Undercover Operation, Rescuing the Victims

Undercover operations.  Hidden surveillance.  Teams surround the seedy looking home.  Tough men kick down the door.  Young girls huddled in a corner, afraid, malnourished.  A team rushes in to rescue victims of sex trafficking.    Sound like something out of a Hollywood movie?  It does to us, too.  And yet so many people are interested in doing just that – rushing in to “rescue the lost.”  And they get frustrated that we do not rescue victims, so they leave to find another agency that is more in line with their ideals.

But let me explain why, from my perspective, our program does not operate like that.  First of all, we are not law enforcement – we do not have the jurisdiction or authority to complete the necessary investigations in order to build the evidence for these cases.  If there is no case built against the traffickers, then as soon as the cavalry leaves (which it always does) they can go and recruit more individuals and continue to exploit and abuse their victims.   But that is the easy, and very incomplete explanation, of why we do (or don’t do) what we do.  You see, human trafficking is so much more complex than that.  In order for rescues to be the most effective method of intervention, human traffickers would need to rely solely on physical force against the victim – kidnapping would be the method of recruitment, and chains and shackles or locked doors and bars on the window(s) would be the method of control.  But that is what many of us picture when we hear the term “human trafficking.”  We, as a society, have bought into a sensationalized version of this crime, where Hollywood drama lurks around every corner and the good guy always wins with minimal harm to himself or the victims.  We have created caricatures of human trafficking – the victims and the perpetrators.  And what an effective way of perpetuating the crime.   The more we become familiarized with this extreme version of trafficking, through movies and media, the more desensitized we become to the less extreme, but all too real, local scenarios of human trafficking.

Aside from missing the more subtle instances of human trafficking, however, are a some other (much more important) reasons for not swooping in to “rescue the victims.”  When you picture someone breaking down the door to rescue a victim of crime, what reaction do you picture from that victim?  Do you see an individual who is huddled in a corner, but gets a glimmer of hope in her eyes when she realizes that her dream of someone coming to take her away from the bad guys may actually be coming true?  Do you picture someone who reaches out to the rescuer, ever so grateful for the white knight in shining armor who has come to save the day?  Or do you picture someone who is hostile?  Someone who insists she does not need any help?  Someone who refuses to cooperate with the rescuer, won’t talk with the police, and turns down an offer of assistance from a well-intentioned service provider?  Someone who just wants everyone to leave so she can go about her life?  As much as we would like to believe that victims will automatically self identify, bond with their rescuers, and testify against the perpetrators…we must recognize that often times victims of human trafficking will not respond in that manner.  But that does not mean that they are consenting to participate in the activity.  Whether the individual is experiencing a false empowerment (if this is going to happen, at least I can get money for it), trauma bonding (Stockholm Syndrome), or a real emotional attachment to the trafficker, often the victims do not, at least initially, present as victims.

The other crucial reason for not conducting rescues goes hand in hand with the previous point.  Whether encountering false empowerment, trauma bonding, a real emotional attachment, or straight up fear of the trafficker, we firmly believe in a client centered approach to addressing the issue.  Many people use the phrase “client centered” to mean a number of things, so let me explain what I mean.  In our program, a client centered approach means that the focus is on our program participants.  We do not have a prescribed list of resources in which our program participants must engage in order to remain in our program.  We do not have a punishment system in place for a missed session or a change in plans.  We do not have a closed-door policy, in which participants get one chance and if they blow it they are not allowed back, or are only allowed back after they “prove” themselves to us.  Rather, we meet our program participants where they are.  Our participants determine when they leave the traffickers and which resources they would like to access.  Our participants determine whether or not they even engage in our program services.

Think about the dynamics of sex trafficking.  A pimp has a set of rules that his girls must follow.  If they don’t, there are consequences.  A pimp has expectations on activities in which his girls must engage.  If they don’t there are consequences.  A pimp “provides” basic essentials – food, clothing, shelter – assuming his girls are following the rules and expectations.  If they don’t, they lose those privileges.  And then the victims are rescued and connected with a service provider.  What happens if we set out a strict list of rules and punishments for breaking the rules?  Or if we require participants to engage in certain resources in order to continue working with us?  Or if we pull our resources when program participants don’t meet our expectation of what they should be doing?  What happens if the first, or third time, we are frustrated about lack of follow through on resources, we say, “sorry, but our program can no longer serve you?”  Yes, our expectations on rules and activities are vastly different from these traffickers, as is our motivation.  But are we actually setting people up to determine their own futures and guide their own lives?  Or have we just replaced one controlling figure with another?

Obviously there is so much to say on this topic.  And I could go on and on (even more than I already have) about the rationale behind our program design.  It’s okay if you do not agree with us.  It’s okay if you look into organizations that are  more in line with your feelings about the issue.  But for us, this is our approach.  And if you agree, we would love to have you join us, or continue to support us, in this mission.


9 thoughts on “Undercover Operation, Rescuing the Victims”

  1. I agree with the basic premise that law enforcement rushing in solely to rescue the Human Trafficking victims is a very short sighted approach, which is destined for complete failure.

    But your article inaccurately generalizes law enforcement agencies’ methodology and tactics to rescue victims, which I believe is highly irresponsible on your part. I have personally worked side by side with law enforcement agents and officers whom work tirelessly to remove the victims from the damaging environment. These same agents and officers, not Hollywood actors have then continued to provide assistance to the victims and worked as diligently to hold those responsible for the reprehensible actions.

    Your article although highlighting your agencies’ mission, irresponsibly falls short of describing the missions of competent law enforcement agencies many of which devote resources and countless hours investigating Human Trafficking criminal activities. For the record, I concur that not all law enforcement agencies address the Human Trafficking adequately. I believe that understanding the many complexities of Human Trafficking is so crucial for law enforcement agencies and Non-Governmental agencies who address Human Trafficking. Your article does not begin to address the bonds that are often built between victims and law enforcement agents/officers, some which last for years and years, well beyond the investigative stage. I have personally read several letters from families that have thanked law enforcement agents and officers for their devotion and assistance. The letters express gratitude for the law enforcement agents and officers dedication and for removing their child from a dangerous situation and a pimp’s physical and psychological control. The letters then thank the agents/officers for their continued assistance to the victim and continued assistance by providing the victim with an opportunity to receive the much needed assistance, often by agencies such as yours. In those letters, there was no discussion of any abandonment of a victim or victims.

    You also fail to mention that the rescues that you so blatantly generalize are often initiated due to prevailing factors that require law enforcement action. Law enforcement agencies are required and bound by their duty to respond to reports of victims in imminent danger and any reports of juvenile Human Trafficking as soon as safely feasible. Although you dramatize the agents and officers whom participate in an operation as such, you fail to mention any reasons that necessitate a rescue type operation and the dangerous situation that the law enforcement officers are also placed in.

    I believe your article could have been more aptly directed at building professional bonds between law enforcement and NGOs, as both are necessary. Both entities are essential to address Human Trafficking. Instead, the article utilized a misrepresentation and generalization of law enforcement’s response to Human Trafficking, which I believe is not fair.

    1. Thank you for your thought out response to this post. Please let me clarify, this was not intended to comment on law enforcement’s approach to human trafficking – we actually work really closely with law enforcement and recognize that legally there are times when they must respond instantly (if a minor is being sold) or after a long investigation in a manner similar to a raid.

      This post was not intended to be commentary on that. Rather, it was in response to the many inquiries we receive from well-intentioned community members who desire to go in and ‘rescue’ the victims. We have posted this piece to explain why, for individuals with the intention of responding in this manner, our program is not an appropriate fit. We are not law enforcement and do not desire to imitate law enforcement’s response to the issue, which would put the potential victims, our volunteers, and our staff in danger.

  2. Stop-It is perfect. You all are doing it right. Great article. My heart cries from the lack of resources that prevents maximum recovery. How can the public create self-running grassroots groups to help support your mission? Give me the ideas of what you need and I will try to form the groups. freeslaveswithyourownhands.org

  3. I wholeheartedly agree. This is very like the approach that the “Open Your White Umbrella” organization takes and it makes so much sense. The victims of this heinous crime need unconditional love and acceptance and a chance to learn to trust someone. They don’t need a new set of rigid rules and finding that they’re rejected the first time they mess up. Well written!

  4. Awesome! Totally agree although the “guy” in my who grew up watching Rambo and the A team “wishes” things were easy to just kick the door in and bring these kids home!!! We have so many different levels of challenges and glad you are making a difference. Please have anyone connect with me so we can all unite and work together. Google me or on fbook. Mike Hero Heronemus Heroes Against Child Trafficking

  5. Great explanation! You are determined to offer “freedom” in every imaginable way! I love your plan–and I love your passion. God bless you!

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