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Building Strengths and Resilience Through the ‘My Life My Choice’ Curriculum

Posted By: • September 23rd, 2015

Location: Boston, USA

Contact:

Name: Lisa Goldblatt Grace
Email: lgrace(at)jri.org

Date of profile: December 2011

Programme: My Life My Choice Curriculum

Aim: To educate and empower adolescent girls to find a positive life path.

Background and Context

An estimated 150,000‒300,000 youth in the US are at high risk of sexual exploitation every year. Adolescent girls, particularly those abused, neglected or exposed to violence and addiction are particularly vulnerable to recruitment by pimps. The most frequent age for recruitment into prostitution is between the ages of 12-15 years old.

In 2001 Latasha Cannon, a 17 year old living in a group home was murdered. The adults caring for her did not know that Latasha was being exploited through prostitution.

This event, and recognition of the issue of sexual exploitation, led to the creation of the My Life My Choice (MLMC) Project. This project is a nationally recognised, ground‒breaking initiative designed to reach adolescent girls most vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation. The MLMC Project provides a continuum of prevention, victim identification and intervention services. It provides organisational training, prevention groups, case coordination, and survivor mentoring to victims of exploitation.

The MLMC Curriculum was developed and published in 2002 by exploitation survivor Denise Williams and MLMC Director Lisa Goldblatt Grace. The MLMC Curriculum is the first comprehensive curriculum in the USA that is focussed on preventing commercial sexual exploitation among teenage girls.

Prior to developing the curriculum, the authors reviewed lessons learnt from other prevention efforts with young people, such as those focussed at preventing teen pregnancy, HIV and violence. Frameworks and patterns or models from the differing perspectives of social work and public health were also reviewed from a gender‒based viewpoint. In addition, survivor testimonies and experiences were analysed to understand what was really going on, the paths into exploitation and what survivors wished they had known at an earlier stage in their lives.

The Curriculum has since been revised by MLMC Associate Director and Survivor Mentor Audrey Porter. Youth participants involved in the programme also provide feedback which ensures the curriculum is kept up-to-date and remains an effective and relevant tool.

The Curriculum can be used with any girl between the ages of 12‒18 years old. It is most frequently used with those who are already survivors of exploitation or who are at a ‘higher risk’ of being exploited. Girls who are considered to be at higher risk are those with histories of abuse, neglect, exposure to family violence and addiction or who live in areas disproportionately targeted by pimps.

This Curriculum therefore is used to both prevent sexual exploitation and to prevent the  repeat exploitation.

The MLMC Curriculum

The MLMC Curriculum is a ten‒session course delivered weekly to a group of 10 girls, each session lasts for 75 minutes.

The groups are led and facilitated by  two people, a licensed clinician (or clinically trained service provider) and a trained survivor of exploitation. Girls benefit from hearing the survivor’s personal story and from the expertise of two trained professionals who create a safe space for girls to share with one another.

The MLMC Curriculum is shared through groups held in different locations, commonly schools, group homes and residential facilities, child protection services offices, juvenile justice facilities, and community‒based organisations.

The Curriculum uses a psycho-educational model with a relational focus. Groups are designed so that girls feel comfortable connecting with the facilitators and forming a community amongst themselves. The Curriculum is based on the public health model of altering behavior through a shift in participants’ attitudes, knowledge and skills, for example:

Attitudes: Challenges girls; ideas about commercial sexual exploitation (including prostitution) emphasising the dangerous and debilitating elements of the practice and demonstrating that it is not ‘glamorous’.

Knowledge: Shares information about what makes girls vulnerable to exploitation and tactics used by pimps.

Skills: Empowers girls to identify and avoid recruitment tactics or identify support and resources in exiting the life.

The Curriculum is designed to change girls’ perception of the commercial sex industry as well as to build self‒esteem and personal empowerment. The Curriculum includes interactive activities, journaling, and authentic testimony from survivors. Topics include:

Game recognises game: Understanding predators and recruitment

Do you really want to hurt me? Reducing your risk of exploitation

Making the link: Substance abuse and exploitation

I come first: Developing self-esteem

Making it real: Stories from ‘the Life’

I’m not alone: Finding help and safety.

Outcomes

Pre and post surveys are used to evaluate group participants’ progress over the 10 sessions. The surveys assess the Curriculum’s relevance and effectiveness in changing girls’ attitudes and knowledge of the commercial sex industry and the skills developed to avoid being recruited. Also, MLMC records of attendance and excerpts from journal entries show the individual girls’ progress.

The survey results show marked differences in girls’ understanding of exploitation, for example:

In one group, in the beginning only 30% of girls were able to identity a pimp in a sample anecdote, at the end 90% of the same girls correctly identified the pimp.

There is a noticeable difference in girls’ familiarity and comfort levels with seeking resources, including reaching out to police and social workers.

The MLMC Curriculum has been recognised as a national model for the prevention of sex trafficking and is funded by the US Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to help encourage its use nationally. MLMC Project staff work with Public Service Economics to refine their evaluation tools, including a new pre- and post- survey for participants.

Participation

The Curriculum is revised based on the input of participants. Girls are asked to participate in a pilot group, during which they will give feedback and make suggestions for revisions by staff to the curriculum. Girls are given a small stipend for their time, and at the end of the group, staff incorporate their suggestions and critiques into the final version of the curriculum. The revision process takes place every few years to ensure that all material stays current and relevant. 

Also, participants involved in the groups may at a later stage be trained through a Survivor Leadership Development Programme to prepare them to co-lead and facilitate groups in the future.

Protection

All information shared in MLMC Groups is strictly confidential, with one exception: if a girl discloses that she is being hurt, or is planning to hurt someone else or herself, MLMC must report that to the police and appropriate authorities. Girls and their parents/guardians know this at the start of the group and are asked to sign an agreement stating that they know this is the case.

Sustainability

MLMC offer training for youth service providers on how to use the Curriculum and facilitate groups; In 2011 MLMC Prevention Groups are being operated in California, Connecticut, Illinois and New York.

After completing an MLMC Group, a girl who is a survivor of sexual exploitation will be connected with the local support resources. This may involve law enforcement, social workers, therapists and school personnel, if a girl continues to be in crisis she may be matched with an MLMC mentor.

Replication

There are different ways that organisations can work with the MLMC Curriculum. Experienced organisations that are equipped with the resources to run groups, including the capacity to have both clinicians and survivors in place to faciliate the groups, may purchase the Curriculum for their own use. An organisation may engage MLMC Project staff to train them to run groups or, if based in Massachusetts, an organisation can engage MLMC Project staff to facilitate groups using the curriculum in their own organisation’s facilities.

The MLMC Curriculum and Prevention Group model has been replicated Minnesota, Connecticut, Illinois, Georgia, New York, California and Kansas.

Learning

Through the MLMC Curriculum, we have learned how widespread the issue of exploitation is, how many girls in our communities are extremely vulnerable and have been, perhaps without knowing it, approached by pimps. We feel that there is a high need for prevention work around this area, and this has been and continues to be a challenge. We have found the biggest asset to prevention work is having a survivor of exploitation co-facilitate the group because it creates credibility for the participants and helps them understand that they will not be judged for anything that they disclose.

Gaps

In the future, MLMC aims to include more information on sexual health and wellness as this closely relates to the other information shared in the Curriculum

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