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AMU Human Trafficking Law Enforcement Original Public Safety

How First Responders Can Communicate with a Victim of Human Trafficking

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By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski, Faculty Member, Criminal Justice

First responders such as law enforcement officials, emergency medical personnel, and hospital staff have an important opportunity to identify human trafficking victims because they may become apparent quickly to these professionals.

For example, someone who might be overly timid when answering questions; a child who is in the company of an adult who is not a family member and might appear to have been coached on what to say; or someone with bruising in various stages of healing – all of these are indicators of abuse.

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Once a potential human trafficking victim is identified, it is important for first responders to understand why it is often difficult to get them to speak about their situation. It is equally important that first responders develop a strategy for asking questions that will elicit honest responses.

Why Human Trafficking Victims Are Afraid to Communicate with Authorities

I have studied human trafficking victims in the United States and abroad. I have spoken to human trafficking victims on different occasions and there are some commonalities that I have observed that help explain why they are hesitant to speak about their situation.

One of the most common factors is they are unaware that they are a victim of human trafficking. Many victims, especially juveniles in the sex trade, have been so coerced by those who led them into the illicit trade that they believe they are criminals not victims. This creates an obstacle for law enforcement because in the United States anyone under the age of 18 who engages in commercial sex acts is automatically considered a victim of sex trafficking.

Traffickers Convince Their Victims They Cannot Tell Anyone about Their Morally Wrong Acts

However, sex traffickers convince their victims that since what she is doing is morally wrong, she cannot tell anyone or seek help because she will be arrested. This is also true in forced labor trafficking where the perpetrators compel their victims to believe that they will be arrested or deported if they tell anyone they are working without a legal immigration permit.  

Additional common trends include trafficking victims who are afraid to ask for help because they have been threatened with violence to themselves or to their family. Traffickers also commonly control their victims by keeping their money, passport, and other personal belongings.

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My research and more than two decades of working in homeland security have convinced me that there is often a nexus between human trafficking and drug abuse. This is also a form of coercion; Traffickers tell their victims — especially sex trafficking victims who are addicted to drugs — that they cannot speak to law enforcement because they will be arrested and won’t have access to their drugs.

Strategies for Encouraging Human Trafficking Victims to Speak to First Responders

When a first responder identifies someone who may be a victim of human trafficking, how she speaks to him is likely to have an impact on whether he will be honest about his situation. It is important to keep in mind that many human trafficking victims come from very awful backgrounds, such as a limited education, a lack of family support, or domestic violence.

Recently, in Ohio nine people were arrested and federally charged in connection with a human trafficking operation where drugs were exchanged for sexual access to the children of drug-addicted mothers. In this case, the victims were as young as seven years old and one of the suspects convinced witnesses to lie to law enforcement. He also coerced some sources into not providing the police with important information.

If a law enforcement officer asks a young girl if she is a victim of the sex trafficking trade, she is likely to say no because she doesn’t understand what that means. Instead, a better approach is to ask questions such “Have you traded sex for anything of value?” or “Has someone told you that you must have sex with someone?” This phrases the question in terms that the victim may better understand.

When speaking with a human trafficking victim, it is important to note that she has lost her sense of control to her trafficker. In addition, she is likely to be hesitant to take the steps necessary to escape their situation. Additional questions that might be effective include asking her if she can leave her job or situation if she wishes or if she has been threatened if she tries to leave.

Other questions include:

  • What that are your working conditions like?
  • Where do you sleep and eat?
  • Have you been deprived of food or water?
  • Has anyone threatened your family?
  • Are you in possession of your identification documents?
  • Is anyone forcing you to do something you don’t want to do?

Promoting Self-Identification as a Human Trafficking Victim

One effective way to help a victim of human trafficking to admit his situation is to provide him with a reflection period. This can be by giving him information on resources such as a safe shelter, medical care, legal assistance, and other critical services; also by encouraging the victim to contact a first responder or a victim advocate agency when he is ready to seek help.

It may be unsafe to immediately rescue a human trafficking victim because there is a risk of retaliation against the victim or her family. A reflection period may give her enough time to perhaps warn her family and to select the safest time to escape the situation. During this reflection period, it can also be helpful to create an action plan with the victim to get her to a safe place when she is ready and the time is right.

Since it is so difficult for human trafficking victims to leave their environment, typically success comes more when they have the continued support from the person to whom she has told her situation.

When the opportunity arises to connect a human trafficking victim with immediate resources, the National Human Trafficking Hotline is a good first option and can be reached at 1-888-373-7888. Victims can text “HELP” or “INFO” to the Hotline at 233733, which is available in over 200 languages and 24 hours a day.

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate professor in the School of Security and Global Studies at APU. Jarrod was selected as the Coast Guard’s Reserve McShan Inspirational Leadership Award recipient for 2019. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security contraband interdiction and intelligence gathering.

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