::: ENGAGING :::
Featuring Gina Pantzlaff, Milwaukee Child Welfare
“We are all in the same boat in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.” - G.K. Chesterton
A few weeks ago, HHH began a series on sexual exploitation/sex trafficking (Part One, Part Two, Part Three - Interview with Emily Matson, Vintage Pearls, and Part Four - Interview with Katie Linn, Exploit No More). I pray you will come alongside, gentle reader. Throughout this course, I will be speaking in some candid, explicit terms, so if you’re a young adult, please ask permission before reading. Better yet, read it alongside an adult. Before going further, would you mind praying with me? Please pray that the Spirit will soften your heart and align it to His? That He will not be quenched, and that He’ll remain in your presence. My sincerest thanks.
Our interviews wrap up for this series with my dear and beautiful friend Gina Pantzlaff. After meeting Gina in 2004 at college, I have been beyond blessed by her company, even getting to be one of her roommates my senior year of college. It’s been startling watching where God has taken her, how He’s used her, and how He’s glorified through her.
Gina graduated from Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with BAs In Psychology and Theatre. Upon graduating she toured around the upper midwest with two children’s theatre companies, “The one thing I noticed while touring, “ writes Gina, “was that all children need the same thing - a sense of love and belonging.” She goes on to say,
“For me, being raised in a safe and stable household, I have always had this feeling. Not only did I have my family and friends giving me this love, I also had my Savior to help guide me. I decided I wanted to help others feel a sense of belonging and safety, so I looked into becoming a social worker. I felt I would be able to help strengthen families and a child’s sense of belonging, so for the past three years, I have been working for a nonprofit agency in Milwaukee. I started there as an Ongoing Case Manager, an area where we worked with parents to create a safe environment for their children so they could be returned to them after being in and out of home care. After working in Ongoing Services, my focus area moved to family connectedness, playing an active role in developing and creating father engagement programs and family connectedness programs. I currently serve as an Engagement Coach training and educating my agency on family searching, engagement, and relationship building.”
Gina explained that her eyes were opened to trafficking and sexual exploitation by her job:
“Since I work with children who have been abused and neglected, working with this population has honestly caused me to have to lean on God more and more. Hearing about and seeing the aftermath of sexual abuse is probably the most challenging because it will affect a child’s relationships for the rest of their lives. I will never forget being at a conference where the main topic was the sexual abuse and torture of children. As I listened to case after case of children being mutilated by all the sexual abuse they suffered and/or being sold among adults for sex, I felt myself feeling sick. I started thinking, ‘Why am I in a profession that this is a topic of discussion?’
That moment was when a realized how important it is to have children connected to positive people so they have someone to go to when they need help. When children are reported missing, it is a team effort, and I’m thankful to have been involved in helping locate some of our missing teens that we believed were being trafficked.
But then I thought, what if we would have had relatives or people who cared about these children looking for them? Maybe we would have been able to find them more quickly versus a few social workers looking them?
Every experience in child welfare was one I have never experienced before. I grew up in a small town, have a wonderful family and church community. No one ever really worried about the safety of their kids in my town. Most of us just had the rule to come home when the street lights came on. If you think about the most vulnerable children in our society, our foster children would be at the top of the list. They have been through traumatic experiences and are not always connected to healthy adults to help them through. They look for someone to show them the slightest bit of acceptance and belonging and they will latch on to whoever gives it to them. To give reference, children in foster care are twice as more likely to have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder than a US soldier coming home from war! It is not uncommon for me to meet 12-18 year olds who are being prostituted here in Milwaukee or who have been trafficked to other states. Part of my job is utilizing family to help us locate these children.
One thing that amazes me is the children in the system who run away from their safe placements to their pimps. Think about it, they are in a safe location, but run away to the person who exploits them the most. I believe that the reason this happens is because they feel this person understands them and that they now belong to something. It is comfortable for them - that is what they know.
In my first year I wanted to leave. My heart could not handle it. I was consistently having nightmares and not able to sleep. It is still hard to make sense out of how someone could choose to damage a child so much. I have no reason for why God gave these children so many challenges and has blessed me so much. Without looking to God for guidance, I do not think I could emotionally do what I do.
The turning point for me was talking with a Christian social worker friend who reminded me to look for Christ’s love in every situation. I thought, ‘How did I not think of this? I am the daughter of two Lutheran grade school teachers?!’ As soon as I did that I was able to see Christ in what I did and started looking more to Him for guidance. Although I cannot share what I believe, I can live and lead by His example, treating others with continual love and compassion. To be honest, it has become easier once I started looking to Christ. I have been able to put more of the stress, fear, frustration, and anger on Him. Having someone help me carry the load has been such a blessing.
However, there is always a child, always a case that you worry about, and I have to continually check in with myself on how I am coping with my job. I work with some challenging individuals, but I aim to remember that Christ died for us equally . This helps me keep some perspective, as well as the will to continue to do this extremely difficult work. Because I put my trust in Him, being able to go to work with a clearer head, puts me at a good place to talk to the children and families I meet. The way I see it, I will continually look to learn about God’s Grace through both the good and bad in my job.
I do the work I do because there is a need.
“Now may the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” – Hebrews 13:20-21.
Jean-Jean-Coffee-Bean (endearingly so), we are ever so grateful to you for taking the time to share your thoughts and your voyage. Personally, I know your words are not just said, but lived. You hit home a resounding theme: whether it’s through friendship or mentoring (aka discipleship!), fostering, adoption, whatever, the need for relational involvement, in all of its confusion and disarray and baggage, is necessary for engaging the crises of sex trafficking and exploitation, especially when you feel the most inadequate.
If you’d like to read Holy Hen House’s four previous posts on the difficult, but crucial matter of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking, they can be found here via these links: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, and Part Four. Thank you for taking the time to read and to pray.