While human trafficking cases are only a small percentage of our caseload, survivors often have unique and complex needs. Jo Ann Henson is our dedicated Human Trafficking Therapist, and her warmth, empathy, and ability to connect with clients across a telephone line make her a great fit for this work. We talked to her about what brought her to ChicagoCAC and how she keeps going.
What brought you to ChicagoCAC?
I was working at Job Corps, and it was not a therapeutic environment. Many students had some form of trauma, but I was limited to what I could do for them as a therapist. During my job search, I came across this job, interviewed, and drove away thinking, “they have to hire me.” When I got the call offering me the position here, I said yes right away. My supervisor said, “I haven’t even told you how much we pay!” I didn’t care. It would be something different.
The work here was something totally new for me, something I had never thought of doing, and it was a challenge. It was scary at first, but you know, I’m working through it. And by collaborating as much as we do, I’ve learned from everyone’s different perspectives and approaches to therapy. It’s a good thing, and I like the learning process, and I’ll have been here for two years this January.
What made you want to go into therapy?
After I returned to school, I didn’t know this was a path I’d want my career to be on, but I always enjoyed talking to people and giving advice. I was out of school for over 20 years – I went back after I raised my kids. I studied criminal justice and attended Roosevelt University for psychology. When I completed the Roosevelt program, I was not feeling it, but I didn’t want to give up. I promised myself I would continue with my education until I was tired of school. I came across the counseling program at Argosy University and realized, “This is what I want to do.”
I remembered going through a difficult time in my life. I was down, depressed, and after I came out of that, I discovered that it would have made a difference if somebody was there for me to talk about how I was feeling. Instead, I was going through stuff in my own mind with nobody to talk to about it. But if I would have given up at some points in my life, I would have missed out on so much. And I’ve crossed paths with a lot of good people that helped me and encouraged me, so I want to give back the same thing.
What surprised you when you started working with human trafficking clients?
I was surprised to learn how much family members can be involved in trafficking and how it’s structured like a business. The grooming and everything, it’s a process. As a therapist, I struggle with the thought of people thinking it’s OK to sell somebody’s kids. You don’t sell people – seeing other people as profit tells me you’re disconnected from everything.
It made me think about how vulnerable kids are in families, especially in broken homes. I think a lot of the parents, especially the mothers, have been abused themselves and never dealt with it. And when it happens to their children, they can turn a blind eye. It’s hard for the clients, and it can be hard to hear, and when I feel like they’re struggling, I just want to reach in and hold their heart. I just want them to be better.
You seem like a really empathetic and thoughtful person – how do you avoid burnout?
Going through school, self-care was preached to us, and I start receiving my own therapy. I know when I am overwhelmed, my heart flutters. I usually feel this way when a client is struggling, and I want them to feel better. When I experience these overwhelming feelings, it is time for me to disconnect. I try to encourage them to pay attention to what they are experiencing inside their bodies.
My self-care routine consists of massages, long walks if the weather permits, and talking to people I trust. Another part of my self-care is watching YouTube. YouTube has gotten me through some difficult times. And I go to the bookstore and buy books, so many books. I’ve read all the Paulo Coehlo books, and I like self-help, supernatural, fairytales, and good love stories. I just keep forgetting to read the books I buy!
What might a typical day look like for you?
My day depends on what client I’m talking to, or if I can even catch them on the phone, because my clients, they’re older and they’re not always in the mood to talk. I don’t know what to expect, but I just kind of go with the flow. Even if I feel overwhelmed sometimes, for the most part, though, it’s not stressful. During the day it’s quiet because the kids are at school. But in the evening, I’m probably on the phone until 8 or 9 PM. My favorite part of my job is when I can really connect in a relationship with a client. We don’t all connect, or we don’t connect right away, but I love it when we do. Then I know, okay, we can start working, and something good will come out of it.
With my clients, I feel like a lot of them fear that you may ask them about what happened, what brought them here, and that kind of shuts them down. I always try to assure them that at some point we will talk about that, but when you’re ready. In the meantime, tell me about your day. I’ll say, “tell me the good things.” We want it to be balanced – every moment can’t always be something bad, something good happened too. And I use humor. I have to do that to connect. A lot of them go on the run, and I always just tell them, hey, if that thought comes up, call me, no matter what time, just give me a call before you do it. If you just need to talk, it doesn’t have to be a scheduled session.
What are some challenges you have working with these particular clients?
When I started in January 2020, by March, everything had shut down. It was challenging to build relationships over the phone. I have never met most of my clients face to face, and I thought it would be difficult to make a connection. Some of the clients I work with fear being judged, and I fear saying anything that comes off as judgmental. So, I am constantly monitoring what I say. Once we moved past that, the connections usually happen.
Another challenge I have faced is having to contact clients through the caregiver’s phone. If mom is not responsive, I can’t speak with the client. When that happens, it sets back any type of progress we were making. We may have two good sessions, and then I don’t hear from them for a few weeks. But for the most part, I talk directly with the teens – and I’m glad that they’re teens because we can just talk, get on their level. Teens have their own thoughts about things. I encourage them to talk, and I let them know I’m open to listening.
That must be a challenge – a lot of times in therapy it helps to see someone’s face and body language. How did you get so good at building rapport on the phone?
It’s tough when someone picks up the phone and you hear “hello,” in an unfriendly voice. I’m like, “c’mon, God, I need you, because I think this is going to be a tough one!” I just try to be myself – that’s the way I move forward if I’m talking to people on the phone or in the street. I try to give a person the same thing I would want if I were in their position.
I try to approach these situations with the thought in mind that parents may perceive the therapist as some type of authority who has the power to report them. When my son was young, and he had a crisis I remember talking to a SASS worker, and I couldn’t believe how bad she made me feel. I had no clue that I would one day become a SASS therapist, but I kept in mind the way that lady made me feel and I said, I would never make a parent feel like that, in this moment where my child is in crisis. If the child is in a crisis, mom is in a crisis. Some parents are involved, others are resistant, but to the ones that don’t know what to say or do, I tell them, “We’re all working together.”
What are you looking forward to about the future at ChicagoCAC?
I hope we continue to expand, maybe add a new building, and add services, and reach out to other communities beyond Roosevelt and Damen. I hope we can provide more services to African Americans. A lot of people don’t know what we do here – I worked across the street for three years and I thought this was a big daycare with all the colors on the building, but then I realized I never saw children playing outside. I think if we talk more about what we do, people will have that information and they’ll trust us, and maybe be less afraid to come in when they need to.