Identifying Victims of Human Trafficking: Inherent Challenges and Promising Strategies from the Field. Who can identify victims?


While difficult to identify because of the hidden nature of the crime, many sectors of our communities have the potential to come in contact with a victim of human trafficking. For example, we know victims of sex 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. Victims of labor trafficking experience injuries on the job, physical abuse by their traffickers, and experience health issues caused by poor nutrition and hygiene (e.g., dental problems, diabetes, etc.).

Therefore it is not surprising that law enforcement and service providers identify health/dental clinic workers and emergency room personnel as sources of victim referrals. Other referral sources include domestic violence and sexual assault shelters, crisis hotlines, social workers, community- and faith-based organizations, religious/community leaders, Good Samaritans/citizens, school personnel (e.g., vice principals, guidance counselors, teachers), business owners (e.g., markets, beauty salons), postal workers, and inspectors (e.g., wage and hourly, housing, liquor license). These represent individuals who are at times on the front line potentially encountering victims; but often with little training or experience. Anecdotal evidence suggests that referrals from these sources has gradually increased over time as public awareness efforts and targeted training increase.

Across the board, law enforcement is recognized as the group with the greatest chance of identifying victims. According to service providers, most of the victims that they work with come from referrals from either federal or local law enforcement. Law enforcement acknowledge the creation of new task forces, such as Innocents Lost, Internet Crimes Against Children, and Anti-Trafficking Task Forces, as contributing factors to their ability to identify (more) cases. Additionally, special units focused on trafficking within police departments aid in the identification of cases and victims.

Law enforcement indicates that not all victims are identified as a result of an investigation of a trafficking case. Often times, victims are identified through the investigation of other crimes associated with human trafficking, such as kidnapping, prostitution, assault, domestic violence, and even murder.

"It is easy to put these cases on the back burner because there aren't that many of them in one community. They just aren't seen as a priority."

Law enforcement officer

However, law enforcement acknowledges that not all officers are trained in how to identify a victim nor have all officers "bought in" to the existence or extent of the crime in their communities.

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