Hidden in Plain Sight: Challenges to Identifying, Investigating, and Prosecuting Human Trafficking
Amy Farrell, Ph.D., Associate Professor, and Jack McDevitt, Ph.D., Associate Dean of Research
College of Social Sciences and Humanities, Northeastern University
Human trafficking is a modern form of slavery in which people are coerced, tricked, or forced into exploitive labor or sexual services. It does not always involve a person being physically bound into work through violence or moved across international borders. Instead, psychological coercion or fraud can be used to keep a person in a position of exploitation and the trafficking can even occur in the victim's hometown.
Human trafficking takes many forms. For example, in the United States human trafficking cases have involved migrants, both documented and undocumented, exploitation of children who have run away from home to escape abuse, and abuse of developmentally disabled adults who are forced to labor for long hours with little pay. Victims may be isolated from their family or separated from systems of support by language or culture. Common among these experiences is some type of vulnerability that puts a person at risk for exploitation and abuse.
Under U.S. federal law, a severe form of sex trafficking is defined as "a commercial sex act induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age" (TVPA, 2000, Section 103, 8a). Importantly, under the federal law, minors induced into prostitution are victims of sex trafficking regardless of the presence of force, fraud, or coercion. A severe form of labor trafficking is defined as "the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery" (TVPA, 2000: Section 103, 8b). U.S. federal law and state laws do not stipulate that victims must be transported across state or country borders for the crime to be considered trafficking.
Although we do not know the true extent of human trafficking victimization, the problem is perceived as serious. The International Labor Organization estimates that worldwide, 20.9 million people are victims of all forms of forced labor and roughly 1.5 million of those victims are estimated to be in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe (ILO, 2012). In addition, hundreds of thousands of U.S. children could be at risk for commercial sexual exploitation, which includes sex trafficking (Estes & Weiner, 2001). Despite the existence of wide-ranging estimates, the true prevalence of human trafficking worldwide, in the United States, or in any U.S. state is unknown due to a host of identification and measurement challenges.
What Has Been Done About Human Trafficking?
In response to rising public concern, the United Nations adopted the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children in November 2000. The protocol provided a definition of human trafficking and outlined steps to foster international cooperation in prosecuting trafficking cases and protecting victims (United Nations, 2000). Around the same time, the U.S. Congress passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA, 2000). The U.S. law defined a new crime of human trafficking (see definition above) and enhanced penalties for existing offenses such as slavery, peonage, and involuntary servitude. The TVPA also established a specialized visa for non-citizen trafficking victims (T-visa), which allows certified victims to reside and work in the United States and makes them eligible for a range of social services.
Challenges to the U.S. Criminal Justice System in Responding to Human Trafficking
Despite the passage of laws and devotion of resources to combat trafficking, few human trafficking cases have been identified and prosecuted. The U.S. Department of State (2014) reports that in 2013 there were 9,460 prosecutions for human trafficking offenses worldwide. In that same year, the U.S. government charged 253 human trafficking defendants, and a small but unknown number of human trafficking offenders were prosecuted under state human trafficking laws. The low number of prosecuted cases raises concern that federal and state anti-trafficking laws are not being enforced. Police perceptions about what trafficking is and how it occurs influences the way that human trafficking laws are interpreted and enforced. Surveys of local, county, and state police about their knowledge and perception of human trafficking indicate that the police commonly believe that human trafficking does not occur in their jurisdiction and is primarily a federal problem (Farrell, McDevitt, & Fahy, 2008; Newton, Mulcahy, & Martin, 2008).
To better understand the challenges of identifying, investigating, and prosecuting human trafficking cases, we, in partnership with colleagues from the Urban Institute, reviewed a sample of 140 closed human trafficking cases and conducted in-depth interviews with law enforcement, prosecutors, and victim service providers who participated in those cases in 12 U.S. counties.1
In the sites studied, the overwhelming majority of all cases identified by law enforcement were sex trafficking cases (86% of 152 cases). A much smaller percentage of all investigated cases of human trafficking were labor trafficking (9%) or both labor and sex trafficking (5%). The majority of all human trafficking victims identified were female (89%). Of importance was which investigative unit of the law enforcement agency was assigned responsibility for investigating potential human trafficking cases. If a vice unit, for example, was tasked with investigating cases of human trafficking, they often came across cases of sex trafficking through the course of their regular duties, but were less likely to encounter labor trafficking situations. In other words, existing formal and informal policing routines impacted the likelihood that a case involving human trafficking would be properly identified by law enforcement. In addition, local law enforcement mistakenly classified some human trafficking victims as offenders based on their involvement in illegal activities such as prostitution and undocumented migration.
Human Trafficking Requires Proactive Investigation
Human trafficking victims are hidden, often in plain sight. Although victims may be in the public while engaged in work, traffickers control their ability to leave the situation in a variety of ways. Some victims are threatened with violence. Some are controlled through various forms of psychological coercion, such as being deprived of food and water, having their access to information controlled, and receiving threats that their trafficker will report them to the police, to keep them in servitude. Victims often blame themselves for their victimization. Failure to recognize their own victimization additionally prevents victims from seeking help from the police or service providers. When victims in the cases we studied did come forward, they often needed a period of time to develop a relationship with a police officer or more often a victim service provider before they opened up and trusted that the police would be able to protect them.
Despite the fact that many human trafficking victims will not seek help on their own, the police are rarely proactive in their identification and investigation of human trafficking. In the cases we studied, the most frequent method of identification of human trafficking cases was a tip (either from a community member, a victim services organization, or through a hotline call), cited in 39% of human trafficking investigations. Rarely, in only 10% of cases we studied, did victims self-report their victimization to the police, and in another 3% of cases the victim's family reported the victimization. In only 3% of the cases, human trafficking was identified in response to a call for service (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: Case Identification Method (n = 140 human trafficking cases)
Improving Identification of Human Trafficking and the Justice System Response
Training and Monitoring
Many police, prosecutors, and members of the public first learned about human trafficking from stories of foreign workers being abducted and forced to provide sex or to work with little or no pay. The reality of human trafficking is much different and human trafficking victims may include U.S. citizens or people who came to this country illegally. A wide variety of training related to the identification of human trafficking is needed to help correct the broad misunderstanding of what the victims of this crime may look like.
In addition to educating criminal justice professionals about human trafficking, performance measures should be developed to ascertain the number of victims identified and offenders arrested. The inclusion of human trafficking in the Uniform Crime Reports offers a unique opportunity to both offer training to local law enforcement and collect information about those cases that have come to the attention of law enforcement. Both of these efforts could result in raising awareness and increasing the priority of human trafficking investigations and prosecutions across the country.
Training on how to best assist trafficking victims also needs to be provided to justice system employees. Specialized issues facing these victims, including the need for long-term services to deal with trauma, lack of secure housing, and economic instability, must be addressed if investigation and prosecution are to be successful.
Since many victims will never come forward to report their victimization, the police must develop proactive strategies to identify victims in their community. Agencies should consider adopting techniques from organized crime investigations for developing cases against traffickers. Some of these techniques could include cash flow and money laundering investigations, and analysis of real estate and business incorporation records of those who run brothels and businesses employing victims. Additionally, the police should broaden the scope of their human trafficking investigations beyond sex trafficking. To date, few labor trafficking cases have been prosecuted across the United States. Identifying these cases may require local law enforcement to develop partnerships with regulatory agencies, such as the state Department of Labor and municipal code enforcement agencies, to begin proactive investigations into potential labor trafficking situations in their communities.
1. To see the full study results, see Farrell, Amy, Jack McDevitt, Rebecca Pfeffer, Stephanie Fahy, Colleen Owens, Meredith Dank and William Adams. 2012. Final report: Identifying challenges to improve the investigation and prosecution of state and local human trafficking cases (NCJ-238795). Washington, DC: U. S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice.
Estes, Richard J., and Neil Alan Weiner. 2001. The commercial sexual exploitation of children in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania School of Social Work, Center for the Study of Youth Policy.
Farrell, Amy, Jack McDevitt, Rebecca Pfeffer, Stephanie Fahy, Colleen Owens, Meredith Dank and William Adams. 2012. Final report: Identifying challenges to improve the investigation and prosecution of state and local human trafficking cases (NCJ-238795). Washington, DC: U. S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice.
Farrell, Amy, Jack McDevitt, and Stephanie Fahy. 2008. Understanding and improving law enforcement responses to human trafficking: Final report. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.
International Labor Organization (ILO). 2012. ILO global estimate of forced labor: Results and methodology. Geneva: Special Action Program to Combat Forced Labor, International Labor Organization.
Newton, Phyllis, Timothy Mulcahy, and Susan Martin. 2008. Finding victims of human trafficking. Bethesda: National Opinion Research Center.
Trafficking Victims Violence Protection Act of 2000. PL 106-386, Statutes at Large 114 (2000): 1464.
United Nations. 2008. U.N. protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children 2000, http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/trafficking_ protocol.html