trauma. But this is a situation where it's a team effort. I mean, we've got to really have all hands on deck and have people work together because, yes, a chaplain can give spiritual guidance, comfort, but we also have to have a mental health professional. You know, typically these individuals who are being trafficked, victims or survivors, they have physical issues that need to be addressed by a doctor. But I think chaplains are such a good conduit for that, a good doorway for them to enter into recovery and then bring in all these other services that can help.
I mean drug and alcohol counseling, mental health, medical help, whatever they need to begin to address this issue, because I think this would be an overwhelming issue for one person in general. One of the issues that we have with victims of human trafficking is we really need someone who can be there for them throughout the entire process of recovery. And chaplains can do that. I mean, because one of the problems that we see is that this victim will be handed off to different people. And one of the things that does is that just destroys that victim's trust because they feel like they're being abandoned all over again, because many survivors of victims are abandoned as children like I was.
So if a chaplain is there for them throughout the entire process of recovery that is instrumental. I mean, that is the foundation that helps them get through this, knowing that there's one person that's going to be there for them that can also help them in their decision making in that process, be a soundboard for them.
But again, I think chaplains are instrumental and key in that process of identification and recovery. But I think they need to really be able to help that victim find other services that they may need. Because, again, we talk about, especially when it comes to kids, about what we call ACES, adverse childhood experiences, and a lot of times that is a driver in vulnerability for victims of human trafficking.
Now, unfortunately when I took the tests for ACES, I maxed it out. I was at a ten. I had every risk factor there was. Again, by the grace of God, I'm here. So I think that chaplains can help that victim really go through that process with someone they know they can trust. So when it gets to the point where, again, if they're with the military, if they're terrified of seeing a military doctor, then that chaplain can help them find maybe an alternative that they're more comfortable with or that chaplain can talk to the doctor, but that chaplain can be an advocate for that victim throughout that process. But I think that, again you know, for for one person, it's a daunting task to help a survivor recover from that trauma. I mean I think that even a psychiatrist, psychologist, I mean, everyone who's ever, I think, helped a victim or a survivor, they've recognized that they need help.
I know in my case, the first psychologist I went to, he was a guy and I talked for about 5 minutes and he said, you know what, Jerome? This is this is out of my league. I don't have the training to deal with this. So he was able to get me to a sex therapist again who had 20 years as a social worker who had the training to help me deal with that sexual trauma.
So, again, I think it's great to have chaplains in that role to be an advocate and a guide and an anchor for them in that process. But I think everyone needs help in dealing with a victim because the issues are so complex that you've got to have, again, all hands on deck to make sure they're getting the best care they can.
WHAT ROLE DOES FORGIVENESS PLAY IN SURVIVORS' HEALING?
Dealing with self-blame is a huge issue that chaplains can definitely help with, especially feeling like that God doesn't love you because you were a victim of human trafficking. And I think that what you have to realize, again, God loves you no matter what.
I mean, God loves you unconditionally. And that was one of the issues that when I was talking to my therapist about why I survived and why I was able to heal and what really is the Rosetta Stone for us to heal as victims and survivors is understanding that God loves you unconditionally.
It doesn't matter what you went through in your life. God still loves you. And you know, he put a light and a hope in your heart that you just have to find and hold on to. So God is all about forgiveness. He forgave our sins. So he will forgive whatever has happened in your life and he loves you. But you have to be willing to accept that love in your heart. I think once you begin to accept that love in your heart, then you really begin to heal and realize that with God's unconditional love there's nothing you can't do in your life.
ANY FINAL THOUGHTS BASED ON YOUR EXPERIENCE?
One thing I would like to say to the chaplains, which I say to anybody who is working with victims and survivors of abuse or trafficking, is that if you really want to help that person heal when you're with that person I want you to look at them and see a part of yourself in them.
I mean, it's important to find that bridge to humanity because most survivors feel worthless. But if you can look at a survivor or a victim and see a part of yourself in them that can really help them to heal. And the example I like to give is that I have a friend who was a vice detective in Colorado Springs who worked with victims of trafficking. And when she would encounter someone that was a victim, she would find out what kind of music they liked and she would go out and buy every CD of the artists they liked. So whenever she was with that victim, she would play that music. So it's about finding that connection, helping the victim or survivor reconnect to their own humanity.
Because, again, as we mentioned before, you're really conditioned to feel like you're less than human. You're really told that you deserve what's happening to you. I was. And so it takes a very... it takes a lot of time to begin to deal with that and understand that this was forced upon you. You didn't deserve it. It's not your fault. So I think that when you're dealing with a victim, try and connect with them by recognizing a part of yourself in them because realistically, anyone can be a victim. It doesn't matter if you're on Main Street or Wall Street. You can still be a victim. I have friends who came from very wealthy families that were targeted and trafficked.
So you have to understand that a victim, that could be you sitting opposite in that chair. So really try and connect and make sure that that victim understands that they have value as a human being, that God loves them and he always will. And there's nothing they could ever do in their life that would stop God from loving them and that you're there to listen and that you're there for them and that they matter and that you will be with them throughout that process. And you will not ever abandon them or leave them alone, and that God is now by their side, walking with them through every step of their recovery.