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Tips for Identifying Suspected Victims of Human Trafficking

By John Meekins

The term “human trafficking” makes headlines every day, but those headlines often miss the point of a truly sordid story of women locked into lives for which there is no end—often because law enforcement and corrections officials do not recognize the true situation.

Many times officers assume that someone busted for prostitution is just another drug-addicted hooker, so they do not take the time to investigate. In reality, if officers were trained about what signs to look for and what questions to ask these women, they could help stop this tragic cycle of slavery.

woman sitting in jailSlavery is how I often refer to “human trafficking” because that is what it is: modern-day slavery. A ‘pimp’ or human trafficker controls every aspect of these women’s lives, even to the color of her hair. He controls her because she is valuable to him and his way of making a living. The average sex slave in the United States annually makes a clear profit of $67,382 for the trafficker. That is the value of just one woman.

My own experience in learning about this “business” comes from nearly 10 years of working as a corrections officer at a female prison. [Go here to learn more about the prevalence of human trafficking in our nation’s prisons.]

Throughout my career, I have spoken with dozens of women who tell me how rapidly and easily they were enslaved. During these conversations, many of these women admit to drug addictions and say they initially entered the sex trade willingly in order to earn money to support their habits. However, the situation they eventually wound up in was anything but willing and closely resembled the prison they now find themselves in.

In addition to first-person accounts, I have conducted hundreds of hours of research on human trafficking and talked with academics, experts, human trafficking investigators, traffickers, and slaves.

Dr. Vincent Giordano, director of the criminal justice program at American Military University, said that in 2011 there were 125 total human trafficking cases, 70 of which resulted in a conviction, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. But it is estimated that hundreds cases of trafficking go unreported and unnoticed by the justice system, with many of the victims being incarcerated themselves.

Dr. Celia Williamson, chair of the Research and Analysis Committee of Ohio’s Human Trafficking Commission and author of several studies on trafficking, reports that trafficking victims are in jails across America, many of whom are repeatedly victimized by their traffickers.

“It is the responsibility of the corrections system to identify the indicators, develop a protocol for reporting suspected coercion of traffickers to their victims via mail for instance, and reporting it,” she said.

The Role of Law Enforcement and Corrections
As law enforcement and corrections officers it can be difficult to determine if women are victims of human trafficking—under the control of someone else—or if they are freely engaging in the sex trade.

The first thing to understand is that victimized women will not tell you if they are being abused. They have been terrorized and brainwashed and threatened by their pimp. If they provide law enforcement any information or any indication about their situation, they face severe punishments, either to themselves or to their children and/or loved ones.

Law enforcement must understand that human trafficking victims believe their pimps are all powerful—they know where they are, who they are with, and what they say and do.

How to Identify a Victim of Human Trafficking
When someone is arrested for prostitution there are signs that indicate she is not freely engaging in the sex trade. Here are some tips about what signs to look for, mainly in a county jail setting:

  1. She does not have an ID on her at time of arrest
  2. She chooses to use an alias or go by “Jane Doe”
  3. She has signs of physical abuse. These wounds are not usually visible on her face, but rather will be around her hairline or on her torso. A pimp will avoid damaging the face of  women he controls because a beat up prostitute costs him money
  4. She does not appear to be worried about being arrested. This is an indication that she has a pimp who will immediately pay her bond
  5. Being arrested more than once in a 48-hour period. This signifies that someone is making her get back to “work” immediately
  6. She appears to have no one to call, yet is bonded out quickly
  7. Two or more girls are bonded out by the same person
  8. Woman has noticeable tattoos (AKA brands) with a person’s name. These tattoos tend to be large and elaborate and often include “$” symbols or reference to “pimps.” If these tattoos are present, police should document for future identification on other women
  9. She uses a paid lawyer instead of a public defender
  10. When arrested, she actively seeks out other girls who do not have anyone to pay their bond. This indicates she is “recruiting” for her pimp

Questions to Ask a Suspected Human Trafficking Victim and Why
Once someone is suspected of being a victim, it is important to ask her in-depth and often blunt questions. Never assume that what a victim tells you is the truth—many victims are coached about how to respond to law enforcement. Be sure to ask follow-up questions to bring to light inaccuracies.

  1. With whom did you reside? What relation are they to you?
    Someone in a human trafficking situation does not live alone. Many pimps have several women who live in small living spaces so he can easily control them.
  2. What kind of work did you do and where were you employed?
    Vague responses like “house cleaning” and other under-the-table jobs are often a cover-up. If a job is specified ask for greater details like names of supervisors and dates worked. If she says a “boyfriend” took care of her that is a good indication of HT.
  3. If she mentions a boyfriend or friend, ask what that person does for work.
    Statements like: “He sometimes does side jobs” or “he’s not working now” are indicators that he is a pimp. Many pimps do not work and survive on the proceeds of their women. They convince women it is best for them to stay at home and protect them.
  4. How do you perceive yourself and what led you to this belief?
    This can give you an idea of how she feels about herself. Many victims have been dehumanized and believe nobody cares about them. Many have been brainwashed to think they are worthless. 
  5. Have you ever engaged in prostitution? If so, how did you get introduced to it? What did you do with the money you made?
    Asking blunt questions like this can get to the issue at hand.
  6. What is your past criminal history, what other charges do you have?
    Many women are mules for their pimps, so charges like drug trafficking or gun trafficking may indicate that she is under the control of someone.
  7. What is your relationship with your family? How long has it been the way it is now?
    Pimps often do not allow women to have contact with their families. This is another good indicator that they are under the control of a pimp.

Asking questions and taking the time to investigate a person’s history could not only save her life, but also save the lives of other women in similar circumstances. Keep in mind that many of these women have tried and failed to get themselves out of these situations. After so many failures, they may have given up trying and need the help and support of authorities to save them from this outrageous crime.

Those of us in corrections and law enforcement are on the front lines in the battle against human trafficking and we are the first and often best hope these women have in turning their lives around. Therefore, it is important that we know the signs, the questions to ask, and how to act upon our suspicions.

About the Author: John Meekins graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and is a member of the International Association of Human Trafficking Investigators and the Florida Gang Investigators Association. Meekins has almost 10 years working with female inmates in one of the largest female prisons in the nation. The information and perspective he provided in this article are his own opinions and do not reflect those of any department or agency. You can contact him at: 

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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