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The Role of the Family
April 29, 2021

When Chayu’s mother, who engages in sex work, goes out drinking at night, she sometimes even brings 14-year-old Chayu with her to the bars. Chayu only drinks a soda, but staff at The Freedom Story worry about what she is learning through observation, especially as someone so young. Jintana’s mother was resistant to Jintana participating in afterschool activities because it would reduce her availability to run errands like buying alcohol for her. Tarrin’s sister saw how lonely he was, so she got him into computer games, the costs of which enraged his father so much Tarrin was beaten every day for 2 years, until he gave up gaming as his coping mechanism for loneliness. These examples are just from the latest student stories we’ve shared, and what they highlight is the role of the family – especially dysfunction in the family–in exacerbating vulnerability to trafficking and exploitation.

The Hierarchy of Needs

There’s an article going around on Medium that talks about how Maslow’s depiction of the Hierarchy of Needs gets things wrong. For example, in Maslow’s conception, we receive love and belonging after attending to what he characterizes as more basic needs, like shelter, food, and clothing. However, in Blackfeet Nation teaching (an important source of Maslow’s ideas), our tribe and community are the means through which we are clothed, sheltered, and fed–it’s our belonging that provides for and attends to our physical needs. It’s the inverse of what Maslow asserts. 

What does this mean for nonprofit work and how we address collective problems?

The article states:

“Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is woven into the fabric of our civilization and into how we repair its weaknesses. Nonprofits, for example, direct their resources to providing food, shelter, and housing. As they should. But how often do they direct their resources to providing belonging and community? Organizations like Community Solutions, who just received MacArthur Foundation’s $100 million grant, have shown that their efforts to place homeless people into housing endure over 85% of the time at least partially because those people build friendships and community with others in their building. Baltimore nonprofit Thread surrounds students at risk of failing out of high school with teams of volunteers who provide them unconditional friendship and support. The intervention leads to a 92% graduation rate among these students who come from communities where the average graduation rate is 6%.”

How Family and Communal Connection Relates to Trafficking

A recent UNODC report highlights the role of families, especially absent or dysfunctional ones, in exposing children to higher risk of trafficking and other forms of exploitation (see pgs. 87-91). Children who end up trafficked often have a history of being victims of domestic violence, have dysfunctional or no parental care, or are sent to work, beg, or marry, to support families in extreme poverty. Parents might be involved in the trafficking of their own children, but also court cases reveal that traffickers specifically target children who are on their own and need a way to survive independently. Homeless and street children are at particular risk in many areas, for that reason. However, children who experience family problems at home are also vulnerable as traffickers will exploit their need for attachment and a sense of belonging. This need helps fuel online exploitation as well.

At The Freedom Story, we often think about the scholarships as a necessary, but insufficient, condition upon which prevention work is built. What we see in our day to day experience is that when kids are in serious trouble–when they are most at-risk–it’s their relationship with their trusted mentor that helps guide them to safety. Through these experiences in a safe and trust-filled relationship, the students find the support they need to stay in school and pursue their dreams. 

Some families, though in poverty or experiencing other hardships, are able to provide real emotional connection and strong models for their children. In some families, there is a willing adult but a lack of skills in communication or conflict resolution, so our mentors help advise in strengthening those connections of support between families. 

But for the children from a family that does not provide this support, the mentor relationship models for children how to make better decisions, how to demonstrate responsibility, and how to access resources you need, so that the students themselves can learn to thrive–and eventually provide for their own material needs as they grow and mature. Students who are missing that guidance at home won’t necessarily learn those skills because they received the scholarship per se. The scholarship helps keep them afloat in the short-term while deeper resilience is built over time through a sense of belonging, a feeling of being heard and understood, and mutual respect and trust.


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