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Honoring a Survivor’s Unique Human Trafficking Experience is Vital to Providing Appropriate Services

Courtesy of Kristina Rose, Director, Office for Victims of Crime

Survivors of human trafficking reflect the diversity of our country. They represent different races, skin colors, national origins, disabilities, religions, ages, genders, sexual orientations, gender identities, socioeconomic statuses, education levels, and citizenship statuses. And just as there is no single profile of a trafficking survivor, their experiences differ too. Individuals experience trafficking in legal labor sectors and illicit industries, including child care, elder care, the drug trade, personal care services, hospitality, food production and processing, and more. In some cases, victims are isolated and exploited in private residences. Others may interact with people on a daily basis, whether in entertainment establishments, cleaning businesses, or restaurants.

In this week’s episode of the Office on Violence Against Women’s (OVW) Patchwork podcast, Savannah Sanders—founder of the former website and author of Sex Trafficking Prevention: A Trauma-Informed Approach for Parents and Professionals, and  herself a survivor of child sex trafficking - reminds us that honoring a survivor’s unique experience is vital to providing appropriate services. What she said resonated with me as the new Director of the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC).

Early in the conversation, Savannah shares that some awareness campaigns alienate survivors through imagery that reinforces misconceptions about human trafficking by not accurately depicting the reality of the crime.  Human trafficking is often sensationalized in popular culture, which makes it difficult to truly understand its complex nature and how it happens. It was heartbreaking to learn that Savannah did not know there was a name for what she experienced as a child and felt her story did not meet the expectations or image of what a trafficking survivor was supposed to look like.

We need to do better. I encourage everyone to review and share the OVC-funded Human Trafficking Outreach Toolkit produced by Project TRUST and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. This survivor-informed toolkit offers a self-directed model to promote critical thinking when creating outreach campaigns across audiences for awareness building, fundraising, client connection, and partner collaboration purposes.  Campaigns that resonate with the targeted audience, including survivors, can result in effective identification and connecting survivors with trauma-informed services. 

Savannah's journey also demonstrates the importance of victim service efforts being survivor-informed and reflecting the full diversity of survivors’ experiences. The U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking defines survivor-informed as “the incorporation of survivors’ expertise from inception through development and completion of efforts relating to all forms of anti-trafficking work." We, at OVC, recognize the importance of ensuring individuals with lived experience are participating fully in anti-trafficking work, including on advisory boards, in action research efforts, through peer support programs, as program staff, and other ways. In support of this model, we have implemented—

  • training and technical assistance projects that are driven by staff and subject matter expert consultants with lived experiences;
  • capacity building grants to support survivor-led and other nongovernmental organizations implementing small or nascent anti-trafficking programs; and
  • coaching for potential grantees that helps organizations, including those that are survivor-led, compete for and administer federal grants as one means to sustain their work.

OVC continues to foster survivor engagement and the survivor-informed approach for all aspects of anti-trafficking efforts and is committed to learning from organizations doing this work in thoughtful and sustainable ways. I encourage you to explore resources like this Practical Guide to Survivor Informed Services. It includes information about how to best partner with individuals with lived expertise to strengthen your organizations’ anti-trafficking efforts.

We need to change perceptions and expand access, so the opportunities for intervention that Savannah describes become more common and survivors can engage the services most appropriate for their journey. We need to increase choices during survivors’ every interaction from law enforcement, service providers, medical and mental health, and judiciary professionals, so survivors are empowered to make decisions about their own healing. We need to honor the unique experiences of each individual at every connection if we are ever going to truly provide holistic trauma- and survivor-informed care. Care, which is so vital to the healing for these survivors.

Thank you to Savannah—and so many survivors like her—for sharing your stories and for your continued work in human trafficking and child abuse prevention. I value your expertise in trauma-informed care, harm reduction strategies to halt intergenerational abuse, and advocacy for survivor leadership. We are grateful to OVW for the opportunity to collaborate on such important topics as these and our continued partnership. Visit our website to read about the work OVC has been doing in the anti-trafficking field for over 20 years.

You can also learn more about DOJ’s work by visiting the DOJ human trafficking webpage. Our colleagues at OVW have also funded resources to address human trafficking including Comprehensive Training and Technical Assistance (TTA) on Sex Trafficking in Indian Country and Alaska from the Minnesota Indian Women's Sexual Assault Coalition and TTA for attorneys and social service providers from the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Human Trafficking.

Updated August 30, 2021