A proposed bill in the U.S. House has ignited a fierce debate surrounding the National Human Trafficking Hotline, as the question of mandatory reporting to law enforcement takes center stage. Advocates and survivors find themselves at odds, raising critical concerns about preserving survivor autonomy versus bolstering collaboration with law enforcement to effectively combat human trafficking.
The hotline’s lifeblood: survivor trust
The National Human Trafficking Hotline, currently operated by anti-trafficking nonprofit Polaris, mandates obtaining survivor consent before involving law enforcement, except in cases involving minors or immediate danger, as only survivors possess the lived experiences and nuanced understanding of the risks they face. They may also have deep seated fear and distrust of law enforcement as many have endured traumatic encounters with law enforcement, be undocumented or been forced to commit crimes while trafficked.
Brittany Shamas for the Washington Post reports,
Lara Powers, who answered phones for the National Human Trafficking Hotline for about a year, remembered many calls starting the same way: “The first thing the person asks is, ‘Are you law enforcement? Are you connected to law enforcement?’”
Sometimes a caller would spend an entire conversation “feeling out if they can trust you or not,” she said.
“That process of trust-building — it’s essential for the entire response to work, because survivors often don’t trust these systems that are built to serve them,” said Powers, who went on to become a director of the hotline and now works on anti-trafficking initiatives at the nonprofit Humanity United.
An existential threat
It took Aubree Alles, survivor and advocate, several calls to the hotline before she stopped hanging up and finally got the help she needed. Her experience with law enforcement during the time she was being trafficked was “nothing positive.” Aubree, who had been exploited from age 18, was arrested multiple times and convicted 23 times for prostitution and petty crimes while she was trafficked. If this bill had been law when she was being trafficked, she thinks she would have bypassed the hotline and tried to find another way out.
The proposed National Human Trafficking Hotline Enhancement Act, with bipartisan sponsorship from representatives in Florida, aims to provide more tips to law enforcement by requiring the hotline to share all information with them.
The National Survivor Network is adamant that this requirement would be “detrimental to [survivors]”. Meanwhile, Polaris calls the bill an existential threat. CEO Catherine Chen told the Washington Post that the outcome would be chilling.
“…this idea that you can mandate that the hotline report every single bit of information whenever it is that law enforcement wants it fundamentally reverses the trust that we’re trying to build with victims and survivors. And they will absolutely stop calling us.”
You can’t harm survivors to help them
The Freedom United community believes in survivor led solutions and, so far, the survivor and advocate consensus does not favor a law enforcement first approach to addressing trafficking. Rather, addressing the root causes of trafficking, such as poverty, and supporting survivors, including providing adequate services, are the top recommendations.
Undoubtedly, the intent behind the bill is to tackle trafficking and there is a place for law enforcement in the overall strategy. However, the bill’s sponsors would do well to heed the warning from advocates to ensure they do not erode the Hotline’s efficacy altogether.