Given the resurgence of interest in and newcomers to the movement to end child trafficking, a refresher on the victim-centered approach is apropos. Awareness of this key component of an ethical, holistic, and effective human trafficking response is beneficial because it highlights how 1) a survivor’s story doesn’t magically resolve with rescue, 2) rescue done poorly can cause further harm, 3) the consequences of trafficking are incredibly resource-intensive, not just for the survivor but for the response and justice systems as well, 4) the resources it takes to help survivors can’t possibly keep pace with the number of victims (According to the Thailand Internet Crimes Against Children Taskforce, or TICAC, they used to receive about 120,000 tips per year – in just the first 3 months of the COVID pandemic they received 160,000. By contrast, the number of cases prosecuted is usually somewhere in the hundreds.), and 5) collaboration across sectors, across government agencies, and across borders is essential to a successful response – it’s not the story of individual heroes; it takes a collective.
What Is The Victim-Centered Approach?
The victim-centered approach arose out of the realization that the process of rescuing a trafficking victim, investigating their case and collecting their testimony, putting them through a lengthy trial, and re-integrating them into society can compound trauma and create further harm if it’s not done in a way that is sensitive to survivor’s needs or sensitive to the impact of the trauma they’ve experienced. That harm can make it harder to heal, may provoke the survivor to return to their trafficker, may make them less willing or able to cooperate in prosecuting their traffickers, or put them at risk of self-harm. Survivors also are not all the same: children have specialized needs, as do women and men, or people who identify as LGBTQ+, etc.
The victim-centered approach means putting the survivors’ needs first and foremost, and it entails that the entire process should be trauma-informed. It may come as a surprise that not all therapists are trauma-informed; likewise, not all legal professionals, law enforcement officers, judges, etc., have been trained in trauma-informed responses. One of the big pushes in anti-trafficking policy globally has been to train more professionals – from first responders to aftercare shelters to law enforcement and justice officials – in trafficking-aware and trauma-informed responses.
Here’s an example of what the victim-centered approach looks like with child survivors:
Because the process of telling people what has happened to you can be, in itself, re-traumatizing, the goal is to make this process as comfortable and safe as possible and to ensure child victims need only go through it once and never again. The room in which the interview takes place is designed to be child-friendly, with friendly colors, lots of stuffed animals, and couches – as opposed to a sterile or intimidating interview room. As our partners in aftercare services have shared with us, depending on the sensitivity of the case, the child might be interviewed by a trained social worker rather than police investigators – with the investigators watching via video in a separate room and feeding questions to the social worker remotely. All questions are thoroughly prepared so that there is no need to return to the child survivor for follow-up questioning. Legal guidelines have also been amended to make it more possible to rely on digital evidence (for example, chat and messaging histories, possession of child sexual abuse materials, etc.) for prosecution, so victim testimony becomes less necessary. Sometimes effectiveness requires cultural sensitivity too – for example, in Thai culture, children never sit above their elders. But sometimes investigators will sit on the floor to flip the power dynamic so the child will feel more comfortable speaking freely rather than being bound by traditional notions of respect and propriety that might make them afraid to tell the full truth.
After the child’s testimony is sufficiently acquired, they’re turned over to the care of social workers to meet the many, various needs of their care while investigators collaborate on prosecution. In the case of foreign traffickers in Thailand, the Royal Thai Police and TICAC collaborate with the FBI, Homeland Security, or other foreign counterparts to prosecute the trafficker both in Thailand and in their home country. As one special agent shared, “providing this level of victim assistance “is not only the right thing to do morally, it helps law enforcement more effectively investigate cases. That, in turn, increases the likelihood abusers will be jailed and will cease to pose a threat to the community.”
This level of victim support requires intensive collaboration between government and civil society actors, across various government agencies, and across international borders. (Cases involving foreign victims require even more: translators, safe shelters, immigration agencies, embassies, service providers in the home countries, and more.) Social service providers work closely with government agencies, and they support each other in building capacity and providing the necessary training, tools, and resources to effectively investigate cases and see them through to prosecution and conviction.
It takes just one encounter with a trafficker, or just mere minutes of effort disseminating child sexual abuse material, to do the damage of a lifetime to a child. The incredible prevalence of the crime and the intensive resources it takes to repair and seek justice makes it clear that, as a society, we need to think bigger about preventing it from happening at all. This requires all of our attention, and children deserve the effort it takes to protect them.