SARTs Addressing Human Sex Trafficking: Factors to Consider

By Amanda Cardone-Luyben, Program Supervisor

 

Many sexual assault response teams (SARTs) around the state and country have made great progress in approaching sexual violence from a victim-centered, multidisciplinary approach. SARTs have improved survivors’ experiences in interacting with complicated criminal justice, legal, and healthcare systems, increased offender accountability through enhanced evidence collection, and advanced effective protocols through case review processes. SARTs in Maryland have historically focused on adolescent and adult survivors of rape and sex offenses and some have also included child survivors of sexual abuse.

Human sex trafficking—the commercial sexual exploitation of minors or the sexual exploitation of adults through force, fraud or coercion—has significant overlap with sexual assault. “Pimps” or traffickers may simultaneously play the roles of abusive parent, abusive partner, abusive boss, rapist, drug dealer, and gang initiator to the victims they sexually exploit. In addition, the clients or “johns” purchasing the sexual services frequently perpetrate sexual assaults.

It has been a relatively recent paradigm shift for criminal justice responders to think of human sex trafficking victim-survivors as just that. Some professionals are still rooted in thinking of prostitution as a crime perpetrated by the person who is exploited, rather than as victims of those who are doing the exploiting. However, laws in the past 15 years at the federal and state levels have grown to reflect the extent of victimization endured by those who have been trafficked.

Survivors of human sex trafficking will have some overlapping and some distinct needs from other sexual assault survivors. Many human sex trafficking victims will experience multiple types of psychological trauma, and, similar to many domestic violence survivors, may have a strong bond to their perpetrator. Because runaways and neglected youth are frequently targeted by traffickers as being more vulnerable, many trafficking survivors have been abused as children, sexually or otherwise. Human trafficking survivors are also likely to have been assaulted many times during the period they were under control of their trafficker. They face the stigma of having been exploited through sex work, and often feel there is no one on the outside of “the life” who will understand what they have experienced. The verbiage of human sex trafficking victims is often not easily understood by law enforcement or service providers who don’t have specialized training, and this may contribute to the survivors’ sense of alienation. (See this Condensed Guide for Service Providers and Law Enforcement, prepared by The Polaris Project, for more about traffickers and the language of pimp subculture). Additionally, many human sex trafficking survivors have a wide array of basic human needs after escaping their trafficker, such nutrition, healthcare, and housing, not to mention a broad spectrum of legal needs.

Below are several questions SARTs and SART member agencies overall should ask themselves when considering their response to human sex trafficking survivors:

  • What parts of our response will be the same as other sexual assault cases? What will be different? Where are the gaps in our community’s capacity to respond to human trafficking?
    • The impact of trauma will be evident in most sexual violence survivors’ behavior across the board; for human sex trafficking survivors, the effect may be even more pronounced. As discussed above, basic human needs will likely need to be addressed before a trafficking survivor is able to participate in a criminal justice investigation or therapeutic treatment.
    • Group engagement can be particularly beneficial for human sex trafficking survivors as it can reduce isolation and stigma and create positive bonds, but existing sexual violence support groups might not be sufficiently specialized in scope or population.
  • With which internal departments or agencies might I need to collaborate? (E.g., vice or gang units in law enforcement)
  • To what external groups or agencies might we reach out to for resources or referrals? (E.g., the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force, local groups that do outreach with sex workers, or civil legal services agencies such as the Sexual Assault Legal Institute (SALI 301-565-2277) that can handle T-Visa and related immigration options for foreign-born survivors)
    • Should they be considered for SART membership?
  • Who has been trained? What training is available and through what organizations?
    • Who, beyond primary SART members, might need training? (E.g., 911/Dispatch, hospital triage staff, hotline counselors)
  • • How are professionals’ and survivors’ safety issues addressed?
    • Outreach and services for sexually exploited individuals who are often under the watchful eye of their traffickers will take different forms than outreach and services for local college students. Always consider safety protocols for your staff and safety planning for clients before initiating new programs.
  • What additions or updates might need to be made to written policy and procedures for the SART in general, and for SART member agencies?
    • Who will be responsible for making those additions or updates? How will they be reviewed by the team?

Two examples of Maryland-based rape crisis and recovery programs which offer specialized services for trafficking survivors are TurnAround, Inc. of Baltimore City and County and Life Crisis Center on the lower eastern shore. Both of these agencies are core members of their local Sexual Assault Response Teams and bring systemic issues facing both traditional rape crisis clients and human sex trafficking clients to the table to encourage a victim-centered response across SART disciplines.

For more information:

View a related, archived webinar, via the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s Sexual Violence Justice Institute (2013): Without a Disclosure: One Community’s Approach to Addressing Sex Trafficking of Minors

Suggested reading for service providers:  Helping Sexual Assault Survivors with Multiple Victimizations and Needs: A Guide for Agencies Serving Sexual Assault Survivors; Davies, 2007

More on human sex trafficking can be found on the websites of MCASA, the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention, and the Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force.

 

This article appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of Frontline.

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