Comprehensive Care in Freetown: Ph.D. candidate completes holistic care dissertation research abroad

Elyssa Shroeder

Elyssa Shroeder

It can be tough to leave home for an extended period of time, but after six months in West Africa, it was harder for Elyssa Shroeder to return stateside.

The fifth-year Ph.D. student and doctoral candidate completed her dissertation data collection on child trafficking in the West African nation of Sierra Leone. She partnered with University of Georgia’s Center on Human Trafficking Research & Outreach (CenHTRO) to complete her research, which was funded by a Fulbright Research Award. Schroeder was recently hired as the Director of Survivor Engagement at CenHTRO, overseeing all implementation projects related to the care, research, and support of victims and survivors.

Shroeder spent most of her time in Sierra Leone with World Hope International, a nonprofit organization that oversees clean water, global health and protection initiatives across the globe. The nonprofit operates a recovery center for victims of child trafficking and serves as the implementation partner for CenHTRO’s African Programming & Research Initiative to End Slavery (APRIES).

Shroeder invested much of the past three years in building and strengthening relationships with social workers and other care providers via zoom and an in-person meeting, creating a rapport to complete her community-based participatory project.

“My time over there builds off of an ongoing project that CenHTRO has, which shows that about 30% of children in Sierra Leone are either at risk or victims of child labor trafficking,” Shroeder said. “We know that this is a really big issue, but my research specifically is around holistic social services for trafficking survivors – so that means making sure if you are a victim of trafficking or another kind of related trauma that you have the very best care.”

Child trafficking in Sierra Leone typically takes place in a practice known as “menpikin,” where an extended family member, family friend or other trusted individual takes a child from their home, often under the guise of an educational opportunity. However, the child is often forced into agriculture, fishing, mining, domestic work or other child labor, and in some cases early marriage or sex trafficking. This practice can place children in labor inside or outside of Sierra Leone’s borders.

Shroeder’s research focused around the idea of wraparound care. The Texas native used the example that this approach consists of more than just counseling for a victim; it would include educational opportunities, access to food, health and mental health opportunities for victims and their families – care that meets the needs of several facets of a victim’s life.

Shroeder spoke with social workers, counselors and other staff, studying data sets from multiple years to complete her findings. World Hope International stores data in multi-year files, so Shroeder dissected available, de-identified data from six fiscal years and now awaits future data. During her stay, she led training, consultations and staff retreats, meeting the needs of not only the victims of trafficking but also providers. Through her work, she treated the multiple levels of trauma that come with the nation’s practices.

Today, Shroeder’s impact is ongoing with World Hope International. She continues to work with the staff to improve documentation processes, digitizing the format the nonprofit previously used.

“What I found was that a huge amount of time was going into paper documentation that was not streamlined and wasn’t telling you much of the survivors,” Shroeder said. “What I did was take the feedback from the staff and five years of data analysis to see what the previous files were telling us already and what they weren’t telling us.”

Acquiring a different lens

During her time abroad, Shroeder noticed how societal differences between the U.S. and one of the world’s poorest countries bleed into the social services each nation provides, namely how the U.S. uses micro-focused care as opposed to Sierra Leone’s macro-focused approach.

“In Sierra Leone you really don’t do a lot of individual therapy ever,” Shroeder said. “It’s more focused on issues of injustice at a macro level. So really thinking about the system as a whole reflects on our society being more individualistic where theirs is more based on a community aspect.”

While there is a BSW option at some schools, Sierra Leone’s education system provides no MSW program in the country. Despite the lack of social work programs, Schroeder recognized a cooperative effort between workers in the field, one that fostered education and service.

“I really saw a spirit of learning and an intense desire to engage and collaborate within systems,” Shroeder said. “Instead of having social workers only working with other social workers, it was a lot of social workers working with other professions.”

That collaborative force lives at an unlikely time for the nation. In the past 30 years, Sierra Leone has faced several hardships, including a civil war, Ebola outbreak, COVID-19 pandemic and other sources of collective trauma. Watching the country’s citizens interact was one of the more powerful experiences of Shroeder’s trip.

“What surprised me the most was seeing the incredible resiliency and joy that was present even in the midst of all of this hardship,” Shroeder said. “Even now, there has been some political upheaval and the cost of living is really high – even in the midst of all of it, people do come together to take care of each other, which is really beautiful to see.”

More than research

Shroeder herself engaged with other fields during her time abroad. An avid dancer and instructor in Athens, she attended a local dance competition in Freetown and, by virtue of being the only foreigner in the room, was named a guest judge by the organizers. She learned the competition was arranged to keep at-risk youth off the streets, and she was able to connect with individuals through the event. On her birthday, she rented out Freetown’s only theater, which had recently reopened, and strengthened relationships with community members over Dungeons and Dragons.

It was experiences like these that led Shroeder to a profound realization about the nation she called home for six months. She had learned the theory and concepts behind colonialism from books and lectures, but she said actually seeing the effects of colonialism in Sierra Leone was impactful. She noted the perceptions and opinions that many Americans have about the continent of Africa were untrue and impact many Africans today.

“We have so many ingrained racist and colonialist ideas about Africa and what it looks like,” Shroeder said. “Truly it is a thriving and beautiful place. Even now, their resources are stolen. The most surprising thing to me was really seeing the reality of historical colonialism and ongoing neocolonialism and how that affects the lives of men, women and children in Africa.”

Shroeder uses that fact as motivation to continue her research. Six months is a long time, but not for a research project like hers, she said. Moving forward, Schroeder is in the midst of taking outcomes like depression levels, anxiety levels and how to measure those items in ways that are adapted to their culture.

“My research is still ongoing,” Shroeder said. “I email [the team] weekly if not daily. I hope to go back in January for a final data collection point. It’s still very much ongoing, even though I’m not physically there.”

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