Study of HHS Programs Serving Human Trafficking Victims. Do we know what human trafficking is?

12/15/2009

One of the first questions posed to the study participants was, What does human trafficking mean to you?  The responses to this question were mixed. The programs receiving Federal funding to serve victims of human trafficking appeared knowledgeable of the definition set forth in the TVPA. Additionally, agencies that had worked with their local anti-trafficking task force and/or their community coalition against human trafficking (funded initially by HHS) reported being aware of the definition of human trafficking and the forms of trafficking that it covers. However, while the definition was clear to these agencies, applying the definition to actual cases was not always as clear. For example, several of the service providers indicated they were working with clients who they believed met the definition of human trafficking, whereas law enforcement was not always in agreement with that assessment. Because the ultimate determination of whether an adult has been a victim of human trafficking under Federal laws resides with law enforcement agencies, which in turn can substantially affect determinations by HHS, the end result has not always been satisfactory to service providers. The perception among several providers was that law enforcement and prosecutors were more likely to determine a case to be human trafficking if there were multiple victims involved (versus the single victim case). Additionally, for some providers, their experiences suggest to them that a determination of a person as a victim of human trafficking often hinged on the ability of law enforcement and prosecutors to make a case.  While only perceptions, the implication of these opinions represent an ongoing tension between service providers and law enforcement.

When probing about domestic trafficking, very few programs recognized adult U.S. citizens and LPRs as potential victims, although both U.S. citizens and LPR victims are included under the parameters of human trafficking as defined in the TVPA. This is partly because few of the service providers and law enforcement in the study had ever worked with these populations or were aware of such cases. The one exception cited across multiple locations and programs was a case involving the trafficking of homeless adult male citizens for labor.

For those programs aware of domestic trafficking, respondents equated it with the prostitution of children by a pimp. However, this was not a common connection that was being made, particularly among programs working with runaway and homeless youth. There remained confusion within street outreach programs and basic center programs (both funded by HHS, Administration for Children and Families, Family Youth Services Bureau) regarding who was a victim of human trafficking and whether their programs might encounter such victims. When representatives from these programs were asked if they serve (or ever had served) victims of human trafficking, almost every respondent said no. In following up on these responses, it became clear that to these providers, human trafficking equated with foreign-born persons and not U.S. citizens. When asked if they ever encountered youth involved in prostitution, the majority of the programs said yes. While this was not a routine screening question for the majority of the runaway and homeless youth (RHY) programs, several of them reported that roughly 10-15 percent of the youth seen in their shelters were involved (or had been involved) in pimp-controlled prostitution. The number of youth engaging in survival sex or self-prostitution was reportedly much higher, especially for boys. Only a few programs across the study locations acknowledged these as crimes against children and only a couple of programs recognized the link between the prostitution of children and domestic (sex) trafficking. Most of the providers viewed engagement in prostitution, especially among boys, as a means of survival. For some programs, it was viewed as a choice the children make to earn money. This stereotype was further reinforced as a result of attempts by youth to recruit others from shelters into prostitution. Clearly the dynamics of human trafficking and ultimately the definition of domestic trafficking were not well understood by all those coming in contact with potential victims, pointing to the implementation challenges for those working to combat human trafficking.

Interestingly, rather than referring to these crimes as domestic (sex) trafficking, several of the programs and law enforcement officers contacted by this study were using the term commercial sexual exploitation of children to define the prostitution of children. For them, this term was more encompassing of the range of exploitation (e.g., survival sex, pornography, stripping) they saw among the children they worked with on the streets and in their facilities, even though the Federal trafficking definition also references commercial sex. Once again, human trafficking was a term that most of these service providers and law enforcement personnel reserved primarily for international victims, both adults and children.

It is also important to note that for many providers, trafficking was not only equated with primarily foreign-born victims but also with the movement of victims from one country to another. This was yet another misinterpretation of the federal definition and the term trafficking itself. Additionally, some providers and even law enforcement continued to have difficulty making the distinction between smuggling and trafficking, especially in border regions of the country. This may be due in part to the difficulty of determining or understanding when elements such as coercion are present, indicating that the case may be one of human trafficking. For example, there could be a case that might have initially started as a smuggling operation, but evolved into a trafficking operation if force, fraud, or coercion were used in relation to the victims (e.g., if smugglers forced or coerced people into certain types of labor to pay off their debt).

Another confusion respondents reported centered around the different types of human trafficking. While for most providers, sex trafficking and labor trafficking appeared well understood, domestic servitude and servile marriage were harder for programs to identify and classify as trafficking. For some, these cases represented sex trafficking, for others labor trafficking, and still others classified these victims as both sex and labor trafficking. In most cases, the differences in classification stemmed from the information or details available about a particular case.

While most respondents, particularly those receiving HHS and other Federal funding to address human trafficking, reported noticeable improvement in an understanding of the crime and its victims by other service providers and law enforcement since the passage of the TVPA, they also acknowledged that there was much more work to do in this area. This was especially true regarding those forms of human trafficking that were not clearly sex trafficking or labor trafficking, and domestic trafficking of adults and children for purposes of labor and/or sex.

Some Local Program Statistics:
  • 20 out of 94 clients currently in an adolescent treatment facility have a known history of prostitution
  • 40% of youth in an RHY shelter have been involved with the child welfare system
  • 50-60% of youth in an RHY shelter have a mental health diagnosis
  • 70-80% of youth in an RHY shelter have significant health care needs.

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