Over the past several weeks we’ve examined the problem with most estimates related to human trafficking: They are very broad, hard to obtain, and often the data supporting them is unreliable. So what estimates should anti-trafficking organizations use?
The very best data reflects the work actually performed. Victim services providers (VSPs) who render assistance know exactly how many victims they have served. Law enforcement agencies know exactly how many cases of trafficking they have investigated, number of cases prosecuted, and number of offenders convicted. This sounds simple, but the reality is more complex.
For example: A VSP may identify an individual as a victim of both trafficking and domestic violence. But if the VSP has a policy of “client defined services,” (which means, if the client [victim] chooses only to receive services as a victim of domestic violence, that is the only victimization data the VSP collects) the human trafficking victimization may never be reported.
Law enforcement agencies and prosecutors have their own challenges with data. For instance, prosecutors may choose (for a variety of reasons) to charge an offender with criminal statutes that do not include human trafficking, even though the case is exactly that. In commercial sex exploitation cases, prosecutors may choose to charge pimping and pandering, for example. Yet, in the perspective of the prosecutor this is a case of human trafficking. They may even refer to this case in public as a human trafficking conviction. This explains the discrepancy when the number of convictions reported by law enforcement and prosecutors don’t always match the data from a state’s database of criminal convictions. Those who understand the dynamics of trafficking will call the case human trafficking, but if the conviction was actually for pimping, only the pimping conviction will appear in the database.
So how is a community, or a region, supposed to collect this data in an attempt to derive meaningful numbers of victim identified or served, along with cases investigated, prosecuted, and offenders convicted?
First, and critically, there needs to be a spirit of collaboration and a willingness to share the data with other stakeholders! This can be a huge stumbling block for some individuals and agencies due to the issues described above (or others); a hesitancy to report data based upon experience or observation instead of empirical data (an example would be police identifying a brothel where they know the women are coerced, but none of the women give statements to the fact – therefore the case will not move forward as a trafficking case), or; on grounds of confidentiality – the laws that state who information can be shared with, and what types of information can be shared.
While these problems may seem insurmountable, they have been overcome through effective collaboration. And while it may be impossible to say how many trafficking victims exist within the United States, many effective collaborative teams can give very good numbers reflecting the work they have done within their community or region.
In the next post we will examine some ways to categorize data, and what information truly needs to be shared, when the goal is for a community to be able to answer this simple question: How much trafficking is occurring in our community?
Meanwhile, what are your thoughts on this topic?
(The discussion of estimates related to human trafficking, the challenges of gathering accurate numbers, and how many of these estimates are incorrectly used is addressed in The Essential Abolitionist: What you need to know about human trafficking & modern slavery.)