Millions of human trafficking victims exist across the globe. In the United States, hundreds of thousands of victims experience trafficking. As society expands and evolves, human trafficking perpetrators find new ways to recruit and victimize others. The evolution of perpetration ensues because of increases in accessing technology, shifting state and federal laws, and changing criminal investigation methods within communities. Human trafficking continues to evolve into a new way of enslaving human beings, stripping individuals of basic rights and freedoms, while skirting the legal issues of slavery and ownership.
Human traffickers often recruit individuals by offering the fantasy of increased happiness, stability, relationship success and financial freedom. Human traffickers, often referred to as “pimps” or “playboys,” may recruit a female or male victim with promises of a better quality of life, including, but not limited to money, security and safe shelter. These perpetrators often present as charming and recruit their victims using lies and manipulation. They prey on victims from vulnerable populations, including those with low socioeconomic status (SES), biological females, children and adolescents, immigrants and LGBTQ+ youth. The fact that these vulnerable populations often remain dependent on others or experience institutionalized marginalization allows for perpetrators to paint the picture of a better life, both in terms of finance and social support. Thus, counselors must understand the cycle of perpetration and victimization to pinpoint potential victims among clients.
As a starting point, counselors must understand the nature of the phenomenon and seek ways to identify potential risk and protective factors. Counselors must learn to assess and address possible victimization with effective rapport building and intervention. For example, youth may display delinquent behavior (e.g., truancy, sexual misconduct, drug use) as a symptom of coercion and threats by a perpetrator. Perpetrators often experience greater ease when recruiting teenagers because of their tendency to be influenced by others. Sadly, when teenagers fall victim to a human trafficker, they are subjected to the victim-blaming phenomenon.
Thus, to build therapeutic rapport from a nonjudgmental framework, counselors need to understand the true source of teenagers’ behavior rather than labeling them as inappropriate or delinquent. As counselors increase their understanding of risk and protective factors, the profession may be able to conceptualize human trafficking as a systemic problem from a broad perspective.
Risk and protective factors
Several risk and protective factors exist for those falling victim to human trafficking. Risk factors include the following demographics and experiences. Risk factors, which are not limited to the list provided, may change over time with the help of counselors.
- Low SES
- Previous or current substance abuse
- Social vulnerability (e.g., children, females, LGBTQ+ individuals)
- Limited education.
Protective factors, referred to as strengths in counseling, include the following demographics and experiences. Counselors must foster protective factors and strengths in clients to reduce the risk of falling victim to trafficking.
- Family stability
- Strong social support networks
- Mental and emotional health
Counselors should understand these risk and protective factors to assess potential risks for human trafficking and to focus on increasing protective factors in counseling. For example, counselors may use a family counseling approach when working with survivors to increase their connections to loved ones and family. Throughout the process of recruiting and selling human trafficking victims, counselors may notice several risk and protective factors playing a role in the process.
Human trafficking business model and counseling implications
Human trafficking remains a mysterious and misunderstood phenomenon. Because of a lack of understanding about the effects of human trafficking on our society, counselors are charged with educating themselves to best address and assess individuals for victimization.
Counselors should recognize that survivors of sex trafficking require additional techniques (to those used with other clients) to build rapport with them and to reduce the mistrust that they commonly have about people. To best serve survivors, treatment approaches need to remain centered on survivors, empower them, provide safety and involve a multidisciplinary approach. In addition, professional counselors working extensively with sex trafficking survivors hold legal and ethical responsibilities to provide appropriate services and identify strategies to overcome barriers to their treatment, including specialized and intensive training.
To begin, counselors must understand the human trafficking business model to conceptualize the systemic issue and the moving parts that contribute to the continuing cycle. To highlight some of the societal and professional impacts, consider the parallel of the human trafficking business model to the process of manufacturing goods. The human trafficking business model includes the following stages of grooming and distribution:
1) The supplier recruits the victim.
2) The manufacturer grooms the victim.
3) The retailer determines price and then markets the victim.
4) The retailer sells and the consumer purchases the victim.
The human trafficking business model is a sophisticated process, not always linear in nature, and it functions as a well-established industry. Thus, the need exists to explore each of the model to better understand how to help victims and break the cycle.
Stage 1: Supplying victims. The supplier, also known as the initial human trafficking perpetrator, displays high levels of mental health concerns (e.g., antisocial personality traits) and shows little concern for the basic human rights of others. When victims enter this stage, counselors may find that these individuals report troubles at home, low SES, depression, anxiety and truant behavior. These factors contribute to their need to survive. Unfortunately, this may result in a perpetrator using charm or manipulation to attract the victims. Perpetrators remove victims’ identification, passports and other valuables to trap them in the world of human trafficking.
Clinical assessment is vital at this stage and remains an ongoing process. Counselors may want to ease survivors into telling their stories, paying special attention to the therapeutic relationship. Thus, the most valuable interventions at this stage include active listening and reflection. When administering specific assessment instruments, counselors will want to measure attitudes about victimization and perpetration and prevalence rates of violence. Counselors must use both open- and closed-ended questions to directly address potential victimization. Nonverbally, counselors will want to avoid direct eye contact and limit their use of touch because of victims’ trauma and abuse history.
Stage 2: Grooming victims. This stage involves moving human trafficking victims from the supplier to the manufacturer. Perpetrators continue to display high levels of antisocial behaviors and major mental health concerns; survivors present with mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety and addiction. Substance abuse concerns usually present when perpetrators force their victims to engage in substance use to coerce and control their behaviors, often resulting in addiction.
Counselors must use clinical assessment and maintain that ongoing process. In addition, because survivors have been manufactured as a human trafficking product, their levels of abuse and mistrust often appear high when they present to counseling. Therefore, counselors must focus on the therapeutic relationship as victims provide information about their experiences in trafficking. Counselors should pay special attention to reducing the stigma of substance use and mental health concerns, especially considering that victims develop these concerns because of coercion and violence.
Stage 3: Marketing victims. This stage involves moving survivors from the manufacturer to the retailer. At this stage, human trafficking perpetrators focus on the marketing and sales aspect of their exploitation. For example, based on the quality of their goods (i.e., victim age, appearance) and market demand, perpetrators determine the price for selling each of their victims. At this stage, survivors present with major depressive, dissociative and addiction disorders.
At this stage, counselors again use clinical assessment to understand the survivor’s story while maintaining a trustworthy therapeutic relationship. As previously stated, severe mental health concerns present because of the violence and abuse that victims experience. Thus, counselors need to use evidenced-based practices to treat depression and dissociative symptoms. Some of the most helpful interventions to treat these mental health concerns include grounding and relaxation techniques.
When focusing on grounding, counselors must engage the client’s physical world to assist the person in becoming present in the moment. For example, counselors may ask clients to locate an object in the room and provide an in-depth description. Relaxation techniques to practice include deep breathing and mindfulness meditation. Both types of techniques allow clients to practice coping skills during sessions that can translate to their everyday life experiences.
Stage 4: Selling victims. As retailers push survivors toward the consumers, the perpetrators continue to focus on marketing strategies and targeting potential consumers. Perpetrators often target large events (e.g., the Super Bowl, national political conventions) to take advantage of the crowds and high demand for paid sexual services. Those paying for the sex services, the consumers, exhibit low levels of depression and anxiety. These consumers often report avoiding relationship concerns or other mental health concerns, resulting in a desire to seek out sexual activity.
Because survivors have been a part of ongoing abuse and a cycle of victimization that they cannot break, counselors must use a systemic approach to providing services. For example, counselors need to provide information on shelters and building connections with family. Counselors may incorporate the use of technology and location services, safety words and discussing location with loved ones at all times.
Toney, an 18-year-old multiracial, cisgender male, moved away from his caregivers’ home about one year ago and currently lives with a friend. He moved because of safety issues in his home and within the nearby neighborhood. When Toney was 16, his father died during a gang-related shootout at their home. Thus, Toney often felt afraid of engaging in a similar lifestyle and enduring similar consequences. Toney’s mother suffered from a severe substance use disorder that led to eviction from their rental home because she could not afford the rent. Toney and his mother became homeless.
While Toney was homeless, Kevin, a childhood friend, suggested that Toney come live with him temporarily as long as Toney obtained a job and contributed to the rent and utility bills. One day, Toney answered the front door, and a young adult male appearing to be about Toney’s age attempted to sell him a magazine subscription. Toney disclosed to the salesman that he was financially strapped. The young man told Toney about the large sums of money he made while selling magazine subscriptions and offered to put him in contact with the owner. Toney was intrigued by the idea of alleviating his financial troubles, and the young male immediately scheduled a meeting with the owner for later that night.
That evening, Toney met with the young salesman and the business owner in an abandoned parking lot, bought their sales pitch and decided to go to work. The business owner told Toney that he would need to move six hours away to another state because there was a high demand for work there and he would not have to pay any rent or utility bills. The business owner promised Toney the opportunity to travel and see many areas of the country while working in the job.
Thus, Toney left a day later to live in a weekly hotel in a new city with his new manager and several others. Upon arriving, the manager took them to a warehouse to pick up the product. They all began working the next day.
After a few weeks, Toney began grasping the reality of his situation. The job of trying to sell magazine subscriptions was strenuous and exhausting. He often worked 10- to 12-hour days while receiving limited rest and food. When Toney voiced concerns about the number of work hours he put in each day, his manager threatened him. The threats later escalated to physical assault when Toney again voiced his concern and when the manager perceived him to be underperforming at the job.
No matter how hard Toney tried, he could not meet the daily sales goal that the manager set for employees. When Toney failed to meet the daily sales quota, the manager either denied him his nightly meal or forced him to sleep outside of the hotel on the streets. As a result, Toney rarely ate and often did not receive the money he had earned while working. He was told that he would receive the money once the team had completed its sales goals for the area and had moved on to another city.
One day, while trying to sell magazines to a homeowner who declined to buy anything, Toney became agitated and started crying. He told the homeowner that he was in trouble and begged her to help him get home, across state lines. The homeowner had recently watched a documentary on human trafficking and invited Toney to use her phone to call the authorities.
The police arrived and took Toney’s statement about his work experiences. Fortunately, the responding officer had recently attended a departmental training on human trafficking, and she took Toney to the police station for further questioning and support. The officer connected Toney with a local nonprofit organization that provided multidisciplinary services, including professional counseling, to survivors of human trafficking. The organization offered shelter and provided Toney with career development services to help him obtain legitimate work. The shelter’s ultimate goal was to move Toney back to his hometown.
In counseling sessions with Toney, the counselor focused on direct questions to assess the nature of the human trafficking Toney had experienced. For example, “Did anyone threaten you or your loved ones?” and “Did you have difficulty leaving the work that you did selling door-to-door merchandise?” While initially reluctant, Toney eventually responded with answers that indicated his victimization. For example, he reported that his manager used threats and power and control tactics (such as denying Toney food, money and shelter) to force him to work.
Following assessment, Toney received counseling services focused on recovering from the abuse he had endured. Toney felt validated because he was not alone while accepting that he had fallen victim to human trafficking. The counselor and Toney focused on crisis intervention and stabilization in the beginning, which included discussions about adjunct services and basic needs assessments (e.g., food and clothing, job obtainment). Next, the counselor and Toney addressed the trauma, focusing on decreasing anxiety-provoking cues and scaffolding into addressing more severe cues and triggers. All the while, Toney and the counselor developed several grounding and relaxation techniques to use both in their sessions and in Toney’s real-world experiences.
One of the most valuable grounding techniques made use of a rock that Toney could hold whenever he felt distressed. The counselor taught Toney how to become present, while holding the rock, through discussions about the texture, shape and weight of the rock. Discussing these tactile experiences allowed Toney to focus on the here-and-now rather than attempting to escape feelings and thoughts.
Toney and the counselor also used a breathing method in which Toney would take a deep breath through his nostrils for at least three seconds and exhale through his mouth for three seconds. They determined that he needed to take at least three deep breaths during the exercise so that he could calm down.
In the final stages of counseling, Toney and the counselor developed an action plan to help him avoid falling victim to trafficking. That does not mean, however, that Toney took responsibility for the actions of others. Toney and the counselor reviewed the different needs he may have and how to meet those needs in a helpful manner.
While focusing on the trauma from human trafficking victimization, the counselor worked with Toney on obtaining a job at a local fast food restaurant. They chose this restaurant so that he could easily transfer to another store in his hometown once he felt comfortable with the transition. After three months, Toney finally returned home and moved back in with his friend, Kevin. He remained employed as a fast food line cook and began seeking education at a local culinary institute.
Lamerial McRae is an assistant professor at Stetson University and a licensed mental health counselor in Florida. Her research and clinical interests include counselor identity development and gatekeeping; adult and child survivors of trauma, abuse and intimate partner violence; marriages, couples and families; LGBTQ issues in counseling and human trafficking. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letitia Browne-James is a licensed mental health counselor, clinical supervisor and national certified counselor. She is a clinical manager at a large behavioral health agency in Central Florida and is in the final year of her doctoral program at Walden University, where she is pursuing a degree in counselor education and supervision with a specialization in counseling and social change. She has presented at professional counseling conferences nationally and internationally on various topics, including human trafficking.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.