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What happens after a human trafficking victim is 'rescued'?
In recent years the average American newsfeed has been inundated with a flood of media stories touting the rescue of sex trafficking victims and the arrests of their traffickers. However, what people don't realize is the reality of what happens to these sex trafficking survivors behind the headlines. Unfortunately, a typical 'rescue' is muddied by the erroneous criminalization, failed service provision, and revictimization of human trafficking survivors, as well as the infrequent conviction of their offenders.
I became acutely aware of this reality after working with a victim, who I will refer to by using the pseudonym "Jessica." I rescued her from her trafficker on Aug. 21, 2015, after witnessing him abusing her in front of a suburban mall in the middle of the afternoon in Virginia. She had been victimized on and off for fifteen years, having been shot in the leg, raped, beaten, and mentally abused. Her trafficker was actually in Virginia, prostituting her on the streets, while he was on pre-trial release for a malicious wounding charge against another sex trafficking victim.
Despite having served on two different anti-trafficking task forces and having nearly a decade of experience in the anti-trafficking field, it was extremely difficult for me to find adequate services for "Jessica." Residential placement centers for human trafficking victims were at capacity with long waiting lists or denied services because she wasn't a juvenile or because she didn't technically reside in Virginia. For months, she ended up moving between domestic violence shelters (some with bed bugs), a mental health facility, hotels paid for from the discretionary funds of anti-trafficking organizations, and homeless shelters. Distraught by her living situation "post-rescue" she said, "at least I had a roof over my head, even if I was getting my ass whipped before I went to sleep."
Although I was able to facilitate (through networking) a form of residential placement-albeit not specifically for human trafficking victims, as well as some services (medical, mental health, dental, and tattoo removal), vocational training, transportation, and sustainable income job placement remained challenging.
The care that was available to "Jessica" wasn't trauma informed to the complex needs of sex trafficking victims and law enforcement wasn't able to incapacitate her trafficker, so about six months after her initial rescue, she was revictimized. Given the trauma bond that often exists between victims and offenders, it is common for sex trafficking survivors to return to their victimizer, especially when adequate services are absent.
After "Jessica" returned to her sex trafficker's control, he became abusive again, prompting her to seek help from victim service providers once more. Currently, she is again in residential placement and I was able to secure a scholarship for her vocational training, but her recovery is still a process. Her previous arrests for crimes related to her victimization have yet to be expunged. Even worse, her trafficker remains free. His malicious wounding charges were dropped after the other victim failed to show up to court. Charges have yet to be filed against him for "Jessica's" victimization. An ICE agent who is familiar with the case tells me that they are waiting until "Jessica" is emotionally stronger. In the interim, he allegedly continues to sex traffic women, while supplementing his income by driving for an on demand car service.
What the sex trafficking headlines fail to convey and the public doesn't understand is that sex trafficking survivors continue to be erroneously criminalized and/or revictimized, following identification. While this is partly a fault of failed service provision, these survivors are also often viewed as less than credible witnesses, given their backgrounds, which can be impacted by immigration status, coerced co-offending, drug use, arrest, and the very same sex work that they are coerced, defrauded, or forced to perform. On the other hand, their offender may be arrested, but they are infrequently convicted of their sex trafficking crimes, given the credibility gap affecting victims.
Ultimately, identifying a sex trafficking victim and referring them to services, does not mean that they were rescued and that services were provided. In the same vein, arresting a sex trafficker does not mean that they are being held accountable for their crime. In order to effectuate more meaningful change, we need to confront the stark reality regarding the gap between anti-trafficking policy and action. Following the human trafficking spotlight at the Democratic National Convention, we can only expect a greater media and political spotlight on the human trafficking scourge; I just hope it isn't in vain.
Author Dr. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco holds a Ph.D. in criminology, law and society from George Mason University, with an expertise in human trafficking. She currently serves as a human trafficking expert witness for criminal cases and her book, "Hidden in Plain Sight: America's Slaves of the New Millennium," is contracted for publication with Praeger/ABC-Clio.