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Why We Need to Use a Trauma-Informed Approach in Advocating for Victims of Trafficking

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By Mary Armistead, 2018 Fellow in the Crime Victims Justice Corps, hosted at the Capital District Women’s Bar Association Legal Project

Photo of Mary Armistead

Mobs and sexual violence—these are usually people’s first thoughts when they hear “human trafficking.” However, trafficking—an often under-detected and misunderstood crime—is much more complex than the media-driven narrative.

Through my work as a Crime Victims Justice Corps Fellow (CVJC) in New York State, I have seen many misconceptions about human trafficking. In my clients’ experiences, human trafficking is often perpetrated by individuals or small groups of people, often related to each other, using coercion, not physical force, to lure the victim into a trafficking situation. According to the IOM’s 2017 Human Trafficking Global Database, worldwide nearly 80% of trafficking is forced labor trafficking, not sexual in nature.

Working as a Fellow in the CVJC has allowed me to understand a population that is often overlooked, and to combat stereotypes surrounding victims. Each survivor is different—they all have their own story about human trafficking. It’s especially important to recognize that trauma can affect each person in different ways, and thus manifest in different ways.

A trauma-informed approach recognizes the multi-faceted way trauma can impact a client. Their trauma may affect the way they see the world, whether they can trust those claiming to help them, if they can remember the details of what happened to them, and so much more. It’s important to use a trauma-informed approach because it ensures that the client feels understood, empowered, and comfortable with you.

For example, a trauma-informed approach is essential when trying to collect evidence. Trauma affects the way the brain works, especially in how it codes memories. Unfortunately, the process of extracting this information can be re-traumatizing. Expecting a client to come into an unfamiliar office environment and tell you a chronological story in an hour that encapsulates their traumatic experience is unrealistic. A trauma-informed approach would involve creating a welcoming and warm space for meetings, planning to have multiple meetings to hear a client’s story, addressing issues at the forefront of the client’s mind, and more. When you put in the effort, your clients are more likely to open up and share their stories.

Misconceptions about human trafficking leave people vulnerable to being solicited by traffickers, and cause victims of trafficking to remain hidden. Understanding the reality of human trafficking helps us all become better advocates for victims of trafficking.

*These misconceptions are based on Mary’s experience working as a public interest lawyer and are not based on any official reports/data.

To learn more about Mary’s project and the work of our Crime Victims Justice Corps, click here.

CVJC is supported by an award from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office for Victims of Crime, Award Number 2017-MU-MU-K131, and private funding. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

It’s important to use a trauma-informed approach because it ensures that the client feels understood, empowered, and comfortable with you.

Mary Armistead /
Equal Justice Works Fellow

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow