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Interviewing victims of human trafficking: Survivors offer advice

Written By | Mar 2, 2014

RICHMOND, VA, March 1, 2014 – Recently, I discussed with law enforcement interviewing techniques when working with potential victims of human trafficking. As a survivor of child sex trafficking, I wrote an academic nonfiction book on the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) in the United States, titled Walking Prey.  Although I do share my personal story in Walking Prey, this book is much more than a memoir. I discuss predisposing factors and community risk factors for CSEC, as well as the potential mindset of a “willing victim”.

A child victim who does not self-identify as such is often referred to as a “willing victim,” as was I at age fourteen in 1992. In Walking Prey, I discuss “willing victims” in order to offer victim-centered insight to law enforcement and other first responders and victim advocates. My hope is that such insight will help professionals interview and care for such victims. When offering tips to law enforcement, I often pull from my resources in Walking Prey. However, I believe that additional insight from other survivors of human trafficking is needed in order to offer comprehensive advice on interviewing techniques.  Following are quotes from a few survivors of sex and labor trafficking within America.

Trust, trust, trust…Building the rapport, trust, and relationship with victims takes time and patience…it is essential for [human trafficking] cases…[this is] one big reason why these cases are different from any other and [why] specialized training is needed. [Plan for m]ultiple contacts, multiple interviews. [Have p]atience! Never expect the victim to give you all, or even hardly any, intel the first interview. The first few meetings are you gaining their trust and building rapport. You will most likely get tiny bits of info, which will grow little by little, and over time pieces will come together.  – Anonymous Survivor and Consultant for the International Association of Human Trafficking Investigators (IAHTI)

This same anonymous survivor recommends that law enforcement use the following statements in order to help gain trust and build rapport with victims:

I’ll meet with you as many times as it takes – to make you feel more comfortable/for you to trust me;

You’re in control, you don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to, you get to choose what you want to talk about, and you can say as little or as much as you want;

If you say you’re done [or that the] interview’s over, then it’s over.

Let [the] victim choose [the ]location for [the ]interview, or choos[e] appropriate locations. [For example, I would have preferred a] butterfly garden. – Anonymous Survivor and Consultant for IAHTI

[Please be] victim-centered, not case-centered. We know you want to get the bad guy(s), but without your victim/survivor, you have nothing. You cannot interview her as if she were a suspect, even though she has information essential to you building your case. – Anonymous Survivor and Consultant for IAHTI

[You] HAVE to understand how trauma affects not just behavior, but memory. You will not get the “perfect statement”, in chronological order, with all the “who/what/where/when/why/how” all together at once, making sense. You need to give them time and you need to be a safe person for them to figure out how to formulate that information that they can then later provide to you…if you establish that safety and trust. – Anonymous Survivor and Consultant for IAHTI

Understand triggers—these can bring up memories—which then can give you intel. But you need to know how to approach these and help them feel safe in disclosing. You might have to be prepared to help them through a trigger. Done correctly, this can actually be part of facilitating the healing process! – Anonymous Survivor and Consultant for IAHTI

[Learn to pick] up on subtle signs. Not every victim is going to cry through [an] entire interview, but[ this ]doesn’t mean she isn’t affected emotionally and needs a break, etc. Many are desensitized, numb, [angry], [and may] give you attitude. [You c]an’t take it personally. – Anonymous Survivor and Consultant for IAHTI

If a patrol officer is the one who connects to [a] victim and she trusts him, [please] don’t break that relationship. Have a detective [who is trained on human trafficking] communicate with him, advise him, and give him proper questions and techniques to utilize with [the] victim. – Anonymous Survivor and Consultant for IAHTI

[When you are i]n the field with suspected victims or at-risk girls/victims – [this could be] on the streets, in the clubs, etc. – you [should] build a rapport (and therefore, develop that relationship leading to intel or case info) by just being there, showing up, and expecting nothing in return. Bring food, drive her to get cigarettes, minimal things that show you’re…not trying to make them do anything or expecting anything.   – Anonymous Survivor and Consultant for IAHTI

My advice for law enforcement is that they should be patient when dealing with victims. They need to take the time to really understand what is going on. Some police officers treat victims harshly especially when the trafficker is the one who has called the police on the victim. In my case, my trafficker called the police, which he had been using to threaten [me] before he actually did it. And, when the police came, they were not nice to me. Both the male and female police. Police officers need to learn how to look beneath the surface and focus on[ a ]victim approach first before the criminal because that is how victims can get help[. A]nd a victim doesn’t have [to] suffer in the hands of those who were supposed to protect them.  – Bukola Oriala, Author of Imprisoned: The Travails of a Trafficked Victim and Founder/Producer of Imprisoned Show

As a survivor of [s]exual [e]xploitation and police brutality, I would advocate for law enforcement and prosecutors to understand that prostitution is rarely a choice. In several studies (Source: Farley, Melissa, Journal of Trauma Practice, Volume 2, Issue 3-4, 2004, The Haworth Press, Inc., 2003.), 89-92% of women wanted to exit but had no means to do so (doesn’t sound like choice to me). In training to [law enforcement] in particular, I usually talk about “Planting that Seed” and tell the story about a San Francisco [p]olice [o]fficer [who ] took the time to find out why I was out there on the street and let me know there were other options – no [police department/detective] had ever done that. A year or so later, I took the seed he planted and began to change my life (with the help of a peer-led program). Generally, in interviewing a Survivor, find a positive truth about that person and let them know that [he or she is] smart [or has] the gift of gab, [or ]whatever, [just point out] some[thing that] is intellectual and TRUE [about that person]. You never know what that statement might mean to the person and what they might do with it to make positive change – that’s the growth part that may blossom into a whole new life for the Survivor. It did for me! – Autumn Burris, Founder and Director of Survivors for Solutions; and Survivor Trainer for Runaway Girl, FPC

[B]asically I would say [that law enforcement should develop] trauma-informed interviewing techniques. This is because [survivors can become] triggered and fearful, thus appearing uncooperative…[I would also stress] the importance[ of ]patience [and] trust-building. [I would] also mention the importance of [understanding] stereotypes [associated with] “bad kids who choose this” [way of life]. – Anonymous Survivor and Social Scientist

Law enforcement who directly deal with the victims who c[o]me from another country [often] don’t know how to deal with them [due to a] lack of [understanding for their] culture and language. Law enforcement [often] don’t have any patien[ce when] dealing with those victims, especially foreign people and children. I learned that one way to [help both] law enforcement [and foreign-born victims] is giving [law enforcement] more training related human trafficking[ and ]sensitivity…[during an] interview. I believe, if law enforcement have a high sensitivity to understand about the victim’s condition and their culture, it will help them to identify the potential victim more easily. [Law enforcement must learn to] look beaneath the surface. [V]ictims [are often] confused and [have often] lost…trust [in] people…even [law enforcement. L]aw enforcement need[s] to be more patient…not pushing the victim[; law enforcement must offer] respect and give them more time to talk…maybe [law enforcement] need[s] to collaborate with organization[s] or survivor[s] who speak in the[ potential victim’s] language, this [will] also help [law enforcement] to do [more effective] interviewing[. The] victim will easily trust people who speak their language and [will also trust a] survivor of the same crime. – Shandra Woworuntu, Member of Voices of Hope


Written by Holly Austin Smith, Author of Walking Prey.


Holly Smith

Holly is a survivor of child sex trafficking and an advocate against all forms of human trafficking. Her story has been featured on Dr. Oz and in Cosmopolitan magazine. Holly is requested on a regular basis to provide testimony and input to law enforcement, service providers, human trafficking task forces, legislators, educators, and journalists. In her nonfiction book, Walking Prey, Holly shares her personal story and discusses dynamics related to the commercial sexual exploitation, including sex trafficking, of children in the United States. Walking Prey is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and IndieBound. (Photo Credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch, 2012.)