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.