New Tool Makes It Easier to Identify and Assist Victims of Human Trafficking

New Tool Makes It Easier to Identify and Assist Victims of Human Trafficking

NEW YORK – The landmark Trafficking Victims Protection Act made trafficking in persons a federal crime in 2000, but the greatest obstacle to assisting victims of human trafficking is identifying them. Due to the nature of human trafficking, victims are often kept out of sight, living in fear, or—as can be the case with victims used in prostitution—treated as criminals by law enforcement.

To make identifying victims easier—and subsequently, getting them the services and support they need while also generating evidence against their traffickers—the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) created and tested a screening tool to be used by victim service providers and law enforcement when faced with someone who may be a victim of human trafficking. The tool, a 30-topic questionnaire administered to potential victims, is designed to elicit evidence of human trafficking—namely, abusive labor practices, physical harm or violence, sexual exploitation, isolation, and force, fraud, and coercion—making it easier for tool administrators to identify who is a victim of a trafficking and who is not. It was tested and shown to be effective at identifying victims by victim service providers in New York, California, Texas, Colorado and Washington State. The development and testing of the tool were part of a two-year study funded by the National Institute of Justice at the U.S. Department of Justice.

In the study, data were gathered through structured interviews using the screening tool with a diverse sample of 180 potential victims of trafficking, case file reviews, and focus groups with service providers. Subsequent interviews were conducted with victims who had already been screened, service providers, and law enforcement with experience in human trafficking. Of the 180 interviewees, 53 percent were found to be trafficking victims. Of those trafficking victims, 40 percent were victims of sex trafficking and 60 percent were vic­tims of labor trafficking.

Vera researchers also developed a 16-question version, which may be more helpful for service providers who are mandatory reporters or working in a crisis situation and who want to conduct an initial screening without recording details of a victim’s story. The questionnaire aims to significantly enhance victim identification and anti-trafficking efforts at hospitals, youth shelters, domestic violence service agencies, and by law enforcement agencies.

“Many human trafficking victims live their lives in the shadows of fear, often trapped in a cycle of abuse and exploitation,” said Laura Simich, research director for Vera’s Center on Immigration and Justice and the study’s primary investigator. “This questionnaire provides law enforcement and victim service providers with a tool to identify victims so that they can be connected with the support necessary to live their own lives, free of their traffickers.”
“Human trafficking thrives when it is hidden in plain sight—illicit and immensely profitable, traffickers know that they can exploit vulnerable human beings with little risk of detection,” said Lori Cohen, director of Sanctuary for Families’ Anti-Trafficking Initiative, one of the agencies that tested the tool. “The development of a screening instrument can assist service providers, community-based organizations, the medical community, and law enforcement in the identification of at-risk individuals so that they can receive appropriate care, protection, and the opportunity to escape their abuse. In addition, a screening instrument can capture valuable data to identify the ways in which individuals are trafficked within specific regions and populations, and help craft a focused response toward eliminating modern day slavery within our midst.”

For more information on this research, please watch a video featuring Laura Simich and read the study’s research summary and full technical report.