Skip to main content

UN Grant Helps UGA Researcher Improve Services for Child Trafficking Survivors in Sierra Leone

Thursday, October 21, 2021


The International Labor Organization, a special United Nations agency, recently awarded a $10,000 research fellowship to a University of Georgia social work pre-doctoral fellow whose archival analysis project will improve future outcomes for trafficking survivors in West Africa.

Child labor and child trafficking affects a significant number of children in Sierra Leone. How best to aid those children identified as trafficking victims? It’s an important question that researchers and service providers working in the West African country eagerly want to tackle. 

Investigating the past might provide some answers, says University of Georgia social work doctoral student Elyssa Schroeder. Buoyed by a special award from a United Nations agency, Schroeder’s research seeks to turn lessons found in archival documents into improved futures for child trafficking survivors.  

Schroeder is an African Programming & Research Initiative to End Slavery (APRIES) Pre-Doctoral Fellow at the Center on Human Trafficking Research & Outreach (CenHTRO) at UGA. She recently received a $10,000 seed grant from the International Labor Organization (ILO) for a nine-month research project, “Using the Past to Inform the Future: Archival Data Analysis to Improve Evidence for Policy and Practice for Child Labor Trafficking Survivors in Sierra Leone.” The project builds on other West African anti-trafficking research, programming, and policy efforts operated by APRIES in Sierra Leone, Senegal, and Guinea. 

Looking into the past, Schroeder says, means combing through old case files of trafficking survivors. In Sierra Leone, those case files are supplied by World Hope International (WHI), an NGO operating the only residential child labor trafficking program in the country. 

Schroeder will analyze four years worth of data provided by WHI to understand trafficking survivor demographics, the kinds of services survivors received and how those services impacted their outcomes, like mental health, physical health, and social reintegration. 

“This information can really tell us what gaps exist in assessment and how we can fill those gaps,” Schroeder said. “Also, what patterns are there? Do survivors from a specific area face different challenges from another area? Is there a certain age group that we are seeing more of that can be targeted for prevention?” 

Findings that emerge from the fellowship will improve programming for child trafficking survivors and inform policy through APRIES’ work with governmental agencies in Sierra Leone. 

“It’s a loop,” Schroeder said. “We need the research to improve programming, and we need programming to really improve research.”

A Novel, Community-Based Approach

Following the case analysis, Schroeder and the APRIES research team will work alongside WHI to reevaluate and redesign old policies and protocols, as well as create new assessment tools, that will be employed at the NGO’s residential facility and in hotspots in eastern Sierra Leone. This collaborative process will also incorporate survivor voices, an essential aspect to community-based participatory research. Organizing the study as a co-design—which brings researchers and community members together as partners—is novel for anti-trafficking research in a non-Western setting. 

“This is creating the framework for building programs that are culturally aware, culturally rooted, trauma-informed, survivor-centered, that meet the needs of individuals and the community,” Schroeder said. 

About the ILO Seed Grant

Schroeder was one of 15 international research teams selected for the ILO program “From Research to Action: Using Knowledge to Accelerate Progress in the Elimination of Child Labour and Forced Labour,” which is supported by the U.S. Department of Labor, and seeks to accelerate the adoption of rigorous research by policymakers and practitioners in the global fight against human trafficking.  ILO received more than 250 proposals.

Dr. David Okech, social work professor and CenHTRO director, will mentor Schroeder. 

“This is a great opportunity for Elyssa, and it demonstrates her stature as a rising scholar in human trafficking,” Okech said. “It is also significant that the fellowship builds into her dissertation research, thus allowing her to engage deeper with local agencies in Sierra Leone as part of a genuine community-based research and community-engaged scholarship. Elyssa is one of our shining students, and kudos to her for this competitive award.”

Closing the Gap Between Research and Practice

Before returning to UGA, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in International Affairs, to begin a doctoral program, Schroeder worked as a social work practitioner in Texas after receiving her MSW from University of Texas at Austin. 

“I wanted to get a Ph.D. because when I was working with programs and survivors, there was a disconnect between evidence-informed research and practitioners’ field work,” Schroeder said. “Maybe practitioners knew there were articles that would help their work, but couldn’t pay for them. Or maybe they didn’t know of a researcher who could help them implement a program evaluation. That really led me to pursue my Ph.D. to help fill that gap. By using this partnership model [in Sierra Leone], the research and practitioners can be connected.”