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Understanding the Needs of Trafficking Victims and Street Sex Workers

Start a public administration degree at American Military University.

By Christi Scott Bartman, MPA, JD, PhD, contributor to In Public Safety and Esther Flores, BSN, RN

Betrayal. This is the feeling that often permeates the thinking of human trafficking victims and street sex workers. So to gain their trust, those who work with this group must possess sincerity and acceptance in order to help them overcome their addictions and life circumstances. To provide better assistance, it’s critical to understand their circumstances and challenges.

Co-author Esther Flores and founder of 1DivineLine2Health provides exactly this understanding and reassurance through her work in street outreach. She also provides assistance through the operation of a 4-hour drop-in center in one of the neediest areas of Columbus, Ohio.

Flores recently helped create and administer a survey to quantify the needs of street sex workers and human trafficking victims. She coordinated her work to create the survey with Dr. Anahi Ortiz, Franklin County Coroner, and Adrienne Mandzak, a social worker and former assistant to the coroner.

The intention of the survey was to get honest feedback from human trafficking victims and street sex workers about their circumstances. Flores was instrumental in getting such feedback because of the trust she has established with these women.

Survey Aims to Better Understand Human Trafficking Victims and Street Sex Workers

The survey was conducted on and around Sullivant Avenue and other similar areas in Columbus. The Columbus Dispatch published a series of articles titled “Suffering on Sullivant,” which identified this area as one of the primary venues for prostitution and drug use in the city. Fifty persons, 49 females and one transgender person, were surveyed in November 2018. Though they were surveyed in different areas, the results will be aggregated here.

The survey consisted of 15 questions, the last two of which were open-ended. Except for the answers to those two, the rest of the survey took about two minutes to complete. In exchange for completing the survey, participants received a bag of food, a scarf, a pair of gloves, and socks.

Results of the Survey

Of the 50 survey respondents, 8 were between the ages of 18 and 24; 18 were between 25 and 34; 11 were between 35 and 44, and 13 were over 45. Twenty-four were White, 18 were African Americans and the remainder were identified as Hispanic or Latino (2), Asian/Pacific Islander (1) or biracial (6).

Particularly informative for this community’s housing issues as reflected in Bartman’s previous article, Challenges to Finding Housing for Human Trafficking Victims, 38 of the 49 that answered reported that they did not have regular housing. Twenty-three did not have regular access to food.

An important point to note for reaching this community: Over half the respondents did not have a mobile phone. That makes drop-in centers and street outreach so much more important in getting information from and to these individuals.

Of those who participated in the survey, 37 felt that they had a substance abuse problem. The substance breakdown included opioids (the largest of those used), stimulants, alcohol, cannabis and tobacco. For those who acknowledged a substance abuse problem, just under 60 percent reported that they had sought treatment. Nine of the 50 had been to prison and 32 had been to jail.

What Can Be Learned from the Survey

There were several takeaways from the survey that are important in understanding the needs of this population.

Drug Use and Dependency Is Widespread

As noted above, most of the respondents used drugs. Opioids were the drug chosen by more than half, and those who admitted to a substance abuse problem generally used more than one substance.

The 2017 article, “Human Trafficking, Mental Illness and Addiction: Avoiding Diagnostic Overshadowing,” published in the AMA Journal of Ethics clearly draws a link between human trafficking and drug addiction. The authors note that drugs “can exacerbate a trafficked person’s vulnerability, be part of a captor’s means of coercing a captive person to submit, be part of a captor’s means of incentivizing a captive person to remain captive, and be used by the captive person as a mechanism of coping with the physical and mental traumas of being trafficked.”

The authors also note that a U.S. study of victims of sex trafficking found 84.3 percent used substances as part of “the life.”

Safe Spaces and Housing Are Critical and Limited

All of the women interviewed agreed that there is a need for a safe place to gather that feels like “home.” Many of them had experienced violence on the streets or had lost friends to violence. These women need a place to rest, eat a warm meal, make phone calls, assist with ID replacement, take showers, wash or access new clothes, and have their injuries treated.

They need access to trusted individuals who can help them find additional resources when they are ready, including detox, long-term housing, medical and legal help, and counseling.

Ideally, they need a place that employs a harm-reduction model and meets these women where they are. This is the alternative approach to arrest and repeatedly cycling in and out of the criminal justice system. In other words, more drop-in centers that operate longer hours in locations where trafficking victims and women working the streets are located is the first step to helping these women to get off the streets and out of “the life.”

Surveys such as this one help build true understanding and awareness about human trafficking, sex work, and problems of addiction for those on the street. It is there the initial bond can be formed so that they feel safe and can regain enough strength and self-esteem to take the next step. Restoring these women to a safe, productive life will not only benefit them, it will benefit the city and justice system as a whole.

About the Authors

Christi Scott Bartman, previously Program Director for Public Administration, Public Policy and Legal Studies at American Military University, is an anti-human trafficking advocate in Ohio. She is a compassionate catalyst – being inspired by and inspiring others to make a difference in the world. She can be contacted on LinkedIn or through her website.

Esther Flores is an RN, Missionary, and CEO of 1DivineLine2Health. For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

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