Human Trafficking Into and Within the United States: A Review of the Literature. How Are Victims Identified?


Although victims of human trafficking are difficult to identify because of the hidden nature of the crime, many sectors of U.S. communities have the potential to come in contact with them.  For example, victims of trafficking are at risk for the same types of injuries as victims of domestic violence and rape.  They frequently contract sexually transmitted infections or become pregnant.  Therefore, health clinic workers or emergency room personnel are often first responders and should be trained to assess whether someone is a victim of human trafficking (Hughes, 2003).  In addition, female trafficking victims may be able to gain admission to, and potentially could be identified through, battered women and homeless shelters.  For this reason, several domestic violence and sexual assault coalitions have issued guidelines for battered women service providers on identifying and serving victims of trafficking (Dabby, 2004; Salvation Army, 2006).  Social workers, mental health professionals, and school personnel are also at times on the front line of encountering and identifying potential victims.  Community-based organizations, faith leaders, and citizens can also be in a position to identify victims of trafficking.  As public awareness of the problem has grown, victim referrals from these groups to NGOs and service providers have increased significantly (Caliber Associates, 2007).

Perhaps the greatest chance of identifying victims lies with law enforcement.  Most victims of human trafficking who have been referred to NGOs and other service providers have been initially identified by Federal and local law enforcement (Caliber Associates, 2007).  Additionally, many of the documented cases of domestic trafficking have been the result of law enforcement task force investigations.  For example, the U.S. Department of Justice has attempted to address identification and outreach to victims of domestic sex trafficking through the FBIs Innocence Lost program, which was launched in 2003.  The FBI established 14 task forces in cities with the most reports of prostituted youth; currently, task forces are in 27 cities.  In more than two and one half years, 300 child victims have been rescued.  The program also has resulted in 241 investigations and reported more than 662 arrests, 151 informations/indictments, and 100 convictions (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2005).  Similar multidisciplinary anti-trafficking task forces have been funded in 42 communities across the country with the goal of identifying, investigating, and prosecuting cases and providing the protection and services needed by victims (U.S. Department of Justice, 2006).  According to a Department of Justice press release in 2005, indictments were made against 31 individuals in four U.S. Districts (the Middle District of Pennsylvania, the District of New Jersey, the Eastern District of Michigan, and the District of Hawaii) that included charges of transportation of minors to engage in prostitution and sex trafficking of children.  A challenge for these task forces is the inconsistency in the definition of human trafficking.  There does not seem to be a consensus within law enforcement as to whether a minor involved in prostitution is a victim or an offender (Finkelhor & Ormrod, 2004).

Law enforcement personnel report often coming in contact with victims of human trafficking through the investigation of other crimes (Clawson, Dutch, & Cummings, 2006; Venkatraman, 2003).  Victims of sex trafficking have the greatest chance of being identified through arrests made by law enforcement pursuant to State prostitution and commercial vice statutes.  Uniform Crime Reports estimate that in 2005, there were 84,891 arrests for adult prostitution or commercialized vice.  National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) data from 13 States found slightly more arrests of males for prostitution than females.  The arrest rate (a standard measure of the percent of reported cases where an arrest was made) was high for these crimes (85% for males and 82% for females), although it is not known what percent of individuals involved in prostitution actually come to the attention of police.

A significant challenge to identifying victims of human trafficking is that many have historically been, and in some instances continue to be, viewed as criminals (e.g., undocumented immigrants, prostitutes) and subject to arrest, detention, and/or deportation.  But under the TVPA, these individuals previously identified as criminals should be identified and treated as trafficking victims.  This change is important and challenging for Federal, State, county, and local law enforcement and prompts the need for adequate and ongoing education, training, and commitment at all levels of these agencies.  This shift in focus has not been achieved consistently, due in part to the decentralized structure of our law enforcement system with more than 13,000 local police departments alone in the United States (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2003).  Further complicating this systemic and conceptual shift is the fact that some individuals, such as adults engaged in commercial sex activity without the elements of force, fraud, or coercion, may not be considered victims of trafficking.  Ideally, every law enforcement officer would have the proper training and tools (e.g., common screening questions and protocols) to be able to correctly apply the trafficking law, make the proper distinctions, and refer trafficking victims for health and human services.

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