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Domestic Violence

Efforts to Reach Human Trafficking Victims are Falling Short

Why the one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work

Public Domain Pictures
Source: Public Domain Pictures

Last year I began working with a Los Angeles-based group called the Human Trafficking Housing Solutions Coalition, which includes three organizations: 1736 Family Crisis Center, Covenant House, and Saving Innocence, which have a long history of service to domestic violence victims and homeless and at-risk youth. The Coalition was formed through a grant from the State of California to help such organizations better assist local human trafficking victims. Through our work, we closely examined their policies with regard to trafficking victims and identified some major deficiencies in terms of our ability to assist trafficking victims. Such organizations often assume that they are equipped to handle the needs of their human trafficking clients because their employees had received extensive training on domestic violence issues and have served such clients for years. However, as we soon discovered, working with homeless youth and victims of domestic violence does not, in fact, translate into adequate training and knowledge to handle the unique needs of trafficking clients. Instead, the organizational efforts of groups providing services to these clients must be tailored. We have also found that trafficking victims cannot be lumped into one category. The needs of each subset of victims since can be vastly different. This includes sex trafficking versus labor trafficking victims or foreign-born versus domestic victims.

This conflation between domestic violence victims and their needs and those of human trafficking victims is one that I see quite often. This issue needs more attention because it hinders our abilities to reach and help human trafficking victims.

Let’s start with breaking down what isn’t working about the current approach. When human trafficking victims are lumped into the same category as domestic violence victims, the trafficking victims are likely to fall through the cracks. There are several reasons why. First, organizations that provide outreach services to victims will typically focus on going out to the streets, passing out flyers and talking to people about their services. However, this approach won’t likely reach victims of trafficking, who are often confined to one location and/or are usually being closely monitored by their traffickers. To find these victims, who are much more hidden, we need to seek them out through different strategies.

In the rare event that human trafficking victims do manage to call an agency or make it into a shelter, they often face additional barriers in accessing services. During intake, it is a challenge to identify human trafficking victims. Many victims don’t realize that they are trafficking victims and usually won’t initially identify as such. Often, this is revealed over time through one-on-one counseling. However, with the typical intake process, many human trafficking victims may be ineligible for residential shelters because the lack identification, such as passports or driver licenses. Furthermore, trafficking victims often have convictions or pending criminal charges, like prostitution or illegal immigration as a result of trafficking, which may automatically disqualify them from being allowed into shelters. Too many of these victims can’t even get to the point of filling out forms at all, since ID’s are required and most of them have had theirs taken away by their traffickers.

Identifying and remedying the unintentional barriers that keep trafficking victims from reaching help is a critical first step. Most pressingly, outreach strategies to locate and identify trafficking victims must be developed that are distinct from the strategies that are used for domestic violence victims. The majority of human trafficking victims aren’t going to be found in the streets. We need to look for them coming out of jails, through airports and immigration services at locations where day labor is sought, and at agencies where government public assistance is provided. Many human trafficking victims also visit emergency rooms, or primary health care clinics during the time that they are enslaved. But they are often accompanied by their traffickers, never giving them the opportunity to be alone in a confidential setting where they can ask for help. Furthermore, routine domestic violence screening within the health care setting is often inadequate. The screening questions, if they are asked at all, may miss trafficking victims because they aren’t formulated in an effective way, or because the questions aren’t being asked in a sensitive and culturally-appropriate way.

As I have discussed, it’s not only imperative that we come up with a separate approach to meet the needs of trafficking victims and domestic violence victims, but also for each unique group of trafficking victims. Organizations working with victims may not realize

that their services aren’t meeting the needs of human trafficking victims. We recommend that organizations conduct an internal assessment of their current protocol with a focus on human trafficking victims’ needs. While staff at such organizations often undergo hours of training in domestic violence, at-risk youth, and even trauma-informed services on a yearly basis, this does not imply that they are adequately equipped to handle the myriad of unique challenges of assisting human trafficking victims. Trainings that specifically address service provision for human trafficking victims is central to preparing staff to work with this population effectively. Informing and educating the general public about the actual definition of trafficking may help us to better identify victims and provide them with the necessary services.

Mellissa Withers is an assistant professor of global health at the University of Southern California.

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