Amanda Rodríguez is chief counsel for policy and legal advocacy for the SAFE Center at the University of Maryland. SAFE stands for support, advocacy, freedom, and empowerment for survivors of human trafficking. Costin Jordache, communication director and news editor for Adventist Review Ministries, recently talked with Rodríguez about the fight against human trafficking. This article is abridged from their conversation.—Editors.
Tell us about yourself: your life, your profession, your calling.
I am a mother of two (that’s always number one), married to a wonderful husband. I’m an attorney by trade. I work in the anti-trafficking field. I’ve found that it’s what God called me to do. I’ve worked with survivors of many different types on this journey—domestic violence, sexual violence. I finally landed in this area of human trafficking.
Why did you decide to become an attorney?
I was an English major at the University of Maryland, College Park, and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. It was a perfect movie moment: it was raining, I was walking back to my car, I was upset, I was praying because I had no idea what I was going to do with this degree, realizing that I was coming to the end of my college career.
As the rain poured down, these words flowed through my head: Lord, just guide my path.
Suddenly I heard as clear as day: “Go to law school.”
I went straight to my counselor’s office and asked what my options were. She said, “If your GPA is at a certain level, you can use your last year of undergrad as your first year of law school. But you have to take the LSAT.”
I got a high enough score [on the LSAT] to get into law school. . . ; everything fell into place at just the right moment.
Years later, married, in my last year of law school, I thought, Lord, I don’t know what I’m going to do. So I started praying again. I went to a career counselor who said, “The only job available is as a prosecutor in Baltimore County.” I interviewed; and I got the job even before I left the building. “When can you start?” they asked.
I just kept opening myself to whatever God wanted to fill me with. He gave me the strength.
Twenty years ago I was a terrified little teenager. I could not stand in public and speak at all. I thought, I’m going to be a transactional lawyer; I’m going to sit behind a desk. I’m never going to speak in public.
But the Lord kept opening opportunities for me to build confidence, and I ended up as a prosecutor, speaking in court in public every day. It was an amazing journey.
As you studied in law school, what thoughts went through your mind about how you would impact society?
I was very much into myself then. My husband had said to my mother-in-law, “I’m interested in law school; I think this is what I’m going to do.”
She asked him, “How are you going to help others?”
That question lives with me. We [attorneys] get cast as villains in movies. I wanted to make sure I could have an impact on others. As I thought about the law career I had in mind, I wanted to sit in an office that didn’t involve people—that’s how shy I was. But the classes I excelled at were classes that forced me into the world in which I was speaking publicly.
They started an immigration clinic at my law school, and I was the first lawyer to be part of this clinic. I worked with seasoned attorneys. I had an asylum case: a man who was completely defeated because he had lost his asylum, and his daughters were back in his home country being abused and mutilated. I was able to walk him through the process, and it changed me.
I just kept opening myself to whatever God wanted to fill me with. He gave me the strength.
In law school I was very internal. How is this going to affect my life? I should have been asking, “How is this going to affect others?”
Define human trafficking. What does it look like around the world?
At its core human trafficking is the recruitment, the moving, the harboring of individuals either to perform sex acts or to perform service or labor by force, fraud, or coercion.
With human trafficking we see individuals who are vulnerable—for a lot of reasons. Maybe they grew up in poverty, they were abused, maybe they grew up in foster care. Sinister individuals exploit them for their own gain.
We see cases of foreign nationals and domestic survivors. There may be a misconception that it happens only “over there,” that it happens only to those coming into the country. That’s not true. There’s a significant problem here, in Maryland, in the United States, where our domestic or home-grown kids are falling victim to this.
It’s a global issue. In terms of who’s affected by this, the numbers are in the millions. We are just beginning to scrape the surface in terms of how we can address the problem.
Is it getting better or worse?
That’s the million-dollar question. We don’t know. There’s more awareness about it. That always leads to positive things, because we’re thinking about solutions to the problem.
When I started this work 15 years ago, no one was really talking about it. I was the lone voice in my office.
How did your journey lead you to this issue?
I was still in law school. I was taking a business writing class, and the teacher gave us the opportunity to write about anything that involved the buying or selling of goods in the context of law. I was interested in immigration law because my husband is an immigrant. I was into immigration reform, looking at different areas in which it could be expanded.
When I googled “buying and selling,” I came up with “human trafficking.” I wrote a paper, put it on the shelf, didn’t think any more about it.
I was sitting in my office years later as a prosecutor, and my boss put a file on my desk. He said, “We think this is just prostitution; do what you want [with it].”
I looked at it and started to scrape back those onion layers. I realized that it was much more nefarious than that. I had a ton of different types of trafficking cases in my career, but what changed for me was knowing that I could make a difference. Nobody else was looking at it; nobody else was working on it. Over the next five years it just became a niche for me.
There’s a Matthew West song, “Do Something.” Every individual has the capacity to make a difference in this world. I am so blessed that God has given me the opportunity to help bring [trafficking] to an end, put bad guys away, and see survivors walk strong and know that their story is ongoing.
God still works in this world, and He gave me the opportunity to watch the story and be part of it.
An unabridged version of this interview is available at ARTVNow.com.
“To not have your suffering recognized is an almost unbearable form of violence”—Andrei Lankov
When our church began an End It Now committee as part of our women’s ministry, the congregation was hesitant. Nevertheless, committee members tirelessly pushed, preached, and prayed to helpour church community recognize the need for this ministry.
Their work paid off. The committee members were surprised by the overwhelming response from victims of abuse who finally felt safe to come forward and ask for help from their fellow church members.
The responses included a late-night phone call from a member of another congregation who heard about the ministry and needed help. She described the abuse but denied that her spouse was abusive. Initially she described only emotional abuse. She told about how her spouse called her stupid and overweight. He compared her to other women and wondered why God had given him such an “inferior” wife.
She discussed periods of extreme isolation: he didn’t allow her to talk to her family or friends. At church he was friendly and charismatic; she was always in the background and struggled to make any connections. He constantly called her at the office, which caused her career to stagnate. She grew distraught as she watched her peers excel while she remained financially dependent upon him.
She did everything to get pregnant with their first child, believing that her spouse would be pleased, or at least leave her alone. But as soon as she became pregnant he became physically abusive. She normalized his behavior by imagining that every wife had to go through this. He normalized it as well: “At least I didn’t give you a black eye” or “You made me do this; it hurts me more than it hurts you.” After each outburst he became loving and attentive. Slowly the physical abuse became more and more violent, and in his fits of rage he started threatening to kill her.
Things did not improve after the births of their children. One evening he became so violent with one of the children that she knew she had to take action.
She reached out to her pastor for help. He seemed shocked by the accusation against her husband, an elder of the church. The pastor spoke to her husband, suggesting that the couple get counseling. That night her husband tried to strangle her. The next day he left. Now she is unable to pay her bills and care for her children. Many church members will not speak to her.
Abuse carries serious long-term health implications for victims beyond their immediate injuries.
Abuse is sadly common in our society. It is a serious public health problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in three women, and one in four men, will be victims of abuse in their lifetime.1 In 2014, 702,208 children were abused or neglected.2 Despite these sobering statistics, abuse has historically been underreported, especially within faith communities.
Abuse is more than an unhealthy or unhappy relationship; it is a pattern of behavior used by one individual to assert power and control over another. Although commonly portrayed as physical or sexual behavior, abusive patterns also include mental, emotional, financial, and even spiritual facets. Victims often suffer in silence, unsure about how or where to seek help. Unfortunately, many victims reach out for help only to receive advice that perpetuates the abuse or retraumatizes them.
Abusive behaviors include:
Initially, victims rarely recognize abuse as such while it is occurring. Instead, they internalize and normalize the violent behavior. Abusive relationships generally follow a cycle that includes (1) a “honeymoon” period, (2) a tension-building period, (3) an abusive incident, and (4) reconciliation.
George K. Simon notes that through this cycle “often victims end up unnecessarily prolonging their abuse because they buy into the notion that their abuse must be coming from a wounded place and that only patient love and tolerance . . . will help them heal.”4
A common reaction to signs of abuse is to ignore them as private, intrafamilial problems. Alternatively, well-intentioned but misguided interventions are often aimed at promoting reconciliation at all costs. The reality of domestic violence requires an immediate and calculated response to safeguard victims. According to the CDC, more than half of female homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner. Domestic violence is one of the leading causes of death among women under the age of 44. Even when physical abuse is not a precursor to domestically related homicide, other types of abuse—such as emotional abuse—are typically present.
Abuse carries serious long-term health implications for victims beyond their immediate injuries. According to a recent study, individuals exposed to six or more adverse childhood experiences—including all forms of child abuse and witnessing domestic violence in the home—suffered a life-expectancy reduction of approximately 20 years, compared to individuals not exposed to such experiences. This chilling data points to the long-lasting aftereffects that children may suffer from domestic abuse, even when they are not the primary target of the abusive behavior.
In light of such high risks of immediate and long-term harm, abuse must be taken seriously. Although it may occur behind closed doors, its corrosive effects are felt in our schools, churches, and workplaces. Because of unfounded stigmas and unawareness, church communities can provide cover for perpetuating abusive behavior. But equipped with information and compassion, churches can also be ideal places of refuge and portals to healing for victims.
Abuse is not simply a private problem; it is a community problem that demands a community response. We Christians are called to follow in Jesus’ footsteps to “heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and . . . to set at liberty them that are bruised” (Luke 4:18, 19, KJV).
Many abuse victims do not seek help because they are unaware of available resources, they are in denial about the abuse, or they have spoken out before and received an improper or ineffectual response. Fortunately, many resources are readily available to assist abuse victims by providing counseling, shelter, legal advocacy, and other services. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (www.thehotline.org, 1-800-799-7233) is an excellent gateway to national, state, and local resources; enditnow (www.enditnow.org), an initiative of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, provides helpful information for victims and church communities.
Because of the vicious cycle of abusive relationships, victims often do not recognize the abuse or cannot take the first step toward healing by themselves. It is crucial for our communities to be trained to recognize signs of abuse and equipped with information to point victims toward help. Even if unsure of whether a situation rises to the level of abuse, seeking help should always be presented as an available option, and safety should be our paramount concern. Fear has no place in Christian relationships. Abuse is never acceptable in any form; it is never too early to seek or offer help.
Whether facing an abusive situation or striving to support someone who is, we can find strength and assurance in the words of the psalmist: “You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, so that mere earthly mortals will never again strike terror” (Ps. 10:17, 18).
Amanda and German Rodríguez are attorneys who live in Laurel, Maryland, and are members of the Spencerville Adventist Church.Amanda, a former prosecutor, is an executive at a nonprofit that provides emergency and long-term assistance to abuse survivors.