The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Human Trafficking: Empowering a Comprehensive Social Work Response

Thursday, January 16, 2014: 4:30 PM
HBG Convention Center, Room 001B River Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Pippin Whitaker, PhD, MSW, Assistant Professor, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC
Dana DeHart, PhD, Research Associate Professor, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC
PURPOSE: Human trafficking is a form of modern slavery involving forced or coerced labor or sex for profit. US-based human trafficking is widespread—with well over 100,000 victims estimated each year—and incurs severe health consequences, including chronic disease, severe injury, psychological trauma, and premature death. Recognizing victim needs, governmental and non-governmental agencies have sought to train health professionals to respond to human trafficking. Trainings focus on legal criteria, signs of trafficking, ideal-type human trafficking cases, and victim needs and legal remedies. Yet, human trafficking often involves fuzzy boundaries between victimization and offending, challenging philosophies and protocols of justice and health professionals. Less clear-cut cases and social-ecological influences are rarely discussed in trainings. Health professionals, however, are uniquely positioned to understand and respond to problems in the social-ecology that increase risk for human trafficking.

METHOD: Data were from a study of 60 women incarcerated in a maximum security correctional facility in the Southeast. The researchers randomly selected participants who matched their eligibility requirements: inmates over the age of 18 who had moved beyond the initial adjustment to prison conditions. After providing information and obtaining informed consent, the researchers obtained a sample of 60 participants comprising women from a range of demographic backgrounds, criminal backgrounds, and lengths of sentences. Of the 60 participants, 52% were African American and 42% were white. They ranged in age from 18 to 70, with a median age of 31 years. Fifty-seven percent did not graduate high school, and 78% were listed in prison records as having children. Interviews were based on open-ended prompts to explore life histories and lasted about two hours. For the human trafficking analysis, two analysts used NVivo to co-code interviews to identify the following types of human trafficking-related experiences and indicators: coercion, force, fraud, debt bondage, profit (taken from participant) for labor or sex. Two other researchers independently checked 50% of the transcripts to validate coding quality and credibility. Incongruence and selective coding were discussed and resolved through team discussion.

RESULTS: We found a high rate of experiences meeting all human trafficking criteria, and many others meeting at least one criterion. Yet, the life experiences of women who suffered poly-victimization blurred the lines of ideal-type human trafficking, and social-ecological issues surrounding women’s human trafficking victimizations paralleled conditions surrounding women’s victimizations outside of human trafficking.

IMPLICATIONS: Through the experiences and examples in our study, we illustrate the continuum of human trafficking-related victimizations and their relation to women’s social-ecologies. We demonstrate ways to apply these results in trainings and in organizing a broader public health response to human trafficking.