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Goetz Ottmann
Associate Professor (Social Work) ACAP Sydney, Australia.

Facing the challenge of international students in social work education

Human trafficking is emerging from the shadows and is gaining recognition by multiple stakeholders, government officials, law enforcement personnel, and human services providers, as a major social issue. Possessing global dimensions, human trafficking has diverse manifestations, but they all reflect the exploitation of women, men, and children who face considerable vulnerability. The enactment of the United Nations Palermo Protocol made human trafficking a transnational felony since trafficking too often cuts across international borders. That one country could alone prioritize the enforcement of its own human trafficking laws as a solution to this issue reveals the futility of efforts by some countries to address this serious social issue. Human trafficking reflects the necessity of multinational agreements to combat this kind of crime—one involving the economic, physical, sexual, and emotional exploitation of human beings involving servitude, forced marriage, slavery, and/or sexuality.

But even in the face of transnational agreements, and a country’s recognition of the need for collaboration across international borders, local responses are emerging to address the negative consequences of trafficking. The authors have examined these responses closely at the border of the United States and Mexico. Through multiple web-based reviews of organizational responses, they came to appreciate the multiplicity of organizational forms that have emerged on the border. Not only do those forms reflect the diversity of responses to human trafficking, but they also reveal the complexity of this social issue, and the various strategies human service organizations are using to address this issue.

Purpose and Justification of Project

In this article, the authors offer a working typology of organizational responses to human trafficking mindful of the challenges they face in appreciating the variations in those responses. Their objectives were to (1) create a working typology of these organizations given how they portray themselves through their websites, (2) reveal the scope of social and other supports these organizations offered victims of human trafficking, and (3) illuminate the transnational interactions among the organizations across the border, given that many victims move through Mexico from Central America to reach the United States (Noyori-Corbett & Moxley, 2016). Those people, largely women and children, experience victimization by cartels, gangs, militias, and organized crime syndicates who see trafficking in forced labor, forced marriage and sex slavery as lucrative ventures.


With the assistance of a graduate student, the authors identified organizations addressing human trafficking across five states involving Texas, Oklahoma, California, Arkansas and Arizona. They used a screening checklist that enabled them to identify those organizations working with people who had experienced human trafficking. Through an iterative process of screening, the research team selected 99 organizational websites that were a product of multiple searches using multiple key word search terms. Fields of the screening tool were focus of services, scope of service provision, orientation to the social issue of human trafficking, and features of coordination and/or collaboration.

The application of the screening checklist offered the authors a way of establishing the focus of an organization on human trafficking. Once the team selected an organization and then reviewed it they undertook a content analysis of a site. This content analysis allowed for the further identification of the type of service provision an organization undertook with victims of human trafficking. The authors then assigned a specific focus to each of the organizations involving social service provision, residential care, health care, mental health care, or law enforcement.

Organizational Responses - Social service response to human trafficking

One of the principal forms of response involves outreach to victims who come under the detention of the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Direct service providers engage victims in the process of case identification. Local providers offer a core competence in establishing trust with victims to undertake social histories of their plights, and work with federal law enforcement in the identification of perpetrators and interdiction. The organizations interact with law enforcement entities and their personnel, which can involve a complex process of building relationships with victims, and also understanding how victims can be seen as perpetrators by law enforcement personnel. Too often victims are exploited by traffickers to manage the process of human trafficking and so victims themselves may appear as perpetrators.

Social service organizations on the border likely receive victims after interdiction by law enforcement personnel. They may serve as the front line entity facilitating the permanency of victims through legal assistance as well as facilitating resettlement. Such organizations are likely principal providers of psychological support, vocational training, and short term housing options. Their advocacy can influence whether a victim remains in the United States. As a principal support system for victims, the organizations can incorporate trauma-informed care and therefore their approaches to victimization can incorporate mental health care, as well, or they may collaborate with mental health treatment providers.

Residential care for victims of human trafficking

The trauma of human trafficking for its victims and their displacement is a serious negative consequence of this social issue. Residential providers for rescued victims can involve both intensive and long term care or support, especially as victims navigate the complexity of the legal system, validate their victimization, and address the demands inherent in long term resettlement. Brief residential care can move victims out of harm’s way immediately. Nonetheless the long term nature of recovery may demand more supportive forms of housing as victims move through their own processes of adjustment. Victims face limited access to residential care, since many states on the border lack such availability. Some states may reserve beds for human trafficking victims in those organizations that do not offer a specialized response to human trafficking. California, however, appears to be a front runner in the provision of residential beds for human trafficking victims. Those programs that do specialize in the provision of residential options and support identify long term continuity of care as important for their users. Such continuity is yet another reflection of the complexity and severity of the consequences of human trafficking. Blending case management, counseling, concreate assistance with benefits, spirituality, family reintegration, and medical and substance use treatment within the residential continuum is indicative of a best practice. The scope of this kind of service provision reveals that human service providers must address the process of recovery and resettlement as well as social integration. The long term nature of care requires such providers to extend support past the time victims leave intensive treatment and transition into community living. Those experiencing human trafficking may make their own transitions—from victims to survivors. Those who see themselves as survivors may extend peer support to those who are coming into residential services in the acute phase of victimization.

Health care provision to human trafficking victims

Human traffickers can induce four kinds of health related problems among those who are victims (Shandro et al, 2016). Those involve physical, sexual, psychological, and enforced substance use. Punitive tactics used by Traffickers can induce considerable physical damage like restraints and enforced isolation or solitary confinement can further exasperate psychological effects including anxiety and depression. Food and sleep deprivation can weaken victims physically. Unprotected sex combined with forced prostitution can increase the risk of infectious disease among victims. Human trafficking responses can occur in the emergency room of local health care providers. Victims may present themselves with urgent needs, and it may not be clear to health care providers that the person they assess in the emergency or urgent care context is a victim of human trafficking. Those health care entities that enhance assessment through the inclusion of nurses and social workers who understand the signs of abuse augment case identification. In turn, collaboration with law enforcement can enhance health care provision to those who are victims of human trafficking. Those organizations that collaborate with health care providers form referral networks integrating social service, legal, crisis, and residential responses. The effectiveness of the health care referral system is contingent on the networks of organizations that have formed to address human trafficking on the border. Medical social workers are vital lynchpins in the helping process since it is this professional discipline that can form and coordinate networks of care for individuals who are victims of human trafficking. To abate anxiety among human trafficking victims, linkage to legal services as early as possible can increase morale among those who fear either arrest or deportation.

Mental health care for victims of human trafficking

Not only can victims experience considerable trauma but the legal response to human trafficking may introduce considerable ambiguity, especially as it pertains to permanency, and the receipt of visas that recognize the person’s status as a victim of human trafficking (T-visas). Mental health services are essential to helping victims recover from the multiplicity of negative consequences in which physical, psychological, emotional and sexual abuse can be prominent. Crisis intervention is an important service factor in the recovery process in which mental health professionals help victims by addressing their immediate situations, the possibility of continued threat by traffickers, and the stress that law enforcement can create. Addressing the negative consequence of labor exploitation, forced domestic servitude, or forced sex work may make it difficult for victims to take action on their own behalf.

Mental health providers not only serve in victim assistance roles, but they also can combine therapy with advocacy in a form of clinical case management. The mental health provider may need to mix a number of roles to help victims as they transition through the immediate period of rescue and as they begin the process of transition. The mental health professional may be the sole person with whom a victim, often times women and children, can relate and form a trusting relationship. Formation of this trusting bond is likely critical in the early phases since victims may be unable to participate in group support or therapy because of mistrust of others. Some victims who were exploiting other victims at the behest of traffickers may require a different protocol of mental health care.

The duality of law enforcement

Law enforcement officials may play a critical role in supporting victims of human trafficking. They can assist victims with obtaining assistance in terms of connecting with providers, and they may support victims in temporary shelter. They may work closely with those providers at the point of interdiction, and in case identification. And, they can facilitate access to legal services for victims. But law enforcement officials are concerned about interdiction, and they can create considerable stress for victims through protracted interviews, threats of return to the country of origin, and demands for cooperation. Those organizations focusing on law enforcement may recognize this inordinate stress their methods can create for victims, and they can humanize the process through the involvement of victim advocates, social service or mental health providers, or peer support specialists, that is, peer advocates. An ultimate paradox is that the organizations focusing on law enforcement may coerce victims into taking responsibility for perpetrating crimes in which they engaged involuntarily. Some law enforcement organizations operating on the border recognized this potentiality and therefore put in place victims’ rights protection, and collaborative arrangements with providers. Such a balanced approach not only can humanize law enforcement actions, but also can assist victims to obtain the immediate assistance they require.


All of the organizations the authors examined were not pure types. They organized them by dominant type since many of the organizations incorporated an array of service provision, or extended their reach through collaboration or coordination. Most of the organizations combined assistance of victims of human trafficking with assistance to other groups including those experiencing violence, domestic violence, or refugee resettlement. Most of the organizations used the identifier of victim to communicate the severity of violation experienced by the people to whom they lent assistance. Organizations offering social services or housing support tended to use the identifier of survivor, since many of these agencies reached out to victims well after the acute period when victims were literally survivors of human trafficking. Those organizations tended to incorporate people who survived human trafficking and likely they operated in roles commensurate with peer support in mental health organizations. Alternatively, those organizations responding to individuals they characterized as victims tended to incorporate multiple personnel including professionals, lay helpers, and volunteers.

Collaboration is characteristic of those organizations that focus exclusively on human trafficking. Alternatively, those responses to human trafficking operating out of family service organizations focused less on locality based collaboration. The handful of organizations that incorporated transnational efforts, those cutting across the border, were also likely to operate across multiple states in the United States. Collaboration therefore is not always a central strategy across organizations responding to human trafficking.

Overall, through these reviews, the authors were also able to identify two principal paradigms of organizational response to human trafficking: treatment orientation with a focus on trauma informed care and advocacy- oriented with a focus on facilitating the movement of victims or survivors to safe situations as they help people to establish their status within the United States. For the authors, the next steps in the research is to further expand these paradigms, examine organizational configurations, and deepen their appreciation for the organizational cultures of response. Moving from the website analysis to interviews of organizational actors and selected site visits will produce richer data about responses to the serious social issue of human trafficking.


Noyori-Corbett, C., & Moxley, D. (2016). Inequality of women as a factor influencing migration from countries of origin to the United States and its implications for understanding human trafficking. International Social Work, 59(60, 890-903.
Shandro, J., Chisolm-Straker, M., Duber, H. C., Findlay, S. L., Munoz, J. Schmitz, G. & Wingkun, N. (2016). Human trafficking: A guide to identification and approach for the emergency physician. Annals of Emergency Medicine, 68(4), 501-508