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May 05, 2016

New Report Highlights Need for National Human Trafficking Case Reporting System

A new report by Sarah Godoy of the Luskin Center for Innovation reveals that there is a great need for additional resources and research efforts devoted to quantifying human trafficking incidences in the United States. The report synthesizes over 135 relevant studies on sex trafficking, dating from 1999 to 2016, and incorporates findings from about 70 qualitative interviews.

Godoy consistently found a lack of reliable law enforcement data on the number of investigations, prosecutions, and convictions of human trafficking cases happening at the local and state level. Although statistics from the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimate that at least 20.9 million people are being exploited in various forms of trafficking worldwide, “there is a dearth in statistical data that accurately quantifies the number of domestic-born human trafficked victims within the United States,” Godoy writes. “Data collection is typically fragmented and many empirical studies have weak methodologies.” That means there is no reliable way of knowing precisely how many trafficking victims exist in the United States, or how many individuals are at risk of becoming victims.

The Human Trafficking Reporting System (HTRS) was started in order to collect human trafficking investigation data from the state and local levels and to measure the progress of 42 federally-funded task forces. Despite the existence of the HTRS, there is currently no uniform system of reporting state and local prosecutions or investigations of human trafficking cases outside of the federal-funded task forces.

According to HTRS data, from January 2010 to June 2012 about eight out of every ten human trafficking investigations were sex trafficking-related, and approximately one in ten involved labor trafficking. “Labor trafficking,” says Godoy’s report, “especially forced child labor, is underreported and under-investigated, making it difficult to accurately quantify the crime.” Meanwhile, the ILO estimates that 68 percent of trafficking victims worldwide fall victim to forced labor.

Human trafficking is difficult to quantify for a number of reasons. Child trafficking victims frequently wind up in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems, and sometimes also the mental health system. Children of color and LGBTQ youth are particularly likely to be caught up in the juvenile justice system without proper screening for history of sexual exploitation. It is very likely that a large number of commercially sexually exploited children go unidentified in the juvenile justice system.

Boys and young men are vastly unidentified as sex trafficking victims as compared to females, even though traffickers tend to target them based on many of the same factors as girls and women (including a history of sexual and physical abuse, lack of familial support, involvement in the child welfare system, LGBTQ status, and/or poverty). They are exploited in the same venues and using many of the same channels as girls and women, including online classified ad websites, escort services, clubs, and on the streets. Yet boys and men continue to be overlooked in the discussion on domestic sex trafficking, and Godoy argues that a study focusing on this unique group of victims is sorely needed.

Traffickers’ increasing reliance on technology and online platforms such as Craigslist and Backpage.com also makes it difficult to combat and to quantify human trafficking incidences. Godoy’s research shows that while policy advocacy and research initiatives have begun to focus on how traffickers use technology to recruit victims, there is little evaluation of the technologies used to prevent, investigate, and prosecute trafficking cases.

Greater collaboration between government agencies, NGOs, service providers, and state and local law enforcement is critical for combating the growing threat of human trafficking. Greater public awareness of human trafficking in the United States is also crucial for preventing the victimization of more men, women, and children. Crime trends, such as the increased prevalence of boys being targeted for sexual exploitation, should also be properly monitored.

Ultimately, a uniform and central data collection system for federal, state, and local law enforcement to track information on victims and traffickers will be key to achieving many of these goals.