Interview with Ms. Melanie Blow of Stop Abuse Campaign, Rochester, N.Y.
A woman's body was found last winter in an area of our city known for drug use, prostitution and crime. This time it is personal. This woman and her brother used to play with my own child. I'm not just heartbroken that my nephew, and now my niece, have both died in this opiate crisis that is so severe it has actually lowered America's life expectancy. I want to help. Two years ago I was introduced to Ms. Melanie Blow of Stop Abuse Campaign and she has proven to be a wonderful source of advice, information and support. She has agreed to let me interview her here:
Q1- Hello Melanie Blow, what have you been up to lately?
A1- Well, it’s May, so the New York legislative session is in full swing (https://bit.ly/2IHKN0Z), and I’ve been focused on persuading our Senate to pass the Child Victims Act and make it easier to hold the people who sexually abuse children accountable . That, and enjoying the first, and possibly only, little bit of spring in Rochester.
Q2- What is the path that led you to working with street people and addicts in the city of Rochester New York, and what kind of work do you do?
A2- The Stop Abuse Campaign believes in preventing child abuse and childhood trauma through public education and public policy. I love doing that. A few public policy changes, when it comes to child abuse and trauma, could fix most of our society’s most pernicious problems. I love the potential impact my job can have on the world, but it’s slow, frustrating work.
I’ve been involved in the anti-human-trafficking movement in this community and am one of the founding members of the Rochester Regional Coalition Against Human Trafficking. Human trafficking is a very dramatic, popular subject these days. I think most people hear stories of teenagers forced into prostitution and think “that is the worst thing that could ever happen to anyone”. I hear those stories and think of them as being only a few degrees different from the millions of children suffering from non-commercial sexual abuse and other childhood traumas. So in all discussions about human trafficking, that’s always what I’ve kept in the back of my mind.
Two and a half years ago, I was approached by the local photographer and storyteller extraordinaire, Arleen Thaler, and asked if I’d work with her on a piece about sex trafficking. I knew that was going to be very difficult; bona fide trafficking victims are usually hard to access, and there aren’t a lot of survivors around here who have emerged from it, healed and want to talk. So the conversation shifted to Lyell Avenue, home of an infamous open-air drug and sex market.
Ideologically, open-air sex work is where angels fear to tread. Many of these workers fall outside the definition of trafficking victims, and many of them fall outside the “sexually liberated” and “empowered” cliches some would like to attach to them. So Arleen and I decided we were going to abandon all preconceived notions and ideologies, and instead focus on the relationship between childhood trauma and open-air sex work. And once I started interacting with these women, I just couldn’t walk away.
Q3- To some people drug addiction and/or prostitution look like moral issues. They view addicts and prostitutes as people who have decided to seek their own selfish pleasure, no matter who they are hurting. Could it really be as simple as that?
A3- No, it’s not. Sleeping in abandoned buildings in the middle of a Rochester winter isn’t about pleasure. Being raped isn’t about pleasure. Losing or relinquishing custody of your children isn’t about pleasure. Endocarditis and scabies aren’t about pleasure.
This next sentence will shock people, but drug use is an adaptive behavior. Addiction, whether chemical or behavioral, is very strongly tied to child abuse and Adverse Childhood Experiences. It’s not a desirable coping strategy, but neither are any of the others that trauma survivors typically use. Look at the rising suicide rate amongst teenagers and young adults. People love to blame cell phones, and there may be some truth to that. But we’re also talking about a generation that has experienced as much abuse as any other, but has had their coping mechanisms taken away. Today’s teenagers drink less, use fewer drugs, smoke fewer cigarettes, have less sex and drive less. All of those are things that ACE sufferers use to make their brain work somewhat normally, to be comfortable within their skin. I’m not saying that drug use, risky driving and unhealthy or premature sexual relationships are good things, but I’m saying that trauma is very damaging, and different people cope with it different ways. Drug use, especially serious addiction to hard-core drugs, are strongly linked to trauma. Addiction is painful to watch, but it is essentially a self-destructive behavior. It is someone taking all their anger and rage and sorrow and quenching it with a chemical, rather than exorcising it with violence.
Q4-Is it possible for people struggling with the after-effects of childhood traumas to improve, and if so, what evidence-based treatments work best?
A4- Trauma survivors absolutely can recover. But it’s important for them, and for the rest of us, to really understand what they’re recovering from. As an incest survivor with an ACE score of 6, I think recovering is a bit like a lifelong game of whack-a-mole. There are fantastic treatments for the PTSD/anxiety-type symptoms. EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), is the best known and most available treatment in this genre. The great thing about EMDR is that it works fairly fast- in a few weeks. And that’s great. PTSD does not consistently respond to medication, and other types of therapy can be very slow. PTSD symptoms can be hellish and deprive sufferers of most function and all pleasure, so getting rid of them in a few weeks is amazing.
But that’s not all trauma does to people. Trauma changes the way people relate to other people. If a child’s mother is a drug addict and can’t consistently meet that child’s physical and emotional needs, that child may learn, in a very deep and subconscious way, that interacting with other people won’t help me when I’m hurting. That means therapy isn’t likely to be appealing or effective for those trauma survivors. It means healthy relationships are unlikely and unappealing, and abusive ones a near-inevitability.
I think one of the keys to recovering from trauma is to learn about it. To acknowledge “bad stuff happened to me. It changed my life profoundly. I can still do the things I want to do, but it may take a while and I may have to figure out different ways to accomplish them.”
Q5- This is a big question: Are there connections between the #MeToo Movement, high A.C.E.scores , drug addiction and prostitution, and S.O.L. (Statute of Limitations) Reform?
A5- I think so. I hope so. The point of #MeToo was to show the ubiquity of sexual assault and harassment. That’s a pretty big umbrella- that includes rape on one end of the spectrum to occasional hostile workplace stuff at the other end of the spectrum. In the stories of influential people who had behaved badly, most but not all of the cases involved sexual harassment and assault of adults. Personally, I would have rather it focused on sexual crimes against children, but it still helped destigmatize the issue a bit, and it did help people understand how common all this stuff is. And that’s one of the things that needs to happen.
We need to understand that child sexual abuse is very, very common. One out of five children common. Every time you see a group of children, tell yourself “some of these kids have been sexually abused or will be sexually abused”. About 10% of men and 4% of women experience significant sexual attraction to children. Not all of them will act on that attraction, and not everyone who sexually abuses a child experiences a strong sexual attraction. But the point is that all children are in danger and there is no label or title someone can have that means they are “safe” to be around children.
There’s no simple solution. One of the things we need to do is change the laws so that we can actually make bad guys experience consequences, because right now most of them don’t. Removing statutes of limitation on these crimes is really important. That way, adult victims can get these predators off the street and protect some children. We need to teach parents, en masse, how to protect their children. We need to ensure institutions that work with children implement best practices that protect them from sexual abuse- this is another benefit of Statute of Limitation reform, because institutions generally do as little to protect children as they can get away with. SOL reform increases an institution’s liability, and that tends to improve their behavior.
We really need to de-stigmatize the way we talk about trauma and its consequences. We need to become OK with talking about our own trauma experiences. We need to recognize that trauma plays a role in most of the worst problems in our society, including addiction, and that these problems won’t go away until we address the trauma.
Q6- What do you want to see happen differently in how our society handles this tragic situation, and for those readers who want to know how they can help; what needs are there?
A6- One of the ways we build community with these women is by giving them packs of toiletries, snacks, a change of clothes, and some other necessities. And someone always will come out of the woodwork and say “you’re enabling them”. And my answer to that is when we push addicts away from every form of support in their lives, which is what you do when you completely refuse to “enable”, you get Lyell Avenue. Misery loves company. You get all these women whose ACE scores are so high that they feel different from the rest of the world under the best of circumstances banding together and supporting each other. The women meet men who have similar histories that they can relate to. All that pain demands a lot of drugs to numb it, and that sets up a sophisticated underground economy. The prostitution is part of that economy. All that crime drives down property values and causes abandoned buildings, and that intensifies the problem. The police arrest them, they serve some time and then get out, and now they’re even more isolated because they have convictions and will struggle to reintegrate with society.
These women have names. They have stories. They’re intelligent, they have skills, and they’ve usually got surprisingly big hearts. But they’ve gone through stuff that many of us can’t even imagine. They’re doing the best they can. We need to help them do better.
The Rochester Regional Coalition Against Human Trafficking is always taking donations of the care bags, or items for them, that I just mentioned, and you can learn more about them at rrcaht.org. The Stop Abuse Campaign works to prevent childhood trauma through public education and public policy. I highly recommend going onto our site, www.stopabusecampaign.org, to learn about policy items we support to end trauma, and what you can do to help us. And if you really want a good understanding of trauma, addiction and the people behind the statistics, I highly recommend Dr. Gabor Mate’s book “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts”. It gets into some nuances about neurology, and also what harm reduction looks like in connection to addiction. But it’s an excellent way to learn about the issue. Ignorance and cruelty aren’t going to get us out of this situation; knowledge and compassion will.
~Contributed by Stacy Youst Sillen and Melanie Blow. Photograph by Melanie Blow.