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 Jessa Dillow Crisp - In 2015 at the Colorado State Capitol, I publicly shared my story of surviving sex trafficking. I wanted to educate others about the realities of this nefarious crime and longed for my pain to give hope to another individual. In the weeks following, I had no idea that media outlets from around the world would seize my story and seek me out for intimate details of the traumas I endured.
After vulnerably sharing elements of my painful history, I noticed that journalists misrepresented my experiences—making my story their story for sensationalized shock value. Details of my story were changed, and liberties were taken, such as some outlets lifting my personal pictures and videos from the web and using them without consent. These experiences took me by surprise; I thought that if someone was not a trafficker or buyer, they would protect me. But in fact, one of the hardest things I have had to deal with since my escape and in my recovery process is working through feelings of being re-exploited by media. At times, I felt like my own being did not belong to me, but rather to the number of views that my story brought without my permission.
Through my experience with media outlets and journalists, I have come to realize that the desire for exclusive content can lead individuals to promote a culture of sensationalism. In this process, many well-intentioned journalists are doing things that are inhumane—creating and sustaining a culture where it has become okay to exploit the exploited. Where the amazing feat of trauma endured is not enough for the story, rather acceptable curiosity is taken over by a desire to know how many hours someone was raped, or asking the number of men who have used their body for sexual fantasies. Where an interviewee’s boundaries are considered obstacles that need to be overcome, rather than healthy indicators of the difficult healing journey that has taken place.
This voyeurism and quest for details are not the only ways that media sensationalize sex trafficking. Another way is through the use of pictures that highlight the sadistic pain of victims and images that misrepresent the phenomenon of trafficking. Some examples include: a begrimed girl whose hands are tied up and mouth is gagged, barcodes stamped across one’s forehead, or hands erotically bound in ropes or chains—most of these are stock photos, widely available and free of charge.
These sensationalized pictures are counterproductive to creating change surrounding human trafficking. Instead, they are another way to perpetuate the problem. Using these kinds of pictures and sensationalizing stories can create more harm than good for audiences. If concerned citizens are seeing human trafficking only through the lens of the media where trauma is glorified or misrepresented through inaccurate reporting, sensationalized captions, and pictures that do not accurately depict the crime, then victims caught in trafficking will struggle to relate to the coverage and may not reach out for help. In addition, community members will not be able to recognize trafficking when it takes place within their neighborhood.
Since a person is not the sum of their trauma, media should use pictures that accurately portray the story they are sharing, including the person’s current pursuits and future dreams. Some alternative illustrations they could use would include a person smiling, a person engaging in a hobby, and the artwork/photography survivors have created. Additional suggestions for media can be found on my Tips for Using Images When Reporting on Human Trafficking.
Despite the negative experiences I have had with some reporters, I have also had some incredibly healing experiences with a few journalists. Through this, I believe that journalism is needed to create an accurate awareness surrounding human trafficking and give hope to individuals who have experienced this crime. In this place, I hope journalists will seriously consider their responsibility to the individuals whose stories are being recreated for their article. By forgoing sensationalism and respecting survivor sources and the stories they share, journalists educate their community of followers and ultimately empower victims to not only tell their narratives, but also move into a place of thriving.
Jessa Dillow Crisp, firstname.lastname@example.org
A respected speaker, writer, and mentor, Jessa Dillow Crisp uses her childhood experience of severe abuse and trafficking to illustrate both the stark realities of human trafficking and the truth that healing transformation is possible. After her escape and recovery process, Jessa got her degree in counseling, and she is presently working on her master’s degree as a step toward obtaining a doctorate in clinical psychology. In addition to making some of the best lattes in Colorado, Jessa is the co-founder and Executive Director of BridgeHope and is part of the Rebecca Bender Initiative speakers’ team. Some highlights of Jessa’s career include training the Department of Homeland Security to identify and respond to human trafficking, speaking with legislators at the Colorado State Capitol, speaking at the National Character Leadership Symposium, and filming with Real Women Real Stories. Jessa inspires others through speaking engagements around the world, gives hope through mentoring other survivors of human trafficking, and provides high-quality training and consultation services to anti-trafficking organizations.
By Minh Dang - In the midst of one of Southern California’s worst storms in over a decade, the United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking (“the Council”) met for a strategic planning retreat. I had convinced other members of the Council and the State Department to come to California in February, since most of our meetings were scheduled in Washington, D.C.
Although California failed to extend a warm welcome for our first session, I felt immense gratitude for this group of people and for the existence of the Council. Council members are innovative, thoughtful, committed, and willing to bring their whole selves to the table. Members hail from a diversity of nationalities, citizenship status, gender identity and geographic locations. Like any other group of people, our perspectives on specific issues don’t always align. However, what is similar among all of us and is salient throughout our work is our shared and deep commitment to using our experiences and expertise to prevent the suffering of others.
By Barbara Barnett - For journalists telling the stories of individuals trafficked into forced prostitution, one of the challenges is crafting a narrative that accurately characterizes the physical danger and emotional abuse victims experience. These narrative choices can affect the ways that audiences think about the crime of trafficking and its victims.
One story-telling technique is the use of first-person narratives, which allows trafficked individuals to describe their circumstances, from their perspectives, in their own words – an important consideration when writing about a crime that denies its victims the ability to speak or act in their own interests.
For journalists telling the stories of individuals trafficked into forced prostitution, one of the challenges is crafting a narrative that accurately characterizes the physical danger and emotional abuse victims experience. These narrative choices can affect the ways that audiences think about the crime of trafficking and its victims.
By Noy Thrupkaew - The story wasn’t new, according to Associated Press international enterprise editor Mary Rajkumar. Forced labor and human trafficking in the Southeast Asian seafood industry was an open secret throughout the region. So why should the AP assign four reporters to more than a year’s worth of work on the story?
“‘What’s new’ is a critical question to ask,” Rajkumar told journalists at this year’s Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in New Orleans. “But another critical question is, ‘If it isn’t new, then why isn’t anything being done about it?’”