LAWRENCE — Service providers in the Midwest who have encountered survivors of human trafficking listed sexual assault as one of the most likely conditions to encounter of those at risk of both labor and sex trafficking, according to a new report by University of Kansas researchers.
"It's is really important because I think a lot of times we, as a society, tend to think of labor and sex trafficking as being two unique and different concerns," said Corinne Schwarz, a doctoral candidate in women, gender & sexuality studies and a lead graduate research assistant for KU's Anti-Slavery and Human Trafficking Initiative.
The survey's findings were part of a project to examine anti-human trafficking advocacy and service efforts in Midwestern communities, a geographic region that remains understudied as far as labor and sex trafficking. The Department of Political Science funded the survey, and the KU Institute for Policy & Social Research, or IPSR, provided additional support services for the survey. The ASHTI survey research team surveyed 722 service providers who work with vulnerable or trafficked persons. The service providers represented the medical and legal or law enforcement fields, nonprofit agencies, social service providers and foster care agencies.
Among the top-five conditions service providers reported seeing in their work with people who might be at risk of labor or sex trafficking, sexual assault and mental health concerns were in the top three on both lists, Schwarz said. Among potential labor trafficking survivors, untreated chronic or acute health issues was also listed in the top three, and for sex-trafficking survivors drug or alcohol abuse and overdoses remained high on the list.
Schwarz is leading a research project on a National Science Foundation grant to study how frontline workers in Midwestern communities identify and assist those vulnerable to human trafficking. IPSR houses ASHTI and assisted with the development of the NSF proposal.
Hannah Britton, associate professor of women, gender & sexuality studies and political science, coordinates ASHTI and directs IPSR's Center for the Study of Injustice.
"What the survey findings help to illuminate is that, as many have suspected, trafficking is happening across the region and not just in urban spaces," Britton said. "Service providers from a range of geographies have seen trafficking in their areas, and they need site-specific interventions to help prevent trafficking before it occurs, to identify trafficking as it is happening, and to provide support services for those exiting trafficking. Often the services are located in urban areas, but our survey shows that service providers from across the region are finding trafficking in their communities. Service providers also identified key red flags that we should all recognize as potential risk factors for exploitation."
Schwarz said both sex- and labor-trafficking survivors could be vulnerable to sexual assault and violence because of overlapping conditions that cross both forms of trafficking. However, because of public perceptions and media depictions, sexual violence seems to be predominantly associated with sex trafficking. This perception can create a climate where, once identified, labor trafficking survivors may have less of an opportunity to disclose sexual assault and violence, as it is not associated with the trauma they may have faced.
The survey's findings indicate there may be similar ways to prevent both labor and sex trafficking, she said.
"If there are similar community resources that could prevent both forms of trafficking – and limit risk generally for those who may be vulnerable to other forms of exploitation – then these intervention points seems like logical sites for increased funding, resources and specific anti-trafficking programs," Schwarz said.
She noted many of the service providers who responded to the survey mentioned trying to cooperate with other community agencies and partners, but they also mentioned the challenge of recent funding cuts.
"A major underlying theme of that was the fact that budget cuts make you think about how your agency or service is affected, but it also affects people in your communities who may be survivors of trafficking," Schwarz said.
The report's other recommendations include:
- Human trafficking prevention efforts should include programs to reduce economic vulnerability, such as job-training programs, health services, educational training and housing security.
- Foster care funding and client services are essential to trafficking-prevention efforts.
- Human trafficking policy must account for placed-based differences in resources, especially among rural, urban and suburban communities in the Midwest.
- Rural communities are uniquely positioned to effectively address human trafficking.
- Anti-human trafficking outreach must continue to address the misperceptions surrounding the issue, including the idea that "it doesn't happen here."
- Continued collaboration among various sectors and types of agencies in communities is key.
ASHTI and its partners are seeking to research various aspects of human trafficking and are focusing on prevention strategies, both nationally and internationally.
"Prevention requires resources and a supportive policy environment for a range of services," Britton said. "Among education, foster care, health care, stable and affordable housing, mental health services and employment services, providers see the importance of each of these sectors in interrupting vulnerability and hopefully preventing exploitation."
Photo: Midwest highway, via Flickr, in the public domain.