How Law Enforcement Can Prevent Re-Victimization
August 8, 2019

Part II of a 2-part series on sensitivity towards victims. Part I (Ways Victims Get Re-Victimized) here.

Last week, we talked about how law enforcement may end up re-victimizing survivors of trafficking. Thankfully, some law enforcement (for example FBI, Homeland Security, and TICAC of the Royal Thai Police) have developed tactics called a “victim-centered approach” that actually is designed to build cases and pursue prosecution, all in a way that helps prevent further suffering on the part of trafficking victims and survivors.

What is a “Victim Centered Approach”?

A victim-centered approach is a shift in mindset that puts the needs of victims at the forefront of any trafficking investigation. The goal is to pursue justice – to put traffickers behind bars – and to deter other would-be traffickers so that no one will be their victims again. Meanwhile, the victim is treated as gently as possible, to prevent further harm, and to make the justice process actually a part of their healing and restitution, instead of another burden on it. “In a victim-centered approach, the victim’s wishes, safety, and well-being take priority in all matters and procedures.” (Source: Office for Victims of Crime)

Hallmarks of the victim-centered approach include: working with social workers to ensure sensitive questioning and investigation, providing trauma-informed services, and decriminalization of any legal offenses the victim might have committed while being trafficked.

Sensitive Questioning of Victims

It’s important that investigators realize that trafficking victims may not always have a coherent story, that they might not see themselves as victims, they may have severe distrust of officers and other authority figures, and they may even identify with their trafficker (Stockholm Syndrome). To build enough trust to get victims to talk about their experience, investigators can try to enlist the help of trauma-informed social workers and counselors. They may bring a child victim to a safe, child-friendly room. In some cases, investigators may not even be the ones asking the questions – they’ll supply the counselors with the questions, so it’s easier for the child to talk.

Sensitive questioning can also mean being culturally sensitive (or where appropriate, sensitivity to race, gender, and sexual identity). For example, in more traditional Thai culture, elders might sit on a chair while young children sit respectfully on the ground – sensitive questioning might involve sitting on the floor with the child, to put them more on equal footing and to break down the barrier of respectfulness that might get in the way of openness.

And the goal is to bring all the questions to the child just one time, so the child will never have to recount the experience (and thus relive the trauma) unnecessarily.

Providing Trauma-Informed Services

Victims of trafficking often have many needs beyond the scope of the trafficking case. They may need housing, food, clean clothing, or support to return to their homes. They might need medical care. If they’re pregnant or have had children while being trafficked, they’ll need prenatal and child care. They’ll need counseling and therapy to help them process their experience and get on the path to healing. They might need help getting back into school or in finding a job or job training. If the trafficking was across national borders, they may need help developing language skills, or with obtaining visas. If law enforcement have strong bonds with local NGOs or social work agencies that can provide these kinds of services, this will help the victim feel cared for and give them a path to transition back into society.

Decriminalization of Victims

By definition of trafficking, victims are forced to commit legal offenses: prostitution, illegal immigration, working without permits, etc. Far too often, women and children are picked up on prostitution charges and face jail time, when in truth, they were victims of trafficking. They should not be held accountable for crimes they were forced to commit. The goal of a victim-centered approach, instead, is to provide a

“restorative justice approach, offer alternatives to detention and incarceration, prevent transfer of youth into the adult criminal justice system, decriminalize the commercial sex and related acts of trafficking survivors, remove third party control requirements, and establish a streamlined trauma-informed process for expunging related criminal records.” (Source: National Child Trauma Stress Network, via DEA)

When law enforcement put victims needs and dignity front and center, the whole process is far more collaborative, just, merciful, and does the most good with the least harm. Hopefully, as knowledge of best practices and pressure on governments spread, other law enforcement forces and agencies around the world will adopt a similar approach.

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