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Human Trafficking Center

Human Trafficking Through the Lens of Relational Violence


Aug 2014



by Ashley Greve, Associate Director of Advocacy

As services for human trafficking victims and survivors develop, it is becoming clear that such services need not be assembled from scratch. There are many overlapping fields of service provision that deliver the same trauma-informed care, including intimate partner violence, family violence and sexual violence. Those on the front lines of the counter-human trafficking movement are increasingly noting exploitation is facilitated by relational connections. This may take the form of the parent pimping out a minor for financial or other benefit, the trafficker taking advantage of community and family networks to find new victims, the American citizen bringing a family member to the U.S. under the guise of new opportunities and then exploiting that relative for domestic work, or the family forcing the marriage of a young relative.

Broadly speaking, services can be provided to human trafficking survivors through one of two paths. Either emerging experts on human trafficking can work exclusively with trafficked populations or existing experts in trauma-informed care can expand their training to include programs sensitive to the particular needs of trafficked persons. In reality, both of these possibilities are occurring simultaneously—but is one approach better?

The former possibility may lead to well-intentioned service providers who nonetheless lack rigorous training in trauma-informed methods. Essentially, it opens the door to a plethora of new (and therefore inexperienced) providers correctly sensing that modern slavery is a field garnering much funding and attention. These providers bemoan the utter lack of services for trafficking survivors, when in fact there are numerous experienced caregivers that may be better equipped to serve the needs of trafficking survivors than these less established agencies. Furthermore, this approach consumes resources in the quest to train from scratch a new generation of therapists, counselors, healthcare professionals and other caregivers.

The second path expands existing programs to address the needs of victims and survivors of trafficking. As the American Bar Association appropriately asserts, “This does not mean that trafficking victims’ needs precisely dovetail with those of other victims of intimate-partner violence and that domestic violence service providers do not need to take their special circumstances and challenges into consideration.”[1] From a resource economy perspective, however, it makes much more sense to engage existing service providers in expanded training programs sensitizing them to the unique needs of human trafficking survivors than to start from scratch. In other words, what we need are more service providers trained to work with human trafficking survivors in addition to the many other populations they serve rather than “new kids on the block” who may waste time and resources duplicating efforts.

Specialized treatment for survivors of trafficking should still deal with the many coinciding symptoms of trauma present across exploited and abused populations, but it must also recognize the possible need for different therapy modalities, additional security concerns and distinct legal needs (such as help with documentation and immigration issues), among other considerations. Those in direct or frequent contact with survivors (particularly minors) must understand that the criminal record often related to their history, coupled with trauma-informed behavior, poses a genuine risk of pushing survivors deeper into the criminal justice system rather than rehabilitating them.

Additionally, it is logical to train law enforcement, prosecutors and judges to recognize that methods of control appear very similar between traffickers and other controllers, such as batterers or pimps. A look at an early version of the power and control wheel developed by the Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs demonstrates this point. Forms of control may be emotional, social, economic, physically violent or otherwise coercive. A similar model developed by the Polaris Project clearly reflects these same forms of control. In these and other cases, approaching trafficking through the lens of organized crime alone is insufficiently explanatory. The yet inchoate field of human trafficking victim services would benefit immensely by also viewing such cases through the lenses of domestic violence, intimate partner violence, or other developed fields of survivor support. The valuable resources already in place for battered families, youth in conflict, exploited laborers and other vulnerable populations should be utilized, not overlooked.


[1] Leidholdt, Dorchen A. 2013. ‘Human Trafficking and Domestic Violence: A Primer for Judges’. The Judges’ Journal 52 (1). Web.

One Response to “Human Trafficking Through the Lens of Relational Violence”

  1. Monthly Human Trafficking Links: August - Human Trafficking Center

    […] Director of Advocacy Ashley Greve blogged about the need for collaboration in services for human trafficking victims and survivors. Ashley discussed the overlap between fields of service provision such as intimate partner […]

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