Information’s Role in Empowering Victims
At the beginning of a victim’s relationship with law enforcement, the criminal justice process and expectations for the victim are often unclear. Immigrant victims may lack basic knowledge of how the U.S. justice system works and may be unaware of their rights under federal and state law. Many victims – U.S. citizens and immigrants alike – fear law enforcement and are frequently conditioned to believe they are at fault for their victimization.
The first step in a trauma-informed approach is always to meet victims with respect and to give primacy to meeting their immediate needs – as defined by them – addressing safety concerns and connecting them to services. Then, criminal justice professionals should take steps to provide victims with important information before asking anything of them. In a fast-moving investigation, it is easy to forget that victims aren’t equipped with the same information as investigators. Victims may not understand the difference in roles among the people involved in the case, the steps and timeline of an investigation and prosecution, or the difference between how information might be used in an investigative interview versus an interview with a case manager at a social service agency.
This lack of systems knowledge and fear of the unknown can be paralyzing and often contributes to feelings of distrust and reluctance to participate in the process. If a law enforcement agency is fortunate enough to have a dedicated victim advocate, it is crucial to involve them as early as possible in the planning stages of an investigation. A victim advocate can help prepare for victim-related needs, coordinate with nongovernmental service providers, and ensure the team considers trauma-informed, victim-sensitive approaches throughout the process.
While the contributions of a victim advocate are critical, it is important to note it is everyone’s job to ensure victims feel safe and trauma-informed principles are utilized in all professional interactions. From the assistant, who answers the phone and greets visitors in the waiting area, to investigators, prosecutors, and direct service providers, everyone who comes into contact with survivors of trafficking should receive training on trauma-informed approaches so all communication promotes safety, security, and confidentiality. Agency leaders should conduct organizational assessments to evaluate the degree to which policies and practices are trauma-informed.
Even without an in-house victim advocate, it is still possible to provide information to victims in a way that fosters trust and feelings of safety. One way is to give basic information about the steps of the investigation and everyone’s role before the first interview takes place. Provide the time and space for victims to ask questions, and since victims often think of questions after the meeting has ended, provide them with contact information for further questions and follow up. When answering a victim’s questions, it is important for interviewers to seek out the right answers when possible but avoid overpromising on things that may not be deliverable. When providing victims with case-related updates, it is important to convey a sense of belief in their statements and confidence in the case – showing conviction and support throughout the process can positively impact a victim’s outlook and their own journey of healing.
Promoting Safety through Choice and Voice
For victims to effectively engage in their role as witnesses, they must first feel physically and psychologically safe in their environment. Criminal justice professionals can help establish a climate of safety by simply allowing victims to have input about the time and location of interviews whenever operational realities make that possible. In addition, they can make the effort to confirm a meeting location feels safe and neutral for the victim, offer options for the time of an interview, ensure the location is confidential and private, set up the space comfortably and informally, and give the victim the choice of where to sit. Throughout the process, it is crucial to let the victim know he or she is welcome to ask questions, ask for a break, and correct the interviewer if they get something wrong. As the team plans for interviews, consider who among the team is the best choice to conduct a given victim interview, consider factors such as interviewing style, training, comfort level, experience, and rapport. When interviewing minors, victims with special needs, or victims who are experiencing strong trauma reactions, consider partnering with a forensic interviewer who is trained in conducting open-ended, legally-defensible, and developmentally-appropriate interviews of victims.
During the course of a case, victims may face the challenging decision of whether or not to engage with the public about their victimization. It’s important to help them thoughtfully consider any safety implications of speaking with the media or in public about their “story.” For instance, organizations wishing to elevate the issue or their role in combatting trafficking may try to enlist a survivor to share their story, without knowing if a survivor’s case is open or closed, whether they feel safe doing so, or whether sharing details of their victimization would be retraumatizing or exploitative.
One powerful way for victims to be heard, and to share the full impact the crime of trafficking has had on their lives, is the victim impact statement. A victim impact statement is an oral, written, or recorded statement given in the victim’s own words for the court’s consideration during sentencing; it provides their personal account of the emotional, psychological, physical, familial, and financial toll of victimization. All 50 states, U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia allow victim impact statements during the sentencing process. These statements can help empower and assist survivors in being heard by the court and may also help release the anxiety and fears they have about the process. It is particularly powerful because their statement is delivered at sentencing and cannot be contested – in this way, they cannot be silenced.
The Missing Partner
The four Ps are often mentioned in the anti-trafficking movement: prevention, prosecution, protection, and partnership. For many criminal justice agencies, partnership means collaboration with nongovernmental service providers, other law enforcement agencies, and professionals in healthcare and public health settings. The missing partner is often the survivors themselves. To be trauma-informed, criminal justice professionals must recognize that survivors are the experts in their own lived experiences and have valuable insights and recommendations. Although survivors have gone through the profoundly disempowering experience of being coerced and controlled, when connected with the services and supports that best meet their needs, survivors are resilient and capable of being effective leaders and advocates. Although service providers, investigators, prosecutors, and other allied professionals undoubtedly bring valuable expertise to the table, in order to be truly trauma-informed, efforts must be survivor-informed. Survivors have much to contribute when allowed into the process. They are an incredible source of information about new trafficking trends, potential cases, and strategies for effective outreach and engagement.
One of the best ways to maintain a trauma-informed practice is to partner with a survivor-led organization. For example, the National Survivor Network (NSN) serves as a tremendous resource in pushing the conversation forward in the anti-trafficking movement. Agencies can rely on the NSN as well as the Office for Victims of Crime Training & Technical Assistance Center (OVC TTAC) and the National Human Trafficking Training & Technical Assistance Center (NHTTAC) to bring in subject matter experts to review an agency’s curriculum, outreach materials, marketing, and the overall vision and mission of the agency.
Just as service providers in trauma-informed organizations seek survivor input in program development and offer opportunities for peer support, criminal justice professionals should also seek recommendations and partnership of survivors in their efforts. When there are employment vacancies, survivors with relevant experience and skills should be considered. Trafficking survivors can be an asset to law enforcement and social service professionals, child welfare organizations, prosecutors’ offices, investigative agencies, institutions of higher learning, nonprofit organizations, and many others. Survivors are excellent partners in community awareness events and conferences and can be wonderful consultants in the development of trafficking-related policies.
Law enforcement professionals who are successful in developing lasting rapport and trust with victims make sure their investigative skill is matched by emotional intelligence. They show a willingness to try a different path and invest in a victim-centered approach. They bring passion, humanity, and humility to the work, and are undeterred by the myriad challenges that trafficking cases can present. They know when to ask for help and involve other members of the team. They understand the importance of victim testimony but balance it with the knowledge that successful cases do not rely solely on the victim. They are steadfast and reliable, showing up day in and day out and going the extra mile. They know experience and seniority do not mean having all the answers and often, the answers come from survivors themselves. Whether or not they see it, they play a vital role in making the justice system more just for victims, one case at a time.