Imprisoned in the American Nightmare

Freeing the silent sufferers of human trafficking and bringing their captors to justice


     Getting victims to disclose facts about their victimization can be an "arduous process," admits Young, who notes he starts slowly and shows compassion toward their predicament in interviews. Keeping his goals in check and realizing things may proceed more slowly than in other cases also helps. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, human trafficking victims don't share what they've experienced in the first interview," he says. "Sometimes it takes three to four interviews before victims come forth with the conditions they've suffered through."

Putting victims first

     Bringing violators to justice hinges on the trust law enforcement builds with victims. Here, agencies have found partnering with NGOs and other social service organizations helps break victim silence by getting critical care to them when they need it the most.

     Kerlikowske points out opening lines of communication with NGOs can help partnerships take shape. Seattle fosters meaningful exchanges by meeting with NGOs every six weeks to discuss cases and human trafficking trends.

     Carrie Buchmann, human trafficking case manager for Hope House, a domestic violence shelter for the Rescue Project, stresses the organization's 25 years as a shelter for domestic violence victims helped its advocates see the virtue of teaming with police in trafficking cases. "We've seen the positive effects of having law enforcement involved with helping men, women and children escape violence," she says. "We learned we had the same objective — to help victims — and to provide better accountability for offenders."

     Buchmann adds some police agencies harbor reservations about pairing with NGOs. Fortunately, this is no longer an issue in Missouri. While law enforcement once felt apprehensive about sharing investigative facts, they now willingly offer up basic information about upcoming raids to help social service organizations arrange victim services. Buchmann receives details such as the approximate time and day police plan to remove victims; the suspected age, gender and race of the individuals; and expected language barriers, then organizes services around identified needs.

     Hope House can call on assistance from more than 60 organizations, offering everything from mental health services to legal assistance. Formal memorandums of understanding with such organizations guarantees the victim-centered approach that is essential for human trafficking victims, who often have multiple acute needs including sexual trauma and illness, malnourishment, infectious diseases or substance abuse issues. Victims cannot fully participate in investigations or their own recovery unless their basic needs are met, Buchmann explains.

     Law enforcement begins interviews with an eye toward sensitivity after Missouri NGOs address victim needs. This helps undo the many factors that can hinder police interviews. Language barriers often compound the experiences victims had before, during and after their rescue. Captors may have tortured, isolated or raped them repeatedly. In their countries of origin, police may have been corrupt and feared. If in this country illegally, individuals may fear deportation. It takes time to undo these kinds of traumas, she stresses.

     It helps when law enforcers put victim welfare first. It also helps when NGOs show outward faith in law enforcement. "If victim advocates trust law enforcement, they can relay that trust to victims," she explains. "Victims see their safety is the most important thing and that it's their choice [to cooperate]. Slowly, after you develop this rapport, they will share their story."

There's 'ICE' in team

     Though working with NGOs frees officers to investigate, successful law enforcement efforts typically include teaming with federal agencies. "No one agency can do it all," Buchmann explains. "It does take the help of everyone."

     While ICE works closely with task forces, such as those in Missouri and Washington, Forman advises any agency investigating a human trafficking case to involve the feds immediately. "ICE has primary jurisdiction in human trafficking cases," she says. Thus, ICE brings a lot of law enforcement muscle to the table. The organization's global footprint includes 26 Special Agent-In-Charge (SAC) offices, 50 attaché bureaus and foreign law enforcement partnerships, important in these transnational, organized crimes where traffickers often identify and recruit potential victims overseas.

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