If immediate response is needed, call 911. If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline 1-888-373-7888 to speak with a specially trained Anti-Trafficking Hotline Advocate.

By Dr. Jeanie Thies, Criminal Justice Program Director/Professor, Social Work Department, Fontbonne University

Human trafficking crimes have profound and long-lasting impacts on victims of these crimes as well as on the communities in which they take place. The rapid growth of known human trafficking crimes in the 21st century has been accompanied by a growing recognition of its prevalence and effects, as well as an expansion of service agencies and special enforcement units designed to combat it. Professionals from multiple disciplines have occasion to interact with victims and/or perpetrators of human trafficking. Thus, they can respond to and potentially interrupt the process, connecting victims to essential services, preventing further victimization, and holding offenders accountable. This includes, but is not limited to the fields of criminal justice, healthcare, education, and social work. In the social work profession alone, workers may encounter victims in child protective services, domestic violence and other victim support agencies, income support programs, and refugee work, among other settings. Yet professional training and coursework for those who may encounter victims or perpetrators of human trafficking has lagged. The amount of education these professionals receive on human trafficking, in both on-the-job training and coursework before entering the job market is tremendously uneven across the U.S.  

Myths about human trafficking abound, further underscoring the need for better training and education on the topic. The Polaris Project, a movement that works to stamp out human trafficking and aid victims, devotes a section of its website to exposing false rumors and debunking myths (Polaris Project Rumors). These range from myths about child victims being trafficked in cabinets made by a well-known furniture manufacturer, to drug-laced flowers being handed out in public settings to render prospective victims unconscious, to underground tunnels that are used to move victims from the U.S. southern border to Washington, D.C. These misconceptions can be very harmful, in that law enforcement might pursue investigations against innocent people that can disrupt these persons’ lives as well as businesses and entire communities. Resources can be wasted targeting false leads.  More importantly, law enforcement and victim service providers may overlook the actual human trafficking crimes occurring in their communities.

Little is known about how workers who have not been formally trained respond when they do encounter actual victims, or if they do at all. A review of scholarly publications from the 21st century on awareness of human trafficking among key service providers (mostly social workers and physicians) revealed not just low levels of awareness of the problem, but negative attitudes towards victims. (Fraley 1). Such attitudes can result in unsuitable and inadequate responses, which can exacerbate victim suffering.

Thus, one important focus in the training and education efforts to ameliorate the problem can be simply identifying and defining what is meant by “human trafficking” and clarifying misconceptions. As with the term “cybercrime,” there is a wide array of behaviors that may be perceived as forms of human trafficking, with some gray areas. A 2014 survey of law enforcement, prosecutors and other court personnel in twelve U.S. counties noted that law enforcement struggled with definitions of what comprised human trafficking. Areas of confusion included distinguishing between unfair labor conditions and trafficking, “traditional” forms of prostitution and sex trafficking, and when kidnapping was done for purposes of trafficking (Farrel and Pfeffer 50). With uncertainty as to how local crimes corresponded to statutory definitions of trafficking, they lacked guidance on what evidence to collect and how to ensure a thorough investigation and vigorous prosecution.

In response to these challenges, and the observed inconsistency in both quality and quantity of human trafficking education available, the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training is developing a national curriculum on human trafficking for law enforcement agencies (Human Trafficking, the Crucible of Training, 2023). As part of this project, they have created a template for training academies that can be adapted to meet local needs.  While this is a commendable effort, police academies operate largely independent of one another, and there is no single curriculum that is required nationwide. Law enforcement agencies are accountable to their own government leadership and accreditation –and even accreditation is voluntary. Thus, there is no guarantee that an agency will adopt a national curriculum, nor even require training on human trafficking at all.

There are myriad resources available targeting other groups of professionals, if they seek these out. The U.S. Department of Education, in partnership with the National Center on Safe Learning Environments, has compiled a list of informational websites, training webinars, technical assistance providers, and grant funders. These can assist education personnel in recognizing human trafficking, building community collaborations, and creating policies and protocols to properly respond to the problem. But no good data are available regarding the frequency through which educational institutions or individual educators access these resources, let alone implement model practices and programs. Other Government agencies provide similar services, such as the federal government’s SOAR Health and Wellness Training Program within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (Nhttac.acf/hhs.gov/soar/). The Gateway Alliance against Human Trafficking, like other community-based nonprofit organizations, hosts training seminars for law enforcement, educators, and healthcare professionals, as well as others for other relevant professional groups and the general community. Yet with no clear mandates or incentives, businesses, nonprofit and public service organizations may not take advantage of these opportunities.

Considering the wide range of professions that could benefit from learning about human trafficking, institutions of higher education seem a logical starting point for disseminating knowledge on the problem. Given the ever-changing nature of some college curricula, it is difficult to determine how common human trafficking courses are offered or required at U.S. universities. When they do exist, these courses are typically housed in criminal justice or social work programs, or programs addressing larger issues involving international development, social justice, and human rights. They have been appearing more frequently in curricula in the last decade, though appear mostly to be electives, rather than required for a degree. Even at larger universities, faculty members with specific expertise in human trafficking are rare. Economies of scale can be achieved with cross-listed courses open to student in various majors, which allows for sharing of expertise. Some institutions are very proactive and progressive, going beyond just coursework on human trafficking.  The University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies hosts a Human Trafficking Center, which works to bring data-driven solutions to bear on the problem. Wilmington University in Delaware has a program in which students can earn a Human Trafficking certificate. St. Thomas University’s law school hosts a multi-course Human Trafficking Academy, primarily intended for leaders in the field, and also generates cutting-edge research. In 2022, this academy offered a workshop titled Incorporating Human Trafficking Law and Policy in Law School Curriculum.” The extent to which students who complete these courses and certifications will carry knowledge forward to permeate the professional settings remains to be seen.

According to the 2019 U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline Data Report, 68% to 87% of victims sought healthcare during the time they were being trafficked (Polaris Project, 2019). It is hardly surprising then, that medical schools are on the forefront of institutions of higher education addressing human trafficking. For example, Harvard University partnered with the University of South Florida to launch a model curriculum in 2016 designed for third year medical students (Baier 1). The curriculum employs patient simulations and emphasizes the principles of trauma-informed care. Multiple professional organizations have endorsed the need for human trafficking training, including the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, along with several others. However, research has revealed a need for hospitals or healthcare conglomerates to offer stronger incentives for staff to attend training.  One suggestion is that training be allowed to satisfy the standards for continuing medical education credits that many healthcare professionals must earn annually, or that state licensing boards require the training for licensure or re-licensure (Powell, Dickens, Stocklosa).

An important and promising trend is legislating or incentivizing human trafficking training for people entering or already in key professions. In 2017, California passed the first law requiring human trafficking education for school personnel. Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia have followed suit in similar laws for training for school personnel. Louisiana’s statute calls for all mandated reporters to certify they have completed human trafficking training with the state’s health department. A minority of states mandate training, and/or certification for medical providers, though these vary in intensity. For some states, a one-hour informational session can satisfy the legal requirement, whereas New York, for example, stipulates that training be ongoing.[1] Legislators can mandate not only inclusion of coursework in professional training curricula, but also the rigor and content of the courses. Texas law requires that any course within a professional training program be approved through the state’s Health and Human Services. This encompasses a tremendous range of professions, such as physicians, midwives, athletic trainers, dental hygienists, chemical dependency counselors, and more.

It is encouraging that there is a growing trend to infuse human trafficking education across multiple professions. Nonetheless, efforts remain uneven and incremental. Universities can do their part by incorporating courses into multiple curricula and encouraging, if not requiring, students poised to enter key professions to enroll. Post-graduate programs should include advanced level coursework that is tailored to the types of situations likely to be to encountered in the fields their graduates will enter. Importantly, state legislatures must take up the mantle of mandating or otherwise incentivizing training for key professionals, which should address both the quality and quantity of training, crafting laws that meet the unique needs of their states. Collectively, these changes can help ensure we have strong networks in place for recognizing human trafficking and reducing its toll on individuals and communities.

[1] For a full description of states’ legislation on human trafficking training for healthcare professionals see: Human Trafficking and Health Care Providers: Legal Requirements for Reporting and Education (healtrafficking.org)


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