By Kelly Twedell. Based on the many harrowing news reports about human trafficking and sexual violence, one might wonder why victims don’t just ask for help, or why they don’t come forward to give impact statements to police upon an initial arrest during a sting operation. Society’s long and shameful history of meeting claims of sexual violence with doubt and derision suggests at least one answer.
In fact, there are many barriers to seeking help. At 5 Sparrows in Cumberland County, North Carolina, we asked many of the 107 victims of sex and labor trafficking we served in 2017-2018 what were some of the obstacles to seeking and utilizing services. Following are some of the answers we have permission to share:
“He is my boyfriend, and I’d get in trouble.”
“I thought I’d get arrested with the drugs.”
“I don’t trust the police; sometimes they are the ones paying for my time.”
“He gives me some of the money, and I need it to pay bills.”
“What happens next to me?”
“I thought he would change, but it kept getting worse.”
“I lost hope.”
“He had a gun, and I was afraid.”
“He threatened to hurt my parents if I told.”
“I am part of this, and I don’t want to go to jail.”
These statements – evidencing fear, despair, and shame – are just some of the reasons that trafficking victims may not seek help. Researchers have noted the potent effects of psychological harm directed at victims by their traffickers. “This ingrained fear, lack of knowledge about alternatives, systemic isolation leading to a mistrust in others, and physical and psychological confinement is what causes many victims to be afraid to ask for help,” wrote Gonzalez, Spencer and Smith in a 2017 study of the experiences of women exiting sex trafficking.
For service providers like us, of course, a first step is to identify victims. Often, in the screening process, we realize that a person does not understand they have been exploited. Some victims mistakenly believe they were complicit in their exploitation because they were in a romantic relationship with their trafficker. Others have told us, “I agreed to do this on my own; nobody is forcing me.” The myths about trafficking and the lies of the traffickers have to be unraveled before victims come to understand they were exploited for others’ personal gain.
Another barrier to seeking help is substance addiction. A 2014 study of the healthcare consequences of trafficking found that among 102 survivors, 84.3% reported they were alcohol or drug dependent while they were being trafficked. In the many victim testimonies we have heard, women said that drugs helped them ‘zone out’ from the sex work. Others said that drugs, mainly heroin and cocaine, helped them stay awake through the night to meet the quotas set for them by their traffickers.
Some victims become caught in the perpetual cycle of drug addiction while being exploited.
Understandably, they may fear they’ll be arrested for drugs “willfully” accepted as part of their “compensation” from the trafficker, when in fact the trafficker has likely used drugs as a means of controlling the victim. Fortunately, Cumberland County judges are educated about what trafficking looks like, and as a result they might choose to defer charges or grant a continuance in a case while a victim seeks treatment.
An extended restoration program can be part of a broader effort to provide trafficking victims with lasting results (as opposed to the quick-fix of being bonded out of jail). However, fear of the unknown discourages some victims from asking for help. Knowing there will be a five- to seven-day detox period from drugs and unsure whether they are safe in the community where they were victimized exacerbates feelings of insecurity. Some worry that victims who leave a detox program prematurely will disclose the names and locations of victims still in treatment. Others fear the prospect of being separated from children temporarily when they enter treatment, or of losing custody altogether.
The fact is, a person becomes ready to ask for and accept help in her own time (I say “her” because 96 percent of the victims we served at 5 Sparrows during this time were female or identified as female). An initial meeting with organizations like ours establishes for victims where we are and what we do. Sometimes, they contact us to begin the process of restoration, only to return to trafficking – it’s not unusual for that cycle to repeat itself. In some cases, it has taken victims three to four attempts before they complete a restoration program and reintegrate with a healthier view on life and on themselves. Each person’s healing journey looks different, and we respect that.
People are mistaken if they believe that trafficking victims do not want help – on the contrary, our experience shows that they want help, but they might not be sure what that looks like. Victim service organizations are in a position to start the conversation and illuminate the range of resources available to them without cost.
Nicole Gonzalez, Chelsea Spencer and Sandra Stith, “Moving to Restoration: The Experiences of Women Exiting Sex Trafficking,” Journal of Human Trafficking (2017), advance online publication, https://doi.org/10.1080/23322705.2017.1413856
Laura J. Lederer and Christopher A. Wetzel, “The Health Consequences of Sex Trafficking and Their Implications for Identifying Victims in Healthcare Facilities,” The Annals of Health Law 23 (2014): 61-91.
By Lisa Long. Between July 2016 and June 2017, Cumberland County, North Carolina, had 27 human trafficking-related cases, exceeding the number of cases in nearby counties, including Wake County, which has a population three times greater than that of Cumberland. Does this mean that the Cumberland County/Fayetteville area has a greater human trafficking problem than anywhere else in the state? On the surface, it might look that way. Behind the statistics, however, is a collaborative community effort to fight against human trafficking in this particular jurisdiction. These anti-trafficking collaborations are made up of numerous moving parts, each turning in concert with the others. Coordination is necessary for the successful investigation and prosecution of human trafficking cases. The slightest misstep, and the entire effort may be in vain. In my experience, several components are vital to creating a successful anti-trafficking collaboration.
First, there must be a commitment and investment from the law enforcement officers tasked with the initial job of investigating the case. Fayetteville Police Department (FPD) and Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) each have dedicated human trafficking units within their departments. Their sole investigative purpose is to track down perpetrators and uncover sufficient evidence to make a case stick. While their commitment to investigate and uncover evidence is significant, their work also relies on (providing prosecutors with material critical to making and winning a case?) an effective prosecutorial element to advance. Cumberland County now has a dedicated Assistant District Attorney to work the human trafficking cases that FPD and CCSO present to them. Without having in place the combination of investigators and prosecutors trained in human trafficking, many traffickers would never be prosecuted or see the inside of a courtroom. Imagine the devastation and heartache the victim and the investigative parties experience if the case is never prosecuted.
Second, to ensure that the trafficking victim is mentally prepared, feels physically safe and supported, and is available to testify, it is imperative for an effective non-governmental organization (NGO) that serves victims of human trafficking to be involved from the beginning of the process. In Cumberland County/Fayetteville, this NGO is 5 Sparrows. 5 Sparrows is often involved on the front end of these cases, providing guidance and insight in relation to victims. Prior to the raid of a suspected trafficking site, for example, local law enforcement in this area will provide the NGO with the broad outlines of an operation and its goals, allowing 5 Sparrows to prepare for victims’ needs accordingly. This planning includes reaching out to restoration programs to secure a bed; bringing in foreign-language interpreters; or simply having food, clothing and hygiene items available for the victims. Traffickers intentionally foster in their victims a fear of law enforcement. The presence of support groups like 5 Sparrows may be the impetus for a victim to talk with law enforcement about their situation.
Efforts to systemically combat sexual assault and domestic violence have expanded in important ways over the last 20 to 30 years. Across the nation, there are numerous shelters, resources and treatment programs in place that specialize in providing victims of sexual assault and/or domestic violence with “wraparound services” or individualized plans of care to assist them in a successful recovery once they signal they want this kind of help. However, we haven’t had the same success when it comes to serving victims of human trafficking. This is in part because treating victims of human trafficking requires a drastically different approach than serving victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.
For a successful anti-trafficking coalition, each partner must understand the particular nuances to treating and serving human trafficking victims. Human trafficking victims have survived multiple sexual assaults, and in some cases multiple individuals have inflicted intimate partner violence upon them. While survivors of human trafficking need to be served using a victim-centered approach, individuals providing services must also understand the pathology of a person that has endured extreme trauma and pain.
A final component vital to a successful anti-trafficking collaboration is media attention to this issue and coverage by local media. Some popular media, including news, have contributed to the normalization of the exploitation of individuals for sex and labor. In turn, these media representations may stigmatize survivors and create barriers to public understanding of the severity and implications of this horrible crime. An easy and immediate change that journalists can make is to choose their words appropriately. For example, one should never refer to a juvenile human trafficking victim as a prostitute, a recent addition to the Associated Press Stylebook that governs most reporting. Other language-based considerations include referring to “johns” instead as sex-buyers, and “pimps” as traffickers. These might sound like minor adjustments, but in fact, they can go a long way in shifting public attitudes, a necessary component to successful anti-trafficking efforts.
Trafficking occurs in all 50 states and in all communities, whether urban, suburban or rural. Counting cases is likely to remain a facet of news coverage, but requires context to be genuinely meaningful for audiences. Municipalities with a high number of cases might be those that have trained a wide swath of their population to detect and respond to trafficking – teachers and utility workers, for example. In addition to exercising care with word choice, journalists covering trafficking might ask questions of sources to get at what’s behind the numbers, such as:
Lisa Long is the program coordinator for the Master of Justice Administration Program at Methodist University. She is also employed part-time by 5 Sparrows, a Fayetteville, NC-based non-profit organization that provides victim service support to human trafficking victims. There, she is the service support coordinator and the training director. Lisa is a graduate of Methodist University, where she received a master’s degree in justice administration. She has a bachelor’s degree in sociology and journalism from the University of Kentucky. She is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in criminal justice with a concentration in behavioral science from Nova Southeastern University.
Prior to joining Methodist University, Lisa worked as a criminal intelligence analyst for the Fayetteville (NC) Police Department. While at FPD, Lisa specialized in cases involving sex trafficking, domestic violence, sexual assaults, missing persons and runaways. Lisa was instrumental in the formation of the Crime Information Center at the Fayetteville Police Department, which is a real-time crime center, providing live closed-circuit camera feeds and intelligence data to police officers in the field.
Lisa is also actively involved in community. She serves as a board member and secretary for the Greater Fayetteville United non-profit organization. She is also a board member for the Fayetteville Police Athletic League. She is a member of the Phi Kappa Phi National Honor Society and the Alpha Phi Sigma National Criminal Justice Honor Society. In her spare time, Lisa enjoys working out, listening to all types of music and spending time with family. Lisa has four sons, and her husband Mike is retired from the U.S. Army.
By Erin Coyle. Following recent undercover operations targeting prostitution in North Carolina and Florida, law enforcement authorities in those states posted to their social media accounts booking photographs—“mug shots”—of individuals swept up in the stings, inviting the public to add comments. “Naming and shaming” suspected sex buyers is sometimes wielded as an effective way to combat sex trafficking by targeting the demand for commercial sex—but the claim is difficult to prove. What is clear, however, is that when individuals whose mug shots appear online are found to be arrested for prostitution-related charges or victims of human trafficking, the shame can be particularly harmful and long-lasting—“a permanent digital scarlet letter,” as a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union put it in an interview.
Many arguments exist to discourage the publication of booking photographs. In the United States, some federal courts recently recognized privacy interests in association with booking photographs that news outlets requested be disclosed under a federal law. Legislatures in several states also have considered limiting access to booking photographs in the last six years.
Privacy scholars define privacy as a right to be let alone(PDF), human dignity, autonomy, secrecy (PDF), and a right to protect (PDF) one’s self and one’s information from unwanted exposure.
Scholarship connects privacy to people’s need to control how others may access information about them—especially access to information that people might feel embarrassed, humiliated, or vulnerable from having released to others without their consent. Although the fact that a person was arrested commonly is considered information that might provide details about the focus and effectiveness of law enforcement, images that reflect a person’s arrest may display a highly stressful experience worthy of privacy protection. Concerns that publicly disclosing mug shots might cause depicted persons to endure shame, reputational harm, and exploitation increased after commercial websites started posting mug shots online, some demanding money in exchange for removing the photographs.
Law enforcement agencies routinely photograph arrested persons to record who has been charged with involvement in criminal activity, and those booking photographs are public records that may be disclosed under many state public records laws. Law enforcement in many states, release booking photographs via the press, social media accounts, or websites. Advocates for publicly releasing the images say sharing them sheds light on law enforcement processes, protects against misidentification, and acts as a deterrent against future criminal activity. Journalists also advocate for disclosure for greater oversight of the criminal justice process.
In the United States, a booking photograph indicates a person has been arrested, but does not indicate that a court of law has found (or will find) the photographed person guilty of committing a crime. Nonetheless, an Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals opinion stated in 2011 that a mug shot “is a vivid symbol of criminal accusation, which, when released to the public, intimates, and is often equated with, guilt. Further, a booking photograph captures the subject in the vulnerable and embarrassing moments immediately after being accused, taken into custody, and deprived of most liberties.” A person whose mug shot is publicly distributed may be perceived as guilty in the court of public opinion.
In the opinion of the court, booking photographs are created for law enforcement purposes, and releasing those records could “result in an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” Accordingly, in the Eleventh Circuit, those records may be considered exempt from public release under the Freedom of Information Act unless releasing the images would serve a public interest that could justify their disclosure. Privacy interests associated with booking photographs sought under the federal law must be balanced carefully against the public interest served by disclosure on a case-by-case basis.
The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2012 and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2016 also recognized privacy interests in association with booking photographs, which may allow federal agencies not to publicly disclose mug shots. The Sixth Circuit's majority opinion specifically addressed concerns about modern technology that may exacerbate threats to privacy. In the twentieth century, booking photographs typically were publicly released via newspapers or television broadcasts, then later stored in places where someone would have to physically retrieve a copy at a later time. In this century, booking photographs posted online may be found and viewed for years by any person—prospective employers, landlords, or romantic partners. Sixth Circuit Judge Deborah L. Cook wrote, “A disclosed booking photo casts a long, damaging shadow over the depicted individual.”
In the past six years, some states have considered ways to protect privacy interests that may be harmed when booking photographs are released online—either by law enforcement or by commercial websites that publish mug shots online. In 2017 Illinois limited public access to any booking photographs—only allowing the release to a person with a relevant case or claim. California, New Hampshire, and Alabama adopted statutory provisions specifically to protect the privacy and safety of human trafficking victims by addressing identifying information and images of trafficking victims or persons arrested on prostitution-related charges. California’s Penal Code requires law enforcement agents to inform any person who reports being a victim of human trafficking of a right for the victim’s name, address, and image to be confidential as well as for the name, address, and image of the victim’s family members to remain confidential. New Hampshire’s Trafficking in Person’s law similarly states that the identity and images of any human trafficking victim as well as the identity and images of any victim’s family members shall be confidential. Alabama’s Human Trafficking Safe Harbor law makes arrest photographs for some prostitution-related arrests exempt from public disclosure and prevents publication of those images, unless permitted by a court order. Said Rep. Jack Williams (R-Birmingham), who sponsored Alabama’s law, “We're trying to look at these women less as criminals and more as victims, and we don't want to see them be victimized.” Preventing publication of images, however, might be considered unconstitutional.
Scholarship asserts that publishing mug shots might threaten privacy interests of depicted persons. Considering that trafficking victims lack autonomy when forced into what some anti-trafficking advocates call a modern form of slavery, and could face stigma due to those experiences, publicly disclosing records of this loss of self-determination could be considered a further threat to their autonomy, control over information, and, thus, privacy. Some state and federal laws likely may allow law enforcement agencies to shield those images from disclosure when the resulting harm to victims’ privacy interests would outweigh public interests served by releasing the images.
Erin Coyle, Ph.D. (email@example.com), is an associate professor in the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. Her research focuses on privacy, access to government information, and freedom of expression.