Survivors of Human Trafficking Need Our Understanding, Help

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Alisa Santucci“We’ve spent many nights alone and helpless. [We] probably never made it past [the] eighth grade. We’ve been hit, arrested by the system [and] abused by our boyfriends. Some of us are out, some of us remain in. Some of us are in danger, all of us are scared. None of us know what makes us so different, but we all know what did … listen to our stories because now we’re breaking the silence.” —Monique, 19, trafficking survivor (excerpted from her poem for Girls Educational and Mentoring Services)

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, first proclaimed by President Barack Obama several years ago as a time for governments, nongovernmental organizations (NGO) and individuals to renew their commitments to ending human trafficking in every form.

In 2013, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline, operated by the Polaris Project, received 3,609 sex trafficking reports from inside the U.S. alone. That same year, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimated that one in seven endangered runaways were likely sex trafficking victims. Labor trafficking is also a significant problem: In 2013, the Center hotline received 929 reports of domestic labor trafficking.

While the true prevalence of sex and labor trafficking is unknown, most service providers believe that these statistics are underestimated. The challenges agencies and NGOs face in identifying victims, collecting and cross-referencing data and deciding on common definitions contribute to a lack of accurate statistics domestically. In addition, individuals may often be reluctant to admit to victimization due to fears of deportation, jail and sometimes deadly retribution from traffickers.

Any child, youth or young adult may be vulnerable to trafficking. Pimps, similar to perpetrators, are adept at luring the innocent into fake promises of affection, love, money and stability —  powerful enticements at any age. Children and youth who have been abused or neglected, were in the justice system, are homeless, have run away or been “thrown away” by their caretakers are at high risk.

Trafficked young people also face many challenges and have significant, wide-ranging needs. Their overall physical health may show the consequences of long periods of little or no medical or dental care. They may be addicted to drugs or alcohol, either as the result of being forced to use substances by their trafficker or as a coping mechanism. They may also suffer from broken bones and other untreated internal and external injuries and sexually transmitted diseases, a 2010 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS), Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation found.

It is hard to overstate the complex trauma and mental health needs of trafficked young people, who may have experienced regular beatings, rapes, death threats, forced tattoo branding and drug use. These experiences may lead to anxiety, an inability to trust, self-destructive behaviors, profound shame or guilt, despair and hopelessness.

In the face of these significant challenges, services and supports for trafficking survivors are often limited, especially for underserved populations, such as boys, Native American and LGBTQ youth. Many need immediate and long-term counseling, housing services, education and employment training. Survivors also need free or low-cost legal representation to fight charges of prostitution or other crimes.

Yet, survivors remain courageous and resilient. Many have shared their deeply personal and painful stories, which have helped begin to mobilize policy, law and practice change at a federal, state and local level.

For example, the federal Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, which was most recently reauthorized in 2013, provides resources for survivors and builds law enforcement capacities. A growing number of states have passed “safe harbor” laws that decriminalize the acts of children who are exploited for commercial sex, while providing them important legal protections and access to services. According to a 2014 U.S. Department of State report, 32 of these states and the District of Columbia provide victim assistance services as part of their anti-trafficking framework.

Many state and local child welfare agencies (generally charged with handling child abuse and neglect cases) have also started to identify and provide services to human trafficking survivors. To support these efforts, DHHS’ Children’s Bureau awarded funding to nine demonstration grants to help child welfare agencies respond to human trafficking through multisystem approaches.

In September 2014, the president signed the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act. The law requires states to begin to develop policies and procedures to identify, document, screen and determine appropriate services for children under the child welfare agency’s care who are victims of, or at risk of, sex trafficking.

Today there are also many useful resources to help survivors and programs that work with them, such as:

Human Trafficking Awareness Month is a reminder that beyond the statistics are young girls and boys in need of our awareness, protection, hope and support. We, as human service professionals, must continue to work together to identify solutions for preventing human trafficking and protecting our youth.

Alisa Santucci, M.S., is a senior manager at ICF International and works on projects related to youth at risk and child welfare and on behalf of the Children's Bureau’s Child Welfare Information Gateway.