Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian’s “The People Who Inspire series” highlights individuals from a variety of backgrounds and occupations who are seeking to impact the lives of others in a positive way. Through Truth-Telling: the honest sharing of their own experiences, they teach us a little about themselves, hopefully enabling us to be able to learn a little about ourselves through their stories.
Today’s post features Sarah Elizabeth Pahman, Treatment Foster Care Social Worker, and advocate for women and girls.
Could you tell us a little about your background and what led you to your current work?
My passion for trauma work originally began in a class I took at my alma mater, UW-Madison, where I learned about sex trafficking and began doing research on Somaly Mam and her non-profit organization in Phnom Penh, Cambodia – rescuing young girls enslaved into prostitution. I learned about 8-year-old girls being sold for high prices to men with AIDs who believed they could be cured by raping a virgin. These young girls were sewn back up again and again, resold as virgins to make large profits for their captors.
This modern form of slavery opened my eyes to the most pressing issue of our time, sex and labor trafficking – and led me to get involved in organizations in my city that focused on trauma.
I interned as a trauma counselor for sexual abuse victims in a domestic violence agency, and again did trauma therapy in a non-profit focused solely on supporting survivors of sexual abuse and sexual violence. This is where I began to connect the dots about domestic trafficking, and saw it is not just an international issue, but an issue on our own streets in the United States.
Although not all prostitutes are sex trafficking victims, ALL sex trafficking victims are pimped out as prostitutes, on the streets, in brothels, escort services, and in massage parlors. As I became more aware of this issue I began to volunteer at outreach programs in my city that focused on harm reduction and education for prostituted women.
We got in an old, beat up van with the entire backseat filled with bagged lunches and rapid HIV tests, and we drove the blighted neighborhoods where street prostitution and survival sex is known to be happening. We handed out food, condoms, gave HIV tests, “bad date” sheets (information for women in the sex trade that gives crime information, for example, the description of a John who beat a girl, or raped her, or didn’t pay her, and what street it happened on), and resources. Witnessing the reality of street prostitution made me realize just how inadequate harm reduction is – a band-aid on a gaping wound.
During my graduate field work I also began seeing how young girls end up in coercive situations. Vulnerable children and teenagers looking for a place to belong, and in need of guidance from parents and family that weren’t able, or simply not willing to provide it. Girls within foster care, involved with the child welfare system, are finding themselves on the streets and willing to do anything for a man who pays attention, shows love, care, and concern. These girls, due to their yearning for love, are easy victims for a pimp/trafficker with a slick mouth and a knack for business.
After I graduated I knew I wanted to stay on the frontlines, and I knew trauma was where I belonged. Taking the knowledge I’d gained from my field work I got involved in Treatment Foster Care Social Work in order to stay involved with a vulnerable population I am passionate about: teenage girls, most from abusive backgrounds, who are involved in the system. Being a strong role model and consistently present, supportive, and assertive force in a teenage girl’s life is a preventive measure. It is a preventive measure that can help keep girls away from prostitution, and the risk of being pimped, trafficked, and enslaved. This is how, and why, I got involved in my current work.
I know that you’re very passionate about trauma work. Can you tell us what that means to you?
Trauma work, for me, equates to being up to date on current research on trauma informed care, and applying it to direct practice. Trauma work is about asking people what happened to them, not what is wrong with them. Trauma work is about addressing underlying causes, and understanding that addressing the root problem can help cure present symptoms. Trauma work is about believing people’s stories, not trying to figure out what is a lie, and what is truth.
So many times we approach people with suspicion, and distrust in them – when the truth is it is not the stories making sense that should matter so much to us, but the message the person is trying to send us about themselves by telling us their stories. This is where trauma work lives, in the messages behind the stories.
In your view, what do you think are some necessary elements that are needed to be effective in this kind of work?Sarah at a
Take Back The Night event for survivors of sexual violence.
To be effective in this kind of work one needs, first and foremost, to be able to connect with people who have every right, and reason, not to want to connect.
Many times in this field people have had previous experience with social workers, and it can leave them with quite a negative view of what we do and what our purpose is in their lives. Sometimes people view us in the same negative light as they view the police, or they had a bad experience with a social worker and have stereotyped us in a certain way.
Social work has quite negative connotations in some communities. My job as a social worker is to remain mindful of this truth, and respectful of this truth – while also remaining consistent in my work. In this field one must align their thoughts, feelings, and actions and be deliberate and honest in their intentions in order to be effective. “Being real” and authentic with people is key. Being able to have those hard conversations is a must.
We have to master the art of gentle confrontation, and be able to word harsh truths into a conversation that people are willing to have with us. We have to prevent shame by remaining open, honest, compassionate, and free of criticism and judgment. These are the essential ingredients for this type of work. We cannot “try” to be these things, we have to BE these things. For myself this is where the spiritual mixes with the real world.
Do you have any other issues that you’re interested in working on or working with others in terms of social justice/equity?
My life’s purpose is the pursuit of social justice for women and girls who have been marginalized by family background, life circumstance, economics, culture, society, and the systems we have in place.
My purpose is being a presence, a witness & a voice in the deepest trenches of women’s oppression. For me, the frontlines for social justice lie in the streets of the sex trade and in addressing trauma in people’s lives. So many times it is sexual, physical, emotional abuse that is the root cause of drug and alcohol addiction, mental health issues, low self-esteem, and undesirable behaviors.
My purpose is to get to the roots, and not reject that darkness when it is pulled up in people’s lives.
What are the parts of your work that you find most enjoyable?
What I find most enjoyable is seeing people acknowledge that they are stronger than they may have thought they were. Seeing kids who have every right to give up, and yet they persist. I enjoy witnessing a kid begin to recognize their emotions, and to name them. I enjoy watching kids and adults begin to link their trauma to their behaviors. I enjoy challenging kids to problem solve with me, and to take responsibility for themselves.
What aspects do you find challenging?
Apathy is the most challenging part of my work. Having kids who just do not want to take an active role in their own lives. Seeing adults make promises they cannot keep to children who have already been so let down is another challenge, because it is hard not to feel helpless when we see children being hurt.
You also share some of your thoughts though your blog: Rooted In Being. How did your blog come about? Do you have any words of advice for anyone who might want to start their own thoughts for social justice in terms of transforming their ideas to action?Fostering Community
My advice for those interested in social justice is to find a focus, and stick to it. We cannot change the world by taking on the entire world, but if we can take on one aspect of social justice that really moves us and gets us fired up, then we can produce change.
Turning words into action involves getting involved in our communities. It is about understanding the issue on a macro scale and then finding out how that issue affects us locally. The next step is jumping in feet first, acknowledging that we are not the experts, allowing the discomfort of being immersed in something challenging – and remaining self-aware.
What/Who Inspires you?
Somaly Mam inspires me, Gloria Steinem inspires me, Melissa Farley’s research inspires me, Mona Eltahawy inspires me – as do so many of the activists in my city that I have learned and gained so much from.
What have been the Keys to your success so far?
I know that my success so far has come from being able to see how beauty and tragedy is intertwined. Being able to witness immense forms of emotional pain day in and day out, and still ponder the trees, and the universe – and its immense beauty.
I can remember having an especially difficult time when I first began interning as a trauma counselor, and my saving grace was catching the bus home with my headphones on every night – and looking up at the stars in the night sky, taking a deep breath, and accepting that I do not have control, nor understanding of how and why the world is such a painful, exquisite experience.
Acceptance of not knowing, and being fully present in the moment – has been my key.
Abortion Laws, Feminism, Politics, and Neoliberal Societies in Developed Nations
Re-conceptualizing restrictive abortion laws with a sex equality framework allow us to identify the limitations of women living in developed nations to act in a free manner with their physical bodies as men do. On many occasions, rules, regulations, and laws are enforced to reduce chaos/harm, but the same is similarly used to limit the freedoms of the individual which can also be oppressive in itself.
Historically, anti-abortive attitudes were prominent and common due to societies ignorance of scientific knowledge surrounding an embryo. Often when a pregnancy was declared, the fetus had already grown to a more formed stage which made abortion seem more of inhumane act. Early feminists radically opposed abortion claiming it was “child murder” that exploited both women and children. The core of the radical feminist’s argument was to ‘protect women at the embryonic stage’, hence leading to the anti-pro choice view.
Today, the attitudes of radical feminists have progressed to campaigning to eliminate the ‘root causes’ which drives women to abortion such as providing access to free childcare, financial support and enabling access to practical resources. Modern feminism has not adopted the ‘extreme’ stances of the past which have led to tensions within feminist communities. Depending on the feminist spectrum, some radical feminists believe motherhood is an obligation of womanhood while others may renounce the obligation of motherhood despite being financially and resource able to do so.
Modern feminism is defined in a variety of ways which is then filtered through our many lived experiences. One of the most basic and foundational definitions of feminism is the “advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of the equality of sexes”. The origins of the feminism began in the 1950s as a movement in the USA inspired by Betty Friendan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, which inspired women to pursue goals of freedom and autonomy.
The feminist anti-abortion arguments come with a variety of justifications for its campaigns – religious (when does life begin?); scientific (damaging a females body?); conservative (securing the future of mankind); power (forcing restrictive laws on women to exert power and control, potentially for political grounds).
Let us contextualize some of the laws in developed nations where women are forced to abide by policies informed by these anti-abortion justifications:
• El Salvador – Illegal under every circumstance (rape, ill physical and mental health. Women can be jailed for up to a decade for performing the procedure. It is noted that low-income women who have miscarriages and stillbirths may be prosecuted due to being wrongly accused of abortion or homicide (White-Lebhar, 2018).
• Alabama, United States of America – Illegal under every circumstance. What is concerning about this case though, is that it was only just voted in (last month), meaning that the senator they have in office today, have these views.
• Northern Ireland – Illegal under every circumstance (including a result of rape). Medical professionals are afraid to provide their candid opinions about the health of the pregnant female and/or the fetus due to repercussions.
Under further examination, these laws celebrate a lack of individualization and are enforced by these powerful societal structures. Women are forced to adhere to laws derived from cultural and/or religious values in which they may not believe or practice. As Social Workers, our ethical practices use a person-centered approach with a systematic theoretical underpinning of self-determination for those we serve.
This approach applauds the unique and individual dynamic in one’s life and that these dynamics are even more special when they interact with their environment (person-in-context). No one person’s issue is perceived or dealt with in the same manner – social work theory acknowledges these humanistic values yet, we are forced to operate in neoliberal societies where under resourced service providers do not have the capacity and flexibility to approach each client uniquely.
Our role working within the abortion context means we can advocate change on multiple levels – through therapeutic supporting (counselling); by advocating for policy changes by sparking dynamic public discourse (policy); educating generations of women on abortion in an impartial manner (education) and much more. Our perspectives on the matter, and with feminism itself, comes from the top down – our attitudes are shaped by the leaders we have, whether they conflict or reflect our beliefs.
Relieving restrictions surrounding abortion isn’t only about the freedom of choice for women, it’s also an opportunity to examine and identify where first world nations fall short in imploring the sense of freedom we so frequently advertise to eastern societies and third world nations. Developed nations are allowing powerful politics driven by strong single-sided opinions often funded by the wealthiest ten percent of the world decide about life, death, family, and women health decisions.
There are no solidified answers on what restrictive abortion laws mean for women and feminism – whether regressive or progressive for the feminist movement. Whether we identify with feminism and all that it embodies or not, we are ultimately shaped by the societal constructs we were influenced by in our youth and our family values. However, context changes through life experience and transcultural immersions. Therefore, we must evolve individually and collectively.
Our society is ever changing in this way and essentially to be progressive on these fronts, decision making regarding policy should evolve towards being free of judgment, opinions, religion, and power – thinking about individual lives at the core is crucial. Some may view this perspective as idealistic, especially in countries where government structures have the funds to create change, but government money is alternatively utilized to support the community as a whole with supports mainstreamed, directly conflicting with the individualistic nature of social work approaches.
A Call to Action for Social Workers! The Time is Now to ELEVATE
As we recognize March as Social Work Month, let’s awaken that original passion in each other and build on our strengths and core social work values to make change and lead the way for others to do so as well.
My fellow social workers, the time is now to lead the way for our nation regarding human rights and human well-being. The shocking cruelty and violation of human rights that occur each day in our nation under the current administration not only violates our Code of Ethics, but is cruel, unjust, and the epitome of what we as social workers dedicate our lives to fight against—socialinjustice.
We cannot risk becoming desensitized to any injustice, despite hearing about a new, abhorrent policy, practice or incident, every day. Let’s channel our frustration into collective action because this is our domain. We are the experts of social welfare, and we are uniquely trained to recognize social injustice and empower individuals, families, organizations, and communities toward positive social change.
It’s what we do every day as social workers. Since we know how to do this, we should be leading the way. This social work month lets ELELVATE our dedication and translate it into collective action for social justice. I believe that in doing so, we honor of the many pioneer social workers who have blazed the trail for us and worked to give us many of the rights we now enjoy.
Every day I am in awe of our society and our government’s attitudes and policies toward the most vulnerable people in our society. Racism, anti-Semitism, sexism and homophobia seem to be increasing at alarming rates (or perhaps are just more acceptably overt now) and this is resulting in more violence, conflict, and division among families and communities.
To me, that constitutes an emergency. Children are being legally separated from their parents, put in cages, often abused or neglected and “lost” by our government. If that isn’t an emergency, I’m not sure what is. Banning PEOPLE from serving in the military, sending refugees back to their country of origin to face certain death, and women’s reproductive rights at risk are all emergencies to me.
What do you think? What constitutes a national emergency to you? Whatever you answer, the good news is that we know how to deal with crisis as social workers and are bound together by social workvalues. So, let’s do it. Someone has to, and why not us—this is our domain. Plus, we have a lot of professional strengths to build on.
• We know how to build on strengths.
• We know how to organize.
• We know how to educate.
• We know how to build bridges, not walls.
• We know how to empower individuals, families, organization, and communities.
• We understand human rights and human dignity.
• We know how to advocate on micro through macro levels.
• We know how to push through when we are tired because people’s lives depend on us.
• We understand human behavior more than most.
• We know how to critique social policy.
• We know how to conduct research and translate it into practice.
• We know how to problem solve and are used to complex problems.
• We value diversity and we know how to celebrate it.
As a social work educator, I have the privilege of working with budding social workers every day. Their passion for social justice is raw and strong. However, as some seasoned social workers know, that passion may not go away, but it may grow tired, and frustrated by red tape, high case-loads and lack of support.
My fellow social workers, I ask you to ask yourself: How do you want to use your unique innate gifts and your professional skills as a social worker to help our nation awaken to the humanity of others? We cannot let human suffering being the norm or be a line item on news that people shake their head to and go on about their day. Jane Addams would not approve.
Increased Inmate Deaths and the Lack of Accountability
One year after the death of Sandra Bland on July 13, 2015, the Huffington Post compiled a list of persons who died in jail. In the following twelve month period, there were 811 deaths, most of which were the result of suicide. In fact, 253 detainees committed suicide in the year after Sandra’s death, constituting 31% of all fatalities.
This heartbreaking statistic highlights a historical pattern; one of racial targeting and classism, poor management, health care oversight, and corruption. The criminal justice system fails our communities by allowing preventable inmate deaths while targeting the most vulnerable communities. These alarming trends in our prisons, jails, and juvenile detention centers have us wondering, why?
Experts examining suicide and death in our nation’s jails reveal disturbing trends across the most vulnerable communities. A recent New York Times article, for example, Preventing Suicide in America’s Jails, reveals in 2013 a total of 967 jail inmates died while detained in local corrections facilities. This statistic continued to grow the year after, even though the inmate population declined by 4%. Other authors and researchers cite poor management, inadequate health care, and perfunctory oversight as major culprits. Although these issues go mostly unresolved, they continue to institute a pattern of death and suicide.
Reasons Behind Inmate Deaths
Many jail fatalities are overlooked and underreported. Generally, jails are not required to disclose fatalities occurring within their facility to their community. Even the most egregious incarceration centers can go unnoticed by the community at large when they aren’t being held accountable for deaths occurring in their own institutions.
Different from prison, jail stays are shorter (approximately 21 days) and most of the inmates have yet to be sentenced. Jail inmates could also be under the influence of drugs, alcohol, or have mental or physical health issues that correctional staff might be unaware of. For these reasons, many jail suicides occur in the first week of incarceration as indicated below by the Prison Policy Initiative.
According to KyCIR’s reports in Kentucky’s Grant County Jail, rampant corruption, employee incompetence, ineffective staff preparation, and inmate maltreatment were all present in the jail’s culture. In an environment where accountability is minimal, inmates are more likely to be disregarded and mistreated, as is the case of Danny Ray Burden at Grant County Jail.
“Danny Ray Burden fell asleep mid-sentence as he was booked into the Grant County jail, toppling over on the bench where he sat. Prodded awake, he coughed, shook and pleaded for emergency medical attention. A blood test showed that the 41-year-old diabetic badly needed insulin. Instead of assisting with proper medical standards and medications, deputies put Danny Ray in a cell, where he was found unconscious just three hours after he had entered the jail on March 27, 2013. He died a week later.”
Reflecting on the data, including the specific cases of Sandra Bland and Danny Ray Burden, who is at risk for jail fatality?
Vulnerable groups at correctional facilities include:
- Persons booked for lesser crimes
- Those without financial resources who are unable to post bond
- Communities of color who are profiled by police and often receive harsher punishments
- Sex offenders and those accused of vicious crimes
Why Death by Suicide?
For inmates whose lives were previously difficult, a brief jail sentence could prove traumatic. The most at-risk inmates may be experiencing withdrawal symptoms, a lack of access to prescriptions, and/or low availability of medical or mental health services. An inmate with a troubled emotional, mental, or physical state of inmates suffers even more while imprisoned, especially when our system neglects their basic needs.
Correctional facility detainees may have anxiety about unemployment, broken relationships, loss of residence, healthcare, or the inability to care for children. Without financial resources, these issues are compounded by the inability to pay a bond. And for black inmates, especially those in the 18 to 29-year age range, accruing considerably greater bail amounts than their peers in other racial groups isn’t uncommon.
Suicide Prevention Strategies for Correctional Facilities
In Matti Hautala’s article In the Shadow of Sandra Bland: The Importance of Mental Health Screening in U.S. Jails, the author examines the multifaceted environment of our American jail system and garners evidence-based recommendations for inmate suicide prevention.
The author suggests the initial entry procedure, including the preliminary psychological evaluation, acclimates the inmate to the criminal justice environment. This experience could have a lasting impact on the immediate future for that inmate; although alternative programs such as parole, probation, or mental health courts are recommended. Community supervision, rather than incarceration, is especially effective for those with psychological or mental health issues. Further recommendations include:
- Psychological evaluation instruments and qualified evaluators
- Proper procedures regarding medical records and treatment
- Limiting the use of restraint and isolation
- Frequent visual follow-ups, every 15 minutes, with suicidal or homicidal inmates.
The gross lack of culpability by local and state corrections personnel and increasing inmate deaths calls for advocacy and reform. Social workers, helping professionals, and concerned citizens must engage our political and community leaders in evidence-based dialogue and program development to reduce the number of inmate fatalities in our nation’s correctional facilities.
By engaging with our local communities and representatives, together, we can hold our system accountable. We can force our jail and correctional facilities to say “mea culpa!” and reform our policies to prevent tragic and unnecessary death.
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