How Social Workers Can Respond to Human Trafficking

While it may be difficult to believe that modern-day slavery and human trafficking exist in the United States in the 21st century, the fact is that it is present in every state, in both our urban and rural areas. Human trafficking is a devastating human rights violation and a human tragedy, but social workers can help in at least three ways.

1. Identifying Victims: Most trafficking victims don’t understand their rights, are fearful of people in law enforcement, fear repercussions to themselves and their families if they incur the wrath of their trafficker and are not aware of agency or community resources that may advocate for them. Learning to ask the right questions and looking for small clues that may suggest a person is coerced into a life of sexual exploitation or forced labor forms the basis for identifying a victim. After identifying a trafficking victim, social workers need to make appropriate referrals to social service provision and advocacy groups specializing in assisting trafficking survivors.

2. Serving in Organizations That Specialize in Assisting Trafficking Victims: Essential services for a survivor include:

  • immediate assistance such as housing, food, medical care, safety and security;
  • mental health counseling;
  • reconnecting with supportive family members;
  • cash assistance; and
  • legal status assistance with visa certification and immigration.

Issues of culture, power, privilege, and oppression all play a role in the relationships that social workers develop with survivors. Social workers need to be flexible in how they work with a survivor, many of whom come from cultures that do not use Western models of counseling and therapy. Taking into account issues of language, religious practices, race/ethnicity, class, customs, and values are all important variables that will impact the effectiveness of a social worker providing services to a trafficking survivor.In addition, social workers have a role in identifying ‘promising practices’ in helping trafficking survivors rebuild their lives, improving upon those practices, and reporting lessons learned with other practitioners.

3. Educating Vulnerable Populations About the Dangers of Human Trafficking: Many social workers come into regular contact with populations that are most vulnerable to slavery and can raise their awareness of the dangers of being trafficked or exploited after their arrival in the U.S. and of the resources available to help them. Social workers bring special expertise in understanding the systemic issues that are implicit in assisting victims of trafficking and can become strong advocates for this diverse and under-served population.

Learn more at Elizabeth Pathy Salett’s National Association of Social Workers Ohio Chapter article: Human trafficking and modern-day slavery.


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