Abstract: Relationship Building As a Tool to Fight Sex Trafficking: A Case Study with Law Enforcement in Ohio (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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709P Relationship Building As a Tool to Fight Sex Trafficking: A Case Study with Law Enforcement in Ohio

Tuesday, January 19, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Megan España, MSW, PhD Student, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
Sharvari Karandikar, PhD
Background and Purpose: Sex trafficking in the United States has received an increase in attention since the passing of The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000. The mass responsibility of implementing this policy has fallen onto local law enforcement without increased budgets or additional training. Because of this, there is a need to understand the strengths and concerns of identifying and responding to victims of sex trafficking. Victims of trafficking often find themselves on the wrong side of the law, as the majority are identified and arrested for prostitution. Little research addresses law enforcement’s experiences or best practices when working with victims of sex trafficking. This research addresses these gaps by exploring law enforcement officers’ experiences with victims of sex trafficking to answer the question: What approaches do law enforcement on human trafficking task forces in Ohio use when working with victims of sex trafficking?

Methods: Six interviews were conducted with officers working on human trafficking task forces in Ohio with titles such as detective, sergeant, special agent or victim advocate. All participants were currently working on or with a human trafficking task forces in Ohio. Participants were recruited through email and snowball sampling was used to identify additional participants. Interviews took place in-person or over the phone. Participants discussed topics such as how they identify victims, what happens after they identify a victim, and what training and support has assisted their ability to work on sex trafficking cases. Interviews were audio recorded, with the consent of the participant, and transcribed verbatim. NVivo 12 was used for thematic coding to identify codes and overarching themes.

Results: This research focuses on the officer’s approach to building relationships and trust when working with victims of sex trafficking. Three themes were identified: empowerment, consistency and patience. Law enforcement officers discussed the use of empowerment to give victims autonomy over their lives. Officers discussed how this can be challenging, but the power of making decisions in life must be given back to the victim, rather than forcing change or rehabilitation. With this, the officers discussed consistency when working with the victims and the need to keep showing up. Being available to the victims, following through on meetings and promises to help allow the victim begin to develop trust. Lastly, the officers discussed patience. Victims may not choose to accept help initially, but through empowerment and consistency, the officers discussed how weeks or months later, the victim may be ready for help.

Conclusion and Implications: All participants identified the ability to build trust and a relationship with the victims as the main factor that allowed victims to agree to accept services. Through using basic rapport building skills, officers identified trust as the best approach to help the victim; however, law enforcement officers are not trained using victim-centered or therapeutic approaches, like social workers. By exploring the gaps in best practices of working with victims, this abstract calls for more law enforcement and social work collaborations.