Identifying Victims of Human Trafficking: Inherent Challenges and Promising Strategies from the Field. What are promising strategies/practices for identifying victims?


Training and Education

Critical to identifying victims is training and education to those agencies and individuals in positions to help identify victims of this heinous crime. Service providers are quick to acknowledge the difference between training/education and awareness raising. That is, service providers assert that there is too much activity being called training and education that is not. Specifically, providers note the common practice of "come one, come all" training events that amount to disseminating a lot of information to a mixed audience. While these providers believe these events may raise awareness, they do not believe they actually provided audiences with the information and tools needed to effectively assist in the identification of victims.

Several agencies promote targeted training of "entire organizations" or training delivered to individuals at all levels of an organization (executive level, management/supervisors, and front-line staff) as a promising training model. Additionally, effective training tailors information to the specific audiences to ensure relevance to their position within the organization, and the specific mission of the organization (e.g., health or social services). Follow-up training and technical assistance to assist agencies as they translate training into practice is also viewed as critical but often not provided due to limited resources.

Other characteristics of effective training models include:

  • Utilize existing training events/venues and incorporate information on trafficking (e.g., "Survival" Spanish class for law enforcement, roll call, law enforcement academies, in-service trainings, etc.);
  • Involve someone from the agency/group being trained as a co-trainer, where possible (e.g., team a service provider with a law enforcement officer assigned to work trafficking cases when training other law enforcement);
  • Reach out to community leaders and educate them on the issue before training their communities (this was noted as especially important for gaining entrée into ethnic communities);
  • Conduct training with multi-disciplinary teams to foster collaboration and communication among individuals who will need to work together on cases;
  • Provide training to a wide variety of organizations, such as ethnic community groups, hospitals/health care providers (HIV/AIDS clinics, family planning clinics, OB/GYN providers), runaway and homeless youth shelters, drop-in centers, churches, restaurants/bars, hotels, community businesses (grocery stores, beauty parlors, etc.), and schools; and
  • Discuss trafficking within the context of a larger issue, such as human rights, immigrant rights, victims of crime, etc.

Regardless of the type of training done, the overall theme across communities is to train smart and to train often. As one provider notes, "education is wasted on no one." And because staff and personnel are continually changing in all organizations, training needs to be repeated periodically.

Targeted Outreach

Only a few programs report conducting direct outreach to individuals they defined as human trafficking victims; several report direct outreach to clients as "too dangerous". For those engaged in direct outreach, however, several key elements of successful outreach exist:

  • Consistency (always being there and not changing your approach/interaction with the client);
  • Trust (can often mean NOT involving law enforcement, at least up front); and
  • Follow through (do what you say).

Additionally, providers stress that direct outreach to victims and populations at-risk for trafficking is not a 9 to 5 job but requires a 24-hour crisis response approach.

A promising practice by one agency is to have the outreach staff also serve as case managers for victims. The relationship established with the victim "on the street" is then able to continue throughout the life of the case.

Another key to effective outreach is the involvement of survivors in outreach activities. More specifically, involving survivors in the development of outreach materials and the identification of areas to target for outreach is viewed as a promising practice.

Promising outreach efforts include the use of public service announcements on ethnic television stations, use of billboards in ethnic and migrant communities to advertise hotlines and services, distributing flyers (in multiple languages), index cards, and other items (e.g., matchbooks, personal hygiene items, band aids, bumper stickers) at laundry mats, ethnic supermarkets, beauty parlors, bus/train stations, shopping malls, and other establishments that victims may be allowed to visit. While not systematically tracked, several providers report increases in self- and other referrals following outreach efforts.

Screening and Interview Protocols

An essential practice for effective identification of victims for both law enforcement and service providers is the availability and use of standard screening and interview protocols. While most agencies receiving federal funding to address human trafficking are using such protocols, other agencies that have the potential to come in contact with victims (e.g., domestic violence shelters, runaway and homeless youth shelters, drop-in centers, school guidance counselors) are not. Not only do these protocols need to be developed but they need to be made more available to a wider audience.

"Many cases 'die' during the interview process. It is critical that law enforcement know how to interview victims of this crime. We involve mental health professionals in the training of our interviews for just this purpose."

Law enforcement officer

Some providers (and law enforcement) note that it is important to assess the usefulness of existing protocols and make modifications or changes when appropriate. For example, several providers mention that some of the original protocols developed to screen for and interview potential international victims do not include questions relevant for domestic victims. Additionally, several law enforcement officers involved in interviewing witnesses note limitations to protocols. Specifically, many of the questions used to interview potential victims are seen as culturally inappropriate or ineffective and therefore are undergoing revisions (e.g., need to change the use of certain terms, use of open-ended questions, etc.).

Sample Screening Questions for Identifying a Victim of Human Trafficking
  • What type of work do you do?
  • Are you being paid?
  • Can you leave your job?
  • Can you come and go as you please?
  • Have you or your family been threatened?
  • What is your working and living condition like?
  • Where do you sleep and eat?
  • Do you have to ask permission to eat/sleep/go to the bathroom
  • Are there locks on your doors/windows that you cannot unlock?
  • Has your identification or documentation been taken from you?

(Copied from the Rescue and Restore, HHS, "Look beneath the Surface" question card; US. Department of Health and Human Services Website, 2006)

While having standard protocols in place is viewed as essential, law enforcement and providers also identify as important the use of interviewers trained in the dynamics of trafficking, the impact of trauma on victims (especially their recall of events and sequences), and understanding of specific cultures. Many law enforcement agencies also try to ensure the person interviewing the potential victim is of the same sex and ethnicity/race as the victim.

Task Forces

A promising approach to effective identification of victims identified by every community is the establishment and use of active multidisciplinary teams, task forces, and/or coalitions.

Law enforcement and service providers alike note that these entities are invaluable in their fight against human trafficking. Specifically, task forces are seen as serving as a central resource for those working on this issue. They are often used to facilitate communication, coordination and information sharing across agencies working on a case. Task forces in particular, are seen as being effective in putting policies, procedures, and protocols in place to overcome some of the system barriers inherent in working across agencies and jurisdictions (e.g., information sharing, turf battles, etc.).

The High Risk Victims Unit within the Dallas Police Department was set up to handle any case that involves children involved in prostitution, sexual abuse, and cases of repeat runaways. This specialized unit is trained in the dynamics of prostitution, and effective interviewing techniques with this population. Additionally, the efforts of other related task forces (ICAC) are managed within this unit to ensure the centralization of information on like cases.

Most noted are the anti-trafficking task forces funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance within the Department of Justice, the FBI Innocence Lost Task Forces and the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Forces. While these task forces are viewed as essential for centralizing investigations of these cases, the greatest challenge inherent in these groups is the lack of communication and information sharing across task forces. Several communities, however, have made steps toward coordinating these efforts (see insert on this page), recognizing the overlap of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation, while others have not yet made these connections.

The creation of networks or coalitions of providers and organizations educated on the issues of human trafficking is viewed as a promising practice for increasing identification. It is believed that human trafficking needs to become a community issue and priority in order for agencies and the community to recognize the problem and take responsibility for the victims.

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