Words Matter: why we still struggle to fully implement a victim-centered approach to supporting trafficking survivors

Words Matter:  why we still struggle to fully implement a victim-centered approach to supporting trafficking survivors

Words Matter: why we still struggle to fully implement a victim-centered approach to supporting trafficking survivors

By Benjamin Thomas Greer and Brittany Barrios Hadaway

On January 27, 2021, the Central Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force (United States) along with local and state law enforcement partners conducted a prostitution operation intercepting eight women. Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost was quoted stating,

Arresting the people who are the victims of human trafficking sounds harsh, but the complicated reality is that this often is the best way that law enforcement can help. The bonds of human trafficking are often chemical chains of addiction and a hopelessness that there is no other way. This gives the survivors a chance to reset with services that are available. [emphasis added]”  

While Attorney General Yost undoubtedly believes he is acting in the best interest of these survivors, most experts in this field would vehemently disagree with his viewpoint.  In fact, many would consider this atrocious treatment re-victimization. Conditioning survivors’ aftercare and support with police cooperation creates an environment of coerced cooperation and is not compliant with, nor is it in the spirit of a victim-centered approach to the investigation of human trafficking cases.  

Language matters. The terms “victim” and “survivor” are too-often used as synonyms when referencing someone who has been trafficked. They are not synonyms. One is a criminal justice classification, where the other describes a personal state of empowerment.  Failing to appreciate the difference is the failure to understand fundamentally what human trafficking is. 

“Victim” is most frequently used in criminal legal proceedings to identify the person harmed/exploited.  Identification of a “victim” is a categorical imperative in a legal setting because without a victim there is no crime.  

“Survivor” is typically used by service providers to describe a personal state of being. An adjective describing an attribute of strength and accomplishment that a trafficked victim possesses. For many, the label of survivor begins the process of reinstating the personal agency which was stripped and stolen from them during their exploitation. 

One word that should never be bestowed upon a survivor of trafficking is “criminal.” Applying a victim-centered approach bifurcates, or divides, the victim’s needs, wishes, health, and safety from the needs of the prosecution’s case. True bifurcation means benefits and support are not conditioned upon law enforcement cooperation. This duality is set during law enforcement’s initial contact. The victim quickly senses the tone and tenor for how they will be viewed by the criminal justice system going forward. Traffickers have conditioned their victims as to how the system will view and treat them. For this reason, it is imperative the victim feels their health and safety are of the utmost priority; that their victimization is taken seriously, and that he/she will be supported going forward regardless of the status of the prosecution.  By arresting victims, law enforcement reinforces the pre-conditioning traffickers instill while simultaneously inhibiting survivors’ future employment eligibility by creating a criminal record that can seriously impact their ability to continue down the road to building a new life.  

Arresting victims has the potential to impede a survivor’s recovery as well as decrease the victim’s willingness to cooperate, creating a lose-lose scenario for both victims and law enforcement. This paradox can be avoided if law enforcement refrained from viewing the trafficking survivor as a necessary witness. While the concept of utilizing the victim as a witness is standard in law enforcement, trafficking investigators should learn to incorporate alternative strategies. When the survivor is no longer relied upon as a witness, their own recovery can become their primary focus. By removing the victim-witness crutch, law enforcement will be forced to rely upon traditional investigative strategies, and tactics independent of a victim-witness, such as surveillance and undercover operatives to make their case.

As officer victim-service mentality lags, legislatures have begun changing prevailing laws to encourage a more supportive relationship. In 2004, U.S. Department of Justice – Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) and the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) began funding trafficking task forces following an “Enhanced Collaborative Model (ECM).” This model requires both a law enforcement agency and non-governmental organization/victim service member to partner and work together. This partnership is specifically designed to be a comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach that encourages collaborative cross-sectoral relationships and the pooling of resources and knowledge. This kind of cooperation creates a more positive outcome for prosecutions and survivors.

Successfully applying a victim-centered approach to human trafficking investigations is extremely difficult. It is time consuming and resource intensive. So why should we do it? Because it works and it is the right thing to do for survivors and the future health of our communities.

Benjamin Thomas Greer , JD – Mr. Greer is a subject matter expert in the field of human trafficking and child sexual exploitation; specifically instructing and developing human trafficking courses for law enforcement and emergency management personnel for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. Before joining OES, he served as a Special Deputy Attorney General for the California Department of Justice. Aside from his work with CalOES he is a Research Associate for the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Applied Research in Human Trafficking.

Brittany Barrios Hadaway, JD— Ms. Barrios Hadaway serves as a Research Practitioner for the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES) focusing on the trafficking of persons and child sexual exploitation.  Here, she applies her legal acumen in the development and delivery of human trafficking courses for law enforcement and emergency management personnel.  She is a graduate of Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana where she received her Juris Doctorate and Michigan State University where she received her Master of Science in Criminal Justice, focusing on Law Enforcement Intelligence/Analysis and Homeland Security. 


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