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After the Bar

Public Service

Providing Legal Assistance to Survivors of Human Trafficking

Donna Robinson


  • In the fight to end human trafficking, the demand for trauma-informed lawyers is at an all-time high.
Providing Legal Assistance to Survivors of Human Trafficking

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Slavery never truly ended.

Today, hundreds of thousands of people worldwide are lured or forced into modern-day slavery, also known as human trafficking. Human trafficking involves using force, fraud, or coercion to obtain labor, sexual exploitation, or a similar act from another person. In the fight to end human trafficking, the demand for trauma-informed lawyers is at an all-time high. However, it is imperative to become an informed ally before becoming a legal advocate.

Identifying Human Trafficking

Imagine representing a 20-year-old named Khya: She’s been charged with prostitution, and her 40-year-old boyfriend Jim has paid her legal fees. Given that love-has-no-age-limit romance is quite common (i.e., a wealthy, older man with a beautiful, young girlfriend), their relationship may not strike you as odd. As you learn more about Khya, however, something seems a bit off.

After meeting Jim, Khya quit her job. She stopped speaking to her family and friends. She wears revealing outfits and dramatic makeup, but her shy nature doesn’t seem to match the confidence of someone dressed in that manner. Khya keeps her head down, barely makes eye contact, and doesn’t speak for herself. When she does, Jim takes control of the conversation and diverts attention to himself. Strangely, Khya does not have a phone.

Knowing all of this, would you suspect that Khya is a victim of trafficking? If so, would you know how to assist her?

Understanding Human Trafficking

Various Forms of Trauma

Trauma-informed advocacy is critical. Take time to research and attend training on the various forms of trafficking and the trauma survivors experience. Trauma stemming from the violence inherent in trafficking has prevented many survivors from trying to escape. “Mental chains” and other forms of coercion are as powerful and restrictive as physical restraints. While Khya may have been out in public with no physical restraints, the abuse she may have received until that point may have compelled her to remain withdrawn and not attempt to escape.

Trafficking and the Criminal Justice System

Given the prevalence of trafficking, do not assume that someone charged with prostitution willingly chose that lifestyle. Many individuals who are in jail on these charges may have been forced into that situation. Jim may very well be Khya’s trafficker, yet she was the one being charged with a crime. Due to a vast misunderstanding within the criminal justice system of what human trafficking looks like, many survivors are misidentified, criminalized, and imprisoned, while the traffickers and buyers go unpunished.

Additional Support

As part of your research, identify local safe houses, mental health clinics, and counselors who serve trafficking survivors so that you will know ahead of time where to refer your client for additional support.

Representing Survivors

Once you understand what trafficking survivors experience, you will be better positioned to interact effectively with your clients and obtain the information necessary to advocate on their behalf. When communicating with your client, use an open-ended narrative approach with short, simple, non-leading questions. Tailor questions in a way that does not highlight your client’s vulnerability. For example, instead of asking Khya, “Can you read and write?” you should ask, “How many years of school did you complete?”

Calmly discuss any inconsistencies in answers; don’t assume your client has a sinister motive if they give a dishonest answer. Remember, fear or trauma may be the reason for the dishonesty. Survivors have experienced extreme acts of violence. It may be difficult for them to discuss their experiences openly. Your client may use vague words or phrases, like “something bad happened to me,” instead of saying, “I was tortured.” In Khya’s case, recall how withdrawn and shy she seemed. Do your best to obtain information empathetically, understanding that you may receive some hesitation and resistance.

Through continual learning, understanding, and commitment, you can use your legal career to advance the fight to end modern-day slavery. If you are interested in pursuing pro bono opportunities in this area, consider the following resources: