Survivor Engagement and the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking’s 2017 Annual Report

Human Trafficking Awareness Month
This January marks the eighth annual Human Trafficking Awareness Month in the United States.  There is no doubt that we are in the midst of an overwhelming explosion in awareness around this human rights issue. As we all continue to better understand this complex and misunderstood crime, we are reflecting at the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking on what human trafficking looks like in our communities, how anti-trafficking efforts are progressing, and who remains the most impacted by this issue. The 2017 U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking Annual Report released earlier this month provided some important guidance from national survivor leaders.  

The Evolution of Anti-Trafficking Since TVPA

Since the inception of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000, a wealth of organizations and individuals have worked to galvanize a national response to human trafficking in ways we could have never imagined at the time. We watched professionals in law enforcement and prosecution advance towards a more nuanced understanding of the crime.  We observed service providers, who had been supporting exploited individuals for decades (if not longer), breathe a sigh of relief as the long overdue calls to action helped accelerate a formalized response. We also saw an increase in conversations on trafficking in the general public, forums for dialogue on anti-trafficking approaches, and calls for better research and validated tools to help coordinate communities.

The evolution of anti-trafficking efforts in the United States is remarkable, but until recently it has largely overlooked one key constituency: survivors of human trafficking themselves.

The complete 2017 Annual Report from the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking is now available.

Survivors Lead The U.S. Advisory Council

The U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking was established in 2015 alongside the President’s Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (PITF). The council, comprised of eleven survivor leaders, was asked to bring their expertise and experience to the PITF and make key recommendations to US government agencies and partners working on human trafficking. These eleven individuals represent diverse backgrounds and experiences supporting anti-trafficking efforts nationwide. They are the first federally appointed body solely comprised of human trafficking survivors, and their position to push for survivor-informed policy recommendations is new to the national movement. 

The U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking represents the first federally appointed body solely comprised of human trafficking survivors.

The Council released their 2017 Annual Report earlier this month.  This year they organized their work through five committees:

  • Rule of Law
  • Public Awareness
  • Victim Services
  • Labor Laws
  • Grantmaking

The recommendations and calls to action put forward by these working groups were developed following two regional trips to Washington and Minnesota.  Further survivor perspectives were collected through a national survey. Fifteen key recommendations made it into the final report, ranging from increased training to more comprehensive employment services. Ultimately, leadership from the federal agencies represented in the PITF met with the Council to discuss implementation.

The following federal agencies are represented in the President’s Interagency Task Force (PITF).

Key Recommendations in the 2017 Annual Report

The focus on service providers and service delivery in the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking 2017 Annual Report welcomed critical perspectives. Council members noted some increases in specific services for victims of sex trafficking, but little access for LGTBQIA populations, boys and men, or victims of other forms of labor trafficking. Many of the service providers that the Council reviewed demonstrated entry requirements that were deemed too stringent, calling for age verification and background checks that were a hindrance for many survivors. Additionally, survivors shared their belief that victims of exploitation should receive priority ranking for housing programs, noting that the current waiting lists were cumbersome and prohibitive. Leadership from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was invited to assist working on these barriers.

“Survivors would benefit from housing, vocational opportunities, healthcare, trauma informed therapy, alternative therapy, and collaborative community networking to empower victims and survivors.”

– Angie Conn, WV, 2017 Annual Report

Standardized Identification Tools

Another highlight of the 2017 Annual Report was a call for improved screening tools being used to identify victims in the first place. Survivors recommended more standardized identification tools using trauma-informed frameworks, particularly among groups seeking federal funding.  The Council stressed that the current forms of identification of human trafficking are typically limited to one “type” of trafficking, and that little space is provided for different experiences of exploitation (Migrant workers, LGBTQIA, homeless, etc.). These shortfalls are compounded by the reality that survivors don’t always disclose their experience, and simply may not do so if the right questions aren’t presented. Further collaboration was suggested through partnership with the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) and Department of Justice (DOJ).

Broader Survivor Engagement

The U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking has made a significant contribution to expanding the national conversation on survivor engagement. This starts with a departure from the idea that the only way to effectively support survivors is through the basic needs and crisis services traditionally utilized immediately after an individual exits a trafficking situation.  The Grantmaking Committee in the 2017 Annual Report recommended broader “promising practices” to include the following:

  • Survivor-informed /survivor-led trainings resources, and curricula
  • Survivor economic empowerment tools and leadership development curricula
  • Survivor collaboration and survivor partnerships
  • Survivor-informed and culturally competent awareness materials
  • Evaluation tools used to measure survivor-specific services and impact

Supporting long-term survivorship starts with helping federal agencies understand that human trafficking depletes an individual of more than just basic needs like housing, clothing, transportation, and food. Those working to support survivors of human trafficking must consider long-term areas of development for those so uniquely qualified to work on this issue.

Members of the 2017 U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking

The Shifting Role of Survivors in Anti-Trafficking

As I have shared before, the role of a survivor is often reduced to one of storytelling, exhibition, and tokenization.  There has been far too little acknowledgement of the myriad expertise that survivor leaders hold in community organizing, training and education, and curriculum development.  Survivors are asking to be key actors in anti-trafficking work, which is why the 2017 Annual Report’s call for increased survivor engagement is a welcome note.  As the tide slowly begins to turn on the ways survivors are viewed, it will be up to organizations across the U.S. to participate in this paradigm shift with practical opportunities.

At the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking, engaging survivors and individuals with lived experience is a part of our core values. This is realized through survivor inclusion in research, training and education, curriculum development, and promoting survivors in leadership roles across Colorado’s anti-trafficking movement. Most recently, it has meant the development of a survivor leadership group.  Similar to the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking , we believe this group will be an important leader in promoting survivor engagement within our state. They are currently developing a curriculum to support survivors participating in our Leadership Development Program.

A Call For More Survivor Voices

As we all take a moment during Human Trafficking Awareness Month to reflect and honor those most impacted by the crime, I want to challenge us to go deeper in the ways we think about this human rights issue.  If those most impacted by the crime are not embedded in the response, our efforts are misguided.  How will we create a movement that doesn’t extract power from individuals to exploit them? Simply put, the collective voice of the survivors must increase.

A special thank you to the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking and all their hard work to promote this important conversation.  These conversations are not always easy, but it’s clear that the Council’s work on this year’s Annual Report is a key ingredient to changing the tide. We hear you, we honor you, and we support you!

Mary Landerholm

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