The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Exploring the Needs of Survivors of Human Trafficking

Saturday, January 19, 2013: 10:30 AM
Nautilus 5 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Laurie Cook Heffron, MSW, Project Manager & Doctoral Student, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
NoŽl Bridget Busch-Armendariz, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX
Maura Nsonwu, PhD, Adjunct Assistant Professor, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Greensboro, NC
Sharon Warren Cook, PhD, Assistant Professor and Interim Chair, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, Greensboro, NC
Background and purpose

Human trafficking has emerged in the past decade as a major criminal and social justice issue in the United States and around the world. Federal legislation has heightened awareness of and response to the crime among Americans, however gaps remain regarding effective prevention, investigative strategies, and responsive social services for victims. While existing short-term services for survivors of human trafficking are essential to rebuilding lives, a shift to also address the long-term needs of victims is warranted. This study’s purpose was to give voice to victims of human trafficking and document their experiences with social service support during the path to self-sufficiency.


This study utilized a qualitative case study design to explore the following research questions: 1) how do victims of trafficking access and /or regain needed services, self-sufficiency, and self-efficacy following their exploitation? and 2) how do survivors of human trafficking adjust following reunification with children and other family members? Participants in this study (n=25) were adult immigrant victims of human trafficking or adult family members of victims. Participants were recruited by social work staff of a non-profit organization charged with providing direct services to victims of trafficking. Participants had been determined by social work staff that their basic, emotional and health needs were being met. A semi-structured questionnaire with 28 open-ended questions was developed to guide the interview. A qualitative methodology using content and thematic analysis techniques was utilized, and findings are grounded with the use of direct quotes from participants.


Interviews produced rich data about the needs and experiences of victims of human trafficking and their family members. Survivors reported both strengths and challenges related to immediate and long-term individual and family needs, and their overall sense of self reliance and independence. Social work staff support was reported as a strength toward achieving their goal of self sufficiency.

Conclusions and Implications

Findings suggest that post-trafficking services address the vulnerabilities and needs of victims and survivors, increase self-sufficiency, and are delivered in an atmosphere of compassion, flexibility, and creativity. Initial casework and counseling services are beneficial in providing a foundation of safety and support to victims. Social workers and attorneys who have aided victims have been able to establish trust, rapport and confidence with their clients. Nonetheless, the extent of services designed specifically for victims of human trafficking is limited by funding sources, time and scope. Findings demonstrate the continued vulnerabilities experienced by victims and survivors, with particular challenges around financial stability and family reunification.

Further dialogue is needed on long-term needs and family reunification. In the absence of extended or formally-structured services, creative, culturally relevant community-based solutions are necessary. The field also has a great deal to learn about the strengths and resilience of victims in surviving and recovering from these crimes and trauma. Furthermore, while recent years have seen a marked increase in research around the topic of human trafficking, there remains a need for survivor-informed research methodologies.