July 31, 2015

DOJ Office for Victims of Crime Explores Collaborating with Culturally Specific Organizations to End Human Trafficking, Domestic Violence, and Sexual Assault

by Bethlehem Mebratu

On July 9, 2015, a panel of experts gathered to present the webinar, “Collaborating with Culturally Specific Organizations to End Human Trafficking, Domestic Violence, and Sexual Assault.” The panel included speakers Chic Dabby, Executive Director of the Asian Pacific Institute on Gender-Based Violence and Michelle Ortiz, Deputy Director at Al Justice on behalf of the National Latin@ Network. The goal of the discussion was to identify effective collaboration strategies that leverage culturally specific resources on behalf of survivors. This concept is part of the Federal Strategic Plan on Services of Human Trafficking, a government initiative that promotes services for human trafficking victims that are victim-centered, culturally relevant, evidence-based, gender-responsive, and trauma-informed.

Dynamics of Human Trafficking

Panelists described the categories of individuals that participate in domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST) and commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC). One common misperception is that individuals are trafficked by strangers. According to a Covenant House study of domestic minor sex trafficking survivors, only 9% of individuals are trafficked by strangers.  Most victims are trafficked by boyfriends, immediate family members, friends of family, or employers. The root causes of trafficking involve gender oppression; male demand for commodified sex; domestic violence; victims escaping abuse, money, poverty or debt traps; and demand for cheap labor.

Cultural Competence and Its Importance When Working with Victims of Human Trafficking

The panel expert defined cultural competence as, “a set of congruent behaviors, attitudes and policies that come together in a system, agency or professional, and enable that system, agency or professional to work effectively in cross-cultural situations.” A culturally competent system meets the needs of survivors by acknowledging and incorporating the importance of culture into its services in order to meet individuals’ culturally-unique needs. Becoming culturally competent requires building skills and identifying one’s own assumptions and biases. Cultural differences may make a survivor especially vulnerable to victimization. For example, a survivor may come from a culture where violence against and exploitation of women is normalized, so the survivor is reluctant to seek help.

The presenters illustrated this point by describing the case of Maria, a woman born in rural Guatemala and living in South Florida, who primarily speaks a rare indigenous dialect. When Maria was brought to a domestic violence shelter by police, she was unable to communicate with the staff, and believed she was in jail. Fortunately, the DV shelter connected Maria to an immigration attorney who had a relationship with a culturally specific organization (CSO) that specializes in serving indigenous Guatemalan families in South Florida. The CSO had staff speaking many dialects and provided an interpreter who enabled Maria to communicate effectively with her attorney, understand where she was and why she had been removed from her home. The CSO also helped to identify Maria as a likely victim of human trafficking, although Maria did not self-identify as a victim due to cultural norms.

The panelists suggested that service providers should view a survivor’s experiences and needs with a flexible lens that adapts to experiences shaped by a variety of cultures. To be successful, those who are reaching out to victims must refrain from making assumptions based on mainstream ideas or stereotypes that may exist about the survivor’s culture.

Collaborating with Culturally Specific Organizations

Organizations providing services to victims can increase their cultural competence by collaborating with culturally specific organizations (CSOs). A CSO should have:

  • Members and clients from a community with a shared culture.
  • Staff, board, and leadership that reflects the community served.
  • An environment that members identify as culturally-focused.
  • Recognition within the community as culturally specific.
  • A track record of successful engagement with the community.

Organizations with these features can address the distinctive needs of survivors from a particular culture, and can provide a sense of community for a survivor displaced as a result of trafficking. Service programs seeking to collaborate with CSOs should:

  • Identify the CSOs in the community.
    • Develop relationships and request trainings on how to work with survivors, prior to working on a case.
  • Request advice on how the service organization can better serve its clients.
    • Request practical services for victims that the CSO can support, including interpreter and translation services, child care, religious support, housing shelter, financial assistance, and a sense of community.

Gang and crime-controlled trafficking can be dangerous and violent. It is problematic that there are fewer organizations and runaway shelters designed for trafficking victims, compared to victims of other forms of violence and abuse.

The panel identified five areas where CSOs can assist in combatting human trafficking.

  • Raids / Stings: Raids are traumatic and can lead to jail time, homelessness, and an increased risk of suicide for victims of human trafficking. It is important to work with victims to understand the sources of their trauma, and make them feel safe. Advocates can work with CSOs to coordinate responses with law enforcement before raids are conducted in order to meet victim needs and distinguish traffickers from victims.
  • Arrests: It is important that trafficked individuals are interviewed, not interrogated. Advocates should help victims manage their feelings and feel in control. In addition to providing interpreters, CSOs also may be able to help find a safe space for victims when they are released.
  • Investigations: During an investigation, it is important that victims are not re-traumatized by having to recount stories and details. Questioning methods that challenge victims may make the victim feel worthless. CSOs can help by understanding cultural prohibitions to disclosing sexual violence and helping victims cope with feelings of shame. CSOs can also help with safety planning, depending on how dangerous the traffickers are.
  • Shelters: Victims may feel traumatized by having to stay in an enclosed space. A human trafficking victim may feel especially isolated in a domestic violence shelter where he or she may not identify with the experiences of other residents. CSOs can help identify intergenerational trauma, educate family members about sexual exploitation and provide life skills training that can help victims before and after they leave the shelter.
  • Healthcare: CSOs can help build capacity for identifying victims of human trafficking. Healthcare providers, untrained in screening for trafficking, may misdiagnose problems. CSOs can help patients by understanding their culture, but also by assisting in practical matters like helping a patient understand informed consent.

The next webinar in this five-part series is titled, “Working Together Part I: Law Enforcement,” and will be presented online on August 13, 2015, at 2:30 p.m. ET. This webinar shares examples of successful law enforcement collaborations and explores ways to effectively engage the justice system and community and how to sustain involvement. All webinars are recorded and will be available at: https://www.ovcttac.gov/views/HowWeCanHelp/dspHumanTrafficking.cfm