Study of HHS Programs Serving Human Trafficking Victims. What are challenges to identifying victims?

12/15/2009

Challenges to identifying domestic child victims

Hidden nature of the crime. While identifications of victims were occurring primarily by those in a position to assist the victims, this process is not without challenges. The hidden nature of this crime was noted by respondents as the greatest obstacle or challenge to identifying child victims of domestic trafficking. Providers and law enforcement acknowledged that the prostitution (or trafficking) of children was not occurring on the streets but out of view and more often was being facilitated by pimps (or traffickers) through the Internet. This makes it difficult to keep up with who and where these children are. Unfortunately, respondents indicated that very little effort and resources were being devoted to reaching out to potential victims through the same channels that the traffickers were using to exploit them. But the recent establishment of the Internet Crimes Against Children task forces may have some impact on sex trafficking of domestic children, although data are not yet available to determine that.

If a person does not view themselves [sic] as a victim, the message about human trafficking will not stick. They will not relate the information to their situation. We need to educate about the issue without using labels.

Service provider

Lack of awareness and understanding. The next greatest challenge was lack of awareness or understanding of domestic trafficking. As already noted, not everyone recognized that the prostitution of children younger than 18 years of age is a form of human trafficking. Still others did not recognize this as a crime at all. There were several reasons given for this. First, respondents reported a lack of resources for outreach and training to address this issue. Many noted that the majority of outreach materials developed for and by the human trafficking field focused primarily on international victims. In fact, during the site visits, there were no visual displays of human trafficking materials, such as those developed by the HHS-funded national Rescue and Restore Victims of Human Trafficking campaign, in any of the RHY shelters. Additionally, according to respondents, most media attention related to human trafficking focused specifically on international female victims of sex trafficking. What little media attention there was on domestic trafficking appeared to be presented as child prostitution or sexual exploitation, not a form of human trafficking.

Lack of self-identification as a victim. In addition to service providers and law enforcement being unaware of this form of human trafficking, victims often do not self-identify as victims. Respondents working with female child victims of domestic sex trafficking reported that these girls often viewed the pimp or trafficker as their boyfriend and everyone else as the enemy  part of the tactics used by the trafficker to isolate and control the girls. For many of these girls, they had run away from group homes or foster care, and had run-ins with law enforcement and been arrested for prostitution. Therefore they generally mistrusted those in positions of authority. Law enforcement gave several examples of girls being uncooperative and belligerent to them when the girls were picked up and not wanting to share any information with the officers. This same initial reaction from the girls was also reported by many of the street outreach workers and shelter providers. Even if the girls believed they were being mistreated, they were not willing to open up to law enforcement or service providers and ask for help. It was reported that these girls need time to build trust. Unfortunately, the brief, and often unpleasant, encounters with law enforcement and the short stays at shelters (15, 30, and 60 days) required by statutes, regulations, or funding restrictions often frustrated this need. In particular, providers working in youth shelters suggested that it is unlikely that they can build trust and establish the type of relationship needed to make these girls feel safe and willing to share their stories given the current limitations on shelter stays and the inadequate screening tools available to them to uncover this type of experience.

Contradictory laws and lack of legislation. Others noted existing State legislation that allows for the arrest of children for prostitution if sex is exchanged for money, even when other laws on the books indicate a person younger than age 18 cannot consent to having commercial sex. These contradictory laws and a history of law enforcement and others treating prostitutes, including children, as criminals continue to blur the meaning of domestic (sex) trafficking and make identification of domestic victims difficult.

Additionally, the lack of State legislation specifically defining domestic trafficking as a crime is another barrier. Without State legislation, local law enforcement reported not having the tools (and often the support) needed to justify their attention to this crime. Even in States with anti-trafficking legislation, interpretation and application of the laws have not necessarily been included in police training programs, and the average street officer was seen as unaware of the law. Those who had received training often reported a lack of support to address these crimes in light of other department priorities, and limited resources devoted to investigating these cases further hindered their ability to identify victims.

Legal and program mandates. Additionally, legal mandates such as mandatory reporting was seen as hindering the ability of RHY programs to reach domestic victims. Mandatory reporting refers to the responsibility of service providers to report to police and/or child protective services any child abuse, neglect, or sexual exploitation. The timeframe and requirements for reporting vary by State. As one shelter provider indicated, We cant even get them in our doors.  Service providers report that youth were often aware of the mandatory reporting requirements of shelters and therefore many avoided contact with these programs and/or figured out ways to manipulate the system by staying only until the time period for mandatory reporting elapsed and then proceeding to another shelter, which is commonly known as shelter hopping. This, like the short stays, prevented the youth from establishing rapport with a clinician or case worker and ultimately resulted in them remaining exposed to exploitation.

Challenges with identifying foreign-born victims

Hidden nature of the crime. Not unlike with domestic victims, the hidden nature of the crime of human trafficking continues to be the greatest challenge to identification of international victims and a contributing factor to many of the other reported challenges. While most respondents acknowledged an increase in awareness of the crime of human trafficking as it relates to international victims, it is still a crime that respondents reported needs more attention in the media, both locally and nationally, and more resources devoted to targeted training and ongoing technical assistance for those in positions to identify victims in order for it to become unhidden.  Examples given of agencies and groups to target included  health/dental clinics, emergency rooms, domestic violence and sexual assault shelters and programs, crisis hotlines, social workers, community- and faith-based organizations, religious/community leaders, citizens, school administrators and counselors, business owners, postal workers, and various inspectors (i.e., wage and hour, housing, liquor license).

Fear of law enforcement and fear of retaliation. Next, respondents noted that fear is a significant deterrent to foreign-born victims coming forward and being identified, specifically fear of law enforcement and fear of retaliation from the trafficker. In most cases, it was reported that victims were taught to fear law enforcement, either as a result of experiences with corrupt governments and law enforcement in their countries of origin or as a result of the traffickers telling the victims that if they are caught, law enforcement will arrest them and deport them. The trafficker paints a picture of the victim as the criminal in the eyes of law enforcement. Additionally, the trafficker uses the threat of harm against the victim and/or his or her family as a means of control and a compelling reason for the victim to remain hidden.

In some cases, these fears were in fact the ultimate reality for the victim. Service providers gave several examples of clients being placed into deportation hearings after coming forward to law enforcement. Service providers acknowledged that in some communities, if a victim is first identified by law enforcement that understands human trafficking and is referred to a service provider for assistance, the victim is more likely to cooperate with law enforcement. However, if the client is first identified by a service provider, his or her distrust and fear of law enforcement is often more difficult to overcome. Some providers indicated this is because when law enforcement identifies a victim, the pressure to prove oneself as a victim often disappears; whereas when a service provider or other non-law enforcement entity first identifies a victim, there remains a burden on the victim to prove to law enforcement he or she is a victim.

Feelings of shame and disgrace. In addition to fear, foreign-born victims were reported to experience feelings of shame and disgrace for their situation. Once again, the fear that someone will find out what has happened to them, especially in the case of sex trafficking, often keeps victims silent. Another silencer for international victims, according to law enforcement and service providers, was the language barrier. Most victims do not speak English and are further isolated and unable to communicate, even with those they come in contact with who may be able to help them.

Lack of self-identification as a victim. Respondents indicated that not unlike domestic victims, most international victims were not aware they were victims of a crime. They did not know about human trafficking or the U.S. laws against it and they did not know they have rights as victims of this crime. The often successful efforts of traffickers to convince victims that they are criminals and have done something wrong further enforce this problem of victims not identifying themselves as being exploited and eligible for protection and services.

We do not treat victims of rape or domestic violence the same way we treat victims of human trafficking. If a domestic violence or rape victim decides not to press charges, it doesnt mean she wasnt a victim. We wouldnt deny a domestic violence victim access to shelter just because she didnt want to report to law enforcement.

Service provider

Stereotypes and misperceptions. Service providers reported that similar to domestic victims, the initial behavior of an international victim upon contact with law enforcement could influence whether he or she was viewed as a victim of human trafficking. Unfortunately, in several cases, especially sex trafficking cases, law enforcement reported the victims were unwilling to work with the officers and service providers. If these reactions were not understood in the context of trauma and exposure to violence/control, respondents indicated that the likelihood of misinterpretation and resulting misidentification were likely, and the victim was therefore seen as a willing participant in the crime and not a victim. The resulting arrest and treatment of the victim by law enforcement reinforced the fear and mistrust of other victims and reinforced stereotypes among those in a position to identify victims.

These preexisting stereotypes, particularly those associated with the victims of sex trafficking (either adults or children), continue to be a barrier to identification. According to both service providers and law enforcement in most communities, those involved in prostitution have historically been viewed as and treated as criminals. This stereotype was echoed in several remarks by respondents. For some, it was the belief that the women and girls would leave the situation when they were ready. In these cases, service providers, particularly street outreach workers, saw it as their primary responsibility to ensure these individuals were aware of the services available for them when they chose to leave. At least in the case of children, these responses indicated a lack of understanding of the definition of human trafficking and the remaining challenges to increasing awareness of human trafficking across multiple programs and service environments.

Even if we could overcome all of these other barriers, we just dont have the manpower or resources to investigate these cases. Trafficking cases take a lot of time and few officers are dedicated just to working these cases. It becomes collateral duty for most of us. Until human trafficking is made a priority, we will never find more victims.

Law enforcement officer

There was also the perception among some service providers that if victims were unwilling to cooperate with law enforcement and/or if prosecutors were unable to make a legal case for human trafficking, these law enforcement agencies would not consider these persons as real victims, which could negatively affect the ability of providers to secure necessary services for them. This was a frustration shared by several service providers, especially those who worked with other crime victims for whom there are no requirements that charges be filed or a case brought to trial in order for them to be identified as victims of a crime.

Lack of understanding of existing legislation. While few providers noted the lack of State legislation as a hindrance to identifying international victims, a lack of understanding of existing State and Federal legislation is a problem. For law enforcement, lack of understanding of the laws translates into a lack of priority and a lack of resources devoted to investigating these crimes at the local level. All law enforcement reported that the investigation of these crimes was very time and resource intensive, especially in relation to other crimes.

According to all respondents, the greatest obstacle to identifying any victim of human trafficking is the hidden nature of this crime. Finding victims is considered difficult at best when the hidden nature of the crime is combined with a general lack of awareness and understanding of the issue.  This is compounded by the lack of State legislation designating human trafficking, including trafficking of U.S. citizens and LPRs, as a crime, or the existence of contradictory legislation, such as mandatory reporting requirements.  There are also the problems of victims fear and distrust of law enforcement and service providers, and lack of priority and devoted resources among some agencies. Despite these multiple challenges, many communities have had success uncovering the hidden nature of this crime and identifying victims.

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