Photography by Danny Fulgencio.
As a survivor of addiction and sexual assault, Stephanie Tomba knows how to relate to the trauma victims she works with daily at Traffick911. The advocate for the Addison-based nonprofit connects youth to shelters, counseling and medical services, while also leading survivor support groups. She’s seen plenty of returnee victims, but she’s also seen girls heal, get a job and save for their future. When the 28-year-old Lakewood neighbor isn’t working, she likes to paint and play with her 6-year-old daughter, who attends Lakewood Elementary. The school is just a few miles down the road from Tomba’s alma mater, Lake Highlands High School, where she served as the Wildcat mascot before going on to earn a bachelor’s in social work from the University of North Texas and a master’s in social work from the University of Texas at Arlington.
How she became an advocate for trafficking victims: I was working at Child Protective Services, but I had done some volunteer work with women coming out of the sex industry. I started learning more about what Traffick911 does, and it was a good time to branch out. I’ve been super happy to be here. My day-to-day job looks like meeting with girls and advocating for them where they are.
Her motivation: I understand what it’s like to be broken and feel hopeless. But there’s power in having people around you who support you. I love to be that person for someone else and show that things can change and get better.
Her experience with alcoholism: I struggled with addiction, depression and alcoholism. I’ve been sober for about nine years. Through that time, getting involved in recovery was so important. It made a huge difference to me. They believed in me until I could do it myself. The power of community is something we really care about and want to get our girls involved.
Favorite success story from work: There’s one girl I’m super proud of. I met her last August. She came across very hardened. Her language was harsh. It was like I was talking to an adult who had been living this life for 20 years. She was 13 years old. If I had been the judge, I didn’t feel like she was ready for change. But she’s done so well. She’s been going to school. I’ve seen changes in her life in how she acts and talks. Her attitude shifted as she understood more about what happened. A lot of our girls don’t realize they’ve been trafficked. It’s not how they see it because the traffickers control or manipulate them. It takes them a minute to understand that.
The biggest myth about trafficking: The biggest myth around trafficking that is very harmful for victims is the image of girls in handcuffs and/or with duct tape on their mouths. While this can happen, it is rarely the case. Victims can feel they won’t be believed because they were not in physical chains. However, just like an abuser, traffickers use lots of other techniques — emotional, mental, sexual, spiritual, physical abuse and coercion — to keep girls from leaving.
Hardest part of her job: We’re working with a lot of kids, so caseloads are high. We’re growing, and we need a lot right now. Working with the girls, it can also be hard when they’re not ready for change. Girls running away is something we struggle with. They’re teenagers, so they have some choice. But by law, if you run away, you can go to detention.
On being a single mom: It’s tough. It feels like a lot of days my energy is going into work, and there’s not a lot left for her. The work-life balance feels mythical at times. But my first priority is being a parent. She needs a lot. It’s her first year of kindergarten. Putting the oxygen mask on myself first is really important. Me, my daughter, other people — that’s the way it has to be. I’m not someone’s savior. I have to set boundaries. It’s not sustainable any other way.
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