Justice Today

Understanding, Preventing, and Responding to Human Trafficking

December 12, 2022 National Institute of Justice Season 1 Episode 26
Justice Today
Understanding, Preventing, and Responding to Human Trafficking
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Human trafficking is an issue without a simple solution, but research on this problem is helping victims and developing tools and information to help better understand, prevent, and respond to trafficking. NIJ Scientist Mary Carlton joins host Josh Mondoro, Communications Assistant at NIJ, for a discussion about this research. Read the transcript.

Reading and Resources from NIJ:

SPEAKER 1: Welcome to Justice Today, the official podcast of the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs, where we shine a light on cutting-edge research and practices and offer an in-depth look at what we're doing to meet the biggest public safety challenges of our time. Join us as we explore how funded science and technology help us achieve strong communities.

JOSH MONDORO: Hi, everyone. Welcome back to the show. My name is Josh Mondoro, your host for today, and in this episode, we're going to talk about human trafficking. Some of you may know a lot about human trafficking. Others may not know so much. But I think regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, this episode is going to be very informative, because we're going to be talking about the research that is being done to understand, prevent, and respond to human trafficking. And joining us for this episode is NIJ Scientist, Mary Carlton. Mary, thanks for joining us.

MARY CARLTON: Hi. Thanks for having me.

JOSH MONDORO: So, let's start with some groundwork. What is human trafficking? Like what's the definition of human trafficking?

MARY CARLTON: So, I think that's a great place to start. So, per the United States' Trafficking Victims Protection Act, human trafficking, which is also known as trafficking in persons or sometimes modern-day slavery, occurs when one person compels or coerces someone to provide labor or services or to engage in commercial sex acts, and that force or fraud or coercion can be subtle or overt, it can be physical or psychological. For children, sex trafficking is defined a little differently. So, exploitation of a minor for commercial sex is considered trafficking, regardless of whether there's any force, fraud, or coercion used.

JOSH MONDORO: That's very interesting. So there's probably not a single answer to this question but--so there's a variety of trafficking. There's sex and labor trafficking. Are there common circumstances or conditions that lead to like increased risk for trafficking? Either--well, I guess both for victims and for people who perpetuate human trafficking?

MARY CARLTON: So, there isn't just one profile of a trafficking victim and a number of factors about the individual, the circumstances in their life, their environment may crease--increase an individual's vulnerability to trafficking victimization. So, a couple of examples. Youth who experience homelessness due to running away from difficult circumstances at home, have an increased vulnerability to sexual exploitation or trafficking. Another example, financial insecurity, lack of awareness about labor regulations may increase vulnerability to labor trafficking as others exploit this--this knowledge or a need for salary to meet folks' basic needs. And experiences of trauma can play a role too. So, experiences of trauma may contribute to substance use and trafficking vulnerability, if, for example, traffickers use access to drugs or substances to lure victims into sex trafficking.

JOSH MONDORO: Right. Yeah. That makes sense. Obviously, not everyone in those circumstances is going to end up a victim of trafficking…


JOSH MONDORO: …but the next question would be do we know how prevalent human trafficking is? Like is that a--an area of focus for researchers, or not so much?

MARY CARLTON: Absolutely. Trying to identify how prevalent trafficking is in the United States is a core area of researchers, particularly because we don't have good numbers on prevalence of trafficking, and so researchers are exploring various options for how we can do better, how can we--how we can improve our ability to collect and analyze data to produce information on prevalence. 


MARY CARLTON: But it's hard for a number of reasons. Some of those are unique to trafficking and some are similar to other forms of victimization. So, comparing it to some other crimes, trafficking victims remain hidden from law enforcement making it difficult to count them.

JOSH MONDORO: Uh-hmm. Okay. Okay.

MARY CARLTON: If we think about challenges specific to trafficking, individuals may not want to self-identify…


MARY CARLTON: …as a trafficking victim or be recognized as a victim when they do come to the attention of law enforcement. And, you know, it can also be challenging to determine when something meets the definition of trafficking. This is particularly challenging when it comes to labor trafficking. So--and when folks who are victims are arrested and so they come to the attention of law enforcement, the law enforcement may not screen them to see if they're trafficking victims. And there are challenges around--also around data. So, lots of challenges doesn't mean we're deterred from trying to get a--an answer to the question. So, you know, researchers and funding agencies, including NIJ, are continuing to focus on addressing these challenges. So just by way of an example, NIJ has funded studies to help improve how folks, like law enforcement and others, screen and try to identify who victims of trafficking are.

JOSH MONDORO: That's awesome. That's really great to hear. And, yeah, I can--if it takes—if trafficking can take so many forms and then there are those, you know, issues with data and all that, that--that's a lot of complications in a lot of different areas to try and nail down…


JOSH MONDORO: …like quantifying it. So, in that vein, like since human trafficking can take a lot of different forms, how do we even start to prevent it? Because--I mean, there's so many complications, it just seems like a massive task. Like I would have no idea how to tackle that. 

MARY CARLTON: Yeah. So, first, it really helps to improve our understanding of trafficking generally. So, for example, we just talked a moment ago about what increases the likelihood of trafficking, so those risk factors and vulnerabilities.


MARY CARLTON: So, trying to get answers to that question is helpful. And there are other areas where improving understanding is helpful as well, so answers to question like how can we reduce the demand for sex trafficking?

JOSH MONDORO: Uh-hmm. Yeah.

MARY CARLTON: What policies or legislation might deter or decrease incentives for labor trafficking? How can we overcome concerns about reporting victimization or being engaged in the court? What services can we provide to individuals who are vulnerable to trafficking to reduce their vulnerability? How can we better train those who come into traffic--into contact with trafficking victims to help them better understand and respond to the trauma experienced by victims? So if we start trying to sort of better understand and get answers to those questions via research, we can help provide information to inform criminal justice legislation, make recommendations to refine services to victims or other vulnerable populations, or tackle other issues.

JOSH MONDORO: Yeah. So kind of not just tackling one issue, like--because I think probably most people, the question that will be foremost in their mind would be like, "Well, you know, what's--how many people are victims of trafficking?" Like numbers kind of thing. But, instead, not just going after one question, kind of tackling a lot of them and do--casting a broader net to try and build up the research and then help victims.


JOSH MONDORO: I was doing some prep for our episode, and I was reading just a little bit about, specifically like online trafficking and--I mean, we've already talked about the complications of sex and labor trafficking in person, but online, it must just--must just like multiply, you know, like tenfold or whatever. That--are there other challenges that are like unique to the online trafficking problem or is it--or do we kind of--do researchers go about that kind of in the same way?

MARY CARLTON: That's a great question. So online sex trafficking and online sexual exploitation of children specifically is a major concern, particularly among law enforcement. And NIJ has invested studies to examine how we can prevent it from occurring and then discover when it has occurred. So, first, before like really getting at get your question, the trafficking doesn't--trafficking doesn't necessarily stay online. So, the internet, we can think about as a means to connect individuals with victims.

JOSH MONDORO: Right. Okay.

MARY CARLTON: Yeah. So--but to respond specifically to your question, there are a number of challenges around preventing and identifying online trafficking. So, first, when it comes to adults, investigators have to think about how will they be able to distinguish consensual sex work from sex trafficking.


MARY CARLTON: Yeah. And there are technological tools that have been developed to aid investigators who've got, not surprisingly, limited resources when they're reviewing large volumes of advertisements, for example escorts. Now, a recent NIJ study has helped this effort by conducting research on the factors that can predict online trafficking. So, looking at these advertisements. So, what about the advertisement might help an investigator to make an assessment about whether that actually is an incidence of trafficking. So that can be really helpful. That technology can be really helpful for those--for investigators. But those who engage in trafficking also use technology. They're using technology to remain hidden. So, they may--right? And so, encrypt internet sites to make it difficult for law enforcement to find them. So--you know, technology on both sides. And then final point to consider here is that keeping investigators in a position to carry out their work is a challenge. So, research has shown that their emotional wellbeing may be damaged as a result of looking at images associated with this work. So, we have to think about keeping those folks as well as--doing well. And those are just a few of the challenges.

JOSH MONDORO: Yeah. That's all--yeah. Yeah. Definitely. That is hugely important. And kind of as you pointed out, on both sides--technology on both sides, health and wellness on both sides, both for the victims and then for investigators as well.


JOSH MONDORO: So we've already covered a lot. So there's clearly a lot of ways that research is being done and avenues that research can be going down. So, what are some of those areas of focus for NIJ research? Like what are we working on right now?

MARY CARLTON: Right. So, in addition to some of the examples and areas that I already mentioned, NIJ is funding studies on a number of topics related to understanding and preventing trafficking, helping trafficking victims recover, prosecuting traffic--traffickers or individuals who engage in trafficking. So, a few examples of specific projects include one that's looking at how to develop tools to improve our ability to understand what really works when it comes to helping trafficking victims. So, focus on evaluating victim service provider interventions, learning more about the circumstances associated with labor trafficking, and studying a partnership among law enforcement, prosecution, and service providers who are all focused on investigation and prosecution and helping victims associated with trafficking.

JOSH MONDORO: So, for the partnership angle, I wanted to hone in on that a little bit. So NIJ does research in a lot of different areas. Is there any partnership kind of within research fields? Like is there other areas of research, you know, conducted by NIJ that are maybe not about human trafficking but that work is kind of helping the human trafficking research?

MARY CARLTON: Absolutely. So, there are other research portfolios at NIJ that have a lot of relevance to our human trafficking work. We pay particular attention to our broader portfolio on victims of crime. So, you've heard me talk a lot, use the word victim or victimization.

JOSH MONDORO: Yeah. Right. Right.

MARY CARLTON: And so, you know, what we learn about victims of crime generally can be important here when it comes to human trafficking. Probably some special issues when it comes to human trafficking victims but important to consider that other work. And then the work that we do examining violence against women, specifically looking at services and provision of efforts for victims of intimate partner violence or domestic violence has a lot of relevance here. So, there's overlapping issues and sort of concerns with the population and with the challenges that they face that it's important to pay attention to that other work.

JOSH MONDORO: Well, that's awesome to hear. Like that's really cool that the research in other areas is helping to build up the research and can maybe inform the research on human trafficking. That's great. I have a lot more questions about it, but unfortunately we're out of time, so--but we did cover a lot of ground. You know, that human trafficking is both sex and labor trafficking. That was good to--good to get out there. That research is focused on prevention and helping victims and that there are tools that are being developed, like advanced screening tools to help prevent trafficking and then also to help victims. That's all fantastic information. And thank you so much, Mary, for joining us. I learned a whole lot. I'm sure our listeners did too. So, thank you for taking the time in having this conversation with us.

MARY CARLTON: Thanks for having me.

JOSH MONDORO: And thank you also to our listeners for joining us today. If you liked what you heard, please follow us on Spotify, Apple, or wherever you get your podcast, and stay tuned for future episodes from NIJ.

SPEAKER 2: To learn more about today's topic or about NIJ, visit the links in the episode description and join us for new episodes every month. 

Opinions or points of view expressed in this episode represent a consensus of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice. Any products and manufacturers discussed in this episode are presented for informational purposes only and do not constitute product approval or endorsement by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Defining human trafficking
Do we know the prevalence of human trafficking?
Preventing human trafficking
Trafficking online
NIJ research
Key takeaways