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Making an impact on human trafficking

By Olivia Randall/UGA Today

Growing up, Anna Cody was always taking care of kids.

The older sister of three brothers in a military family, she often found herself babysitting. Others may have gotten annoyed, but Cody loved it. When she began her undergraduate degree at Virginia Commonwealth University, she knew she wanted to work with young people in some way.

But how?

At first, she considered combining this passion with another: art history.

After finishing her bachelor’s degree in art history, Cody began working as an educator. She engaged with children in museums and at a preschool and after-school program, facilitating learning for students with autism and children who had experienced homelessness and family violence.

There, she found her purpose.

“Sometimes kids acted out and, at the time, I was very young and didn’t really understand why until someone pulled me aside and explained the impacts from trauma experiences,” Cody said. “I wanted to work in policy or research to make a difference for these kids because I felt I could only do so much as an educator.”

Now an assistant research scientist at the University of Georgia’s School of Social Work in the Center on Human Trafficking Research and Outreach(CenHTRO), Cody is making her own impact.

But it took time to get there.

While working toward a master’s degree in social research from Hunter College, she interned with the Sex Workers Project (SWP) in New York City. SWP is a national organization that defends the human rights of sex workers by destigmatizing and decriminalizing people in the sex trades through free legal services, education, research and policy advocacy. She assisted on a project exploring factors that made people more vulnerable to human trafficking in Mexico and New York City.

“We wanted to understand what was happening in the local communities that led to those experiences and figure out what local organizations in the city could do to support people who found themselves in those situations,” she said.

She learned more about the complexities and layers of human trafficking—what it was, what were the causes, and what efforts were being made to prevent it.

“It gave me more insight into all the different debates and research happening in human trafficking, and I knew it was something I wanted to go back to at some point,” she said.

After achieving her degree, Cody began working in family medicine research to learn qualitative research methods. Despite training and hands-on experience, she felt her work lacked the “social work ethics and values” that she wanted to see embedded into it.

“I felt like I was still missing something because the whole reason I started this was to make a difference in kids’ lives and support them,” Cody said. “I wanted to make the environments they were in, like schools and homes, more nurturing.”

This eventually led her to a doctorate in social work from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2020 and a position at CenHTRO shortly thereafter.

CenHTRO’s purpose is to study the prevalence of human trafficking around the world and the context in which it happens. In her role, Cody researches the “hows” and “whys” of human trafficking and what can be done about it.

“Human trafficking is actually a really broad topic: There’s child trafficking, labor trafficking and trafficking for sexual exploitation,” she said. “Trafficking is essentially the exploitation of somebody within a work-like situation where a trafficker benefits from the work or service—for example, a child working in a potentially hazardous factory or an adult forced to work under threat.”

While working on a project, Cody analyzes perspectives of study participants, such as survivors of human trafficking and service providers, to understand why a person might end up in a trafficking situation and the impact it has on that person and community.

Most recently, Cody worked on a project that studied child trafficking in Sierra Leone.

“What we found was oftentimes children would be sent away to a relative or family friend in a larger city to receive education, but they would wind up working in the households as domestic workers instead of going to school,” she said. “Meanwhile, the survivor’s parents were made to believe that their child was receiving an education.”

Survivors who returned home as older youth found they had no education or direction because they were kept from learning needed skills due to their experience. Research from projects like these is used to advocate for more governmental services and interventions supporting communities, often in partnership with international NGOs like World Hope International, Free the Slaves and the United Nations.

While Cody considers her work with CenHTRO a calling, it does carry an emotional toll. She often holds debriefing sessions with others to check in and see how they’re handling certain emotionally taxing cases.

“Having to listen to these interviews and compiling the reports, the stories stick with you,” she said. “But I’ve been doing this for a while, and I have some strategies to keep myself from getting burnt out, which can be as simple as taking a walk or talking through it with someone else who understands.”

Working in this field can cause “vicarious trauma,” according to Cody, which results from empathetic work with trauma survivors. While some research about vicarious trauma is geared toward direct service providers, such as law enforcement or medical workers, too few studies are directed at the qualitative researchers themselves.

“We have to read and re-read these heavy, emotional interviews so there can be this sense of a deep emotional response to this process, so recognizing that it can happen and recognizing the signs is crucial to getting through this work,” she said.

It’s all a long way from Cody’s initial interest in art history. Now, she says she’s found a connection between the two.

“There’s so much artwork that was born out of troubling times in history. And then there’s a lot of history that’s been untold because it makes people uncomfortable, or it’s hidden away,” she said. “Understanding what has happened in the past can help you understand what is happening now.”

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