Society must urgently recognize human trafficking as a multifaceted problem which merits an exhaustive response from government and civil society. One survivor—16-year-old Mary McDowell from Sachse, Texas—shared her story with me. Mary was not only a victim of sex trafficking, but also of a system that failed to identify and respond to her crisis in a way that would restore her comprehensive health and reintegrate her into her community. The response she received from law enforcement, coupled with the inadequate training of medical professionals and community leaders, was insufficient to help her find healing and justice. In a world where countless individuals—not unlike Mary—have fallen victim to human trafficking, it is crucial that we as a society acknowledge the systemic issues that prevent flourishing for survivors of human trafficking. However, this is not enough — we must also promote the flourishing of those who are vulnerable to this injustice. The absence of adequate care from first responders and community members can have a long-term impact on trafficking survivors. As Mary shared with me: “It happened 17 years ago, and I am still not over it.” Her story testifies to the pressing need for a deeper understanding of the wide-ranging consequences human trafficking has on its survivors.
This spring, I conducted research on human trafficking for the Center for Public Justice to improve coordinated efforts to prevent and care for trafficking survivors in Texas, and I was frustrated to stumble upon the same roadblock over and over again: there is not enough data on human trafficking and its survivors to offer the kind of informed response that facilitates their successful reintegration into communities. I was astounded at the absence of data which estimate the number of trafficking victims at a state or federal level in the U.S. I also discovered that, in Texas, human trafficking is frequently mislabeled and prosecuted under charges of kidnapping or sexual assault. This deficiency reveals that we must first establish standardized data collection and dispersion methods in order to increase community awareness and the capacities of public and private social agencies.
Human trafficking, including sex and labor trafficking, is the third-most lucrative illegal activity in the world, preceded only by the commercialization of drugs and weapons, according to The Exodus Road, an international organization fighting trafficking. An ever-evolving industry, traffickers continuously and meticulously identify and take advantage of existing gaps in community responses to this injustice to prey upon vulnerable populations. Therefore, our failure to coordinate data collection and dissemination fails both potential victims and survivors alike. Our lack of awareness of the scale of human trafficking enables traffickers to slip through the cracks—and it leads directly to the perpetuation of victim isolation and stigmatization.
A comprehensive data collection and dispersion method coordinated by government institutions and businesses should prioritize collaboration between government agencies, health care professionals, and civil society organizations seeking to help trafficking survivors. These different sectors of society have unique, yet interdependent roles in their response to combating human trafficking and its aftermath on survivors. The degree to which these institutions have access to standardized data thus informs the degree to which their response will meet the needs of trafficking victims — ultimately contributing to their potential for healing and for delivering restorative justice. Standardized data collection is therefore crucial for two reasons: it shines light on the scope of the human trafficking problem in our society, and it helps providers to administer the best aftercare services to its victims, who are otherwise likely to become ostracized from their communities and suffer in silence.
The misclassification of trafficking victims, which hinders their access to crucial aftercare resources, is exacerbated by the lack of up-to-date statistics on kidnapping or sexual assault. Throughout my research, I was hoping to find data pertaining to the risk of re-trafficking that victims face after being rescued, as such information is crucial to determine the best avenues to respond to the needs of survivors after law enforcement has intervened. I came across a few commercial websites which informed me that victims of human trafficking face a likelihood of being re-trafficked up to seven times before successfully reintegrating into society. We clearly need substantial research which can be accessed by government institutions and civil society alike. We are lacking a universal, cohesive system that recognizes human trafficking for the pervasive evil and danger it is, and this prevents victims of this abhorrent crime from finding restoration in their communities.
The need for the accurate representation of victims of trafficking becomes more acute when we grasp the fact that Mary’s trafficker—a man who forcibly took her from her home and sexually exploited and restrained her for five days—received a sentence of merely 90 days in prison under a charge of kidnapping. While Mary’s trafficker is free today, she is not. The fact that Mary was not recognized as a sex trafficking victim deprived her of access to essential resources which would have advanced her physical and psychological healing. Because her story is, unfortunately, not the exception amongst trafficking survivors, it is imperative that we understand that a victim’s lack of access to aftercare resources not only decreases their chances of a successful reintegration into society, but it also dramatically increases their risk of being re-trafficked.
The dehumanization of sex and labor trafficking survivors by government and civil society —which stems from stigma and stereotypes—will continue to prevail without readily available data that affirm that these individuals are victims of heinous crimes. They are not, as some may believe, at fault for their circumstances. The way Mary recollected her story shows that survivors battle guilt along with their more tangible hardships. She disclosed, “I feel that the way they handled my case was a punishment for my decision to leave my home.” This devastating response emphasizes the need for government and civil society to actively fight preconceived notions about the presentation of a victim. Stigma that exists about victims’ appearance, past circumstances, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and willingness to cooperate with investigations prevents responsive institutions from viewing them for what they are— survivors, not offenders.
To promote healing and deliver justice, I urge Congress to develop legislation for standardized data collection and dissemination on incidents of human trafficking, including data on geographic location. It is vital that this data be made accessible to state departments of justice and organizations working to prevent and alleviate both sex and labor trafficking.
I also beseech the Texas State Legislature to enact stronger laws and financially support the efforts of nonprofit organizations to increase awareness and combat human trafficking within the state. Likewise, I call upon nonprofit and for-profit organizations, higher-education, faith-based institutions and concerned individuals to advocate for legislation that would require improvements to the current data collection process. These exhaustive efforts could advance the recognition of human trafficking as a prominent issue in our communities and initiate change. The collaborative approach must reflect robust data collection on this issue applied and integrated into legislation, organization and practice.
It is clear that we need more public funding and public-private partnerships to invest in research, data collection and analysis. This concentrated effort would create a foundation of solid support and training to first responders, law enforcement officials and other vital actors. Their comprehensive response is a necessary component of human trafficking rescue protocols. These coordinated efforts have the potential to work towards a common, crucial goal: enabling victims to find restoration and ensuring perpetrators are brought to justice.
Adriana Cisneros Emerson (‘23), originally from Venezuela, graduated from LeTourneau University with the highest honors and received the Top Student Communication award. She received her associate degree in Journalism from Kilgore College with presidential honors. She is a 2023 Hatfield Prize Recipient and currently works for CPJ as the Communications Associate.