Whether they voluntarily seek help or are swept up into an ongoing investigation, trafficking survivors who come into contact with police, attorneys and social workers inevitably are asked to provide information about themselves and their circumstances.  Conducting interviews can be extremely challenging for all involved.  There are many forces at play that prevent interviewers from reaching a clear and coherent understanding of the trafficking dynamics and the issues faced by survivors.

Take the hypothetical example of a boy trafficked to the United States and forced into prostitution.  He was rescued in a raid and is being interviewed by a detective who is trying to build a multi-victim case against a powerful trafficking ring.  Pressed for time and frustrated, the detective calls the victim advocate aside and says:

“Listen, this is not going well.  He needs to tell me exactly what happened if I’m going to help him and get a warrant for these guys.  I know I’m pressing him hard, and I hate doing it, but he has to understand that if he doesn’t cooperate he’s going to get sent back home.  That’s not a threat, it’s just the truth. 

And I hate to say it, but right now it looks like he’s lying. First, he tells me he came straight from Guatemala to the U.S on a plane, then he tells me, no actually he came by truck and spent six weeks in Mexico first.  Then he tells me he services 15 clients a day, then he says it’s 7, then 30.  He says he is locked in but then he’s telling me about times when he went out with his friends.  He tells me he is 17 years old, and then he tells me he’s 20.  It just doesn’t add up.”

Multicultural Case Studies

Why is it so difficult to get a straight story from this boy?  There could be many reasons.  Trauma, for one, can blur and confuse memory.  Many people who are severely traumatized will initially have difficulty telling a coherent story.  Memory serves to protect the victims and some images are clear and crisp, while others may be completely blocked out.

But aside from trauma, there can be other cultural and linguistic impediments to a straightforward interview.  In the dominant culture in the United States, the sense of time is very linear and stories are usually told in chronological order.  In many other cultures, time is event-focused rather than linear.  People may tell stories in a circular pattern, linking events and circumstances in a non-chronological order.

 Sometimes this form of storytelling is like drawing in negative space.  The difficult things are never named.  Rather everything around those things is described, inviting the listener to infer the worst.  For example, someone talking about abuse in a factory might say, “At first things were fine.  But in the third week at the factory things got worse.  There was a new supervisor who was kind in the day but at night, he starting coming to the girls and raping them.  He raped me 7 times in 3 months. If you complained, you would be fired. Finally, I ran away.”

Someone telling this story in a circular or indirect way might say only.  “Life at work was ok.  The supervisor spoke with kind words. But sometimes it was difficult.  Especially at night, when they turned the lights off.”

This poses a particular difficulty for an attorney or detective who is building a case in a court of law, in which a circular mode of storytelling can give the mistaken impression of lying and deception.

Some cultures are very direct in their communication, relying primarily on words to relay meaning.  Other cultures, however, are indirect with communication, relying more on symbols, metaphors, inference and surrounding context to relay meaning.  This tendency to indirect communication can be particularly strong when the conversation is about a difficult and painful topic.

Working through an interpreter can further confuse the story.  Just because the client is from Guatemala does not guarantee that his first language is Spanish. Thus, vocabulary, tenses and tense conjugation can often be confused, thus further distorting the chronology and clarity of the story.

Aside from these cultural and linguistic obstacles, the boy, of course, is likely to be operating in a climate of fear – fear of repercussions from the traffickers and distrust of law enforcement which could be based on experiences in his home country and in transit.  The pressure and hints of threats and coercion present in the interview echo uncomfortably the dynamics of the trafficking situation.  Given these dynamics, it is not surprising that the boy is slow to trust.

So what is the best approach for a detective or victim advocate to take in such a situation?  First, the client has to decide whether he wants to tell his story to the police.  In order to make that decision, he needs to understand why he is being asked to do so and what the outcomes will most likely be.  It is always his choice whether he talks or not.

If the boy decides to share his story with police, then a counselor or advocate can work with him to reconstruct his narrative so that he can tell it more clearly to police.  A variety of culturally competent interventions exist to help, including a mapping process in which the client literally draws his story like a river or road.

Ultimately, a fruitful interview is based on the relationships in the room.  If they are relationships built on respect and transparency, they are more likely to lead to positive outcomes for all.


Laura Shipler Chico is a freelance writer and author of Assisting Survivors of Human Trafficking: Multicultural Case Studies. She lives in London.