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Victim or Villain? Contradicting Responses to Human Trafficking Survivors by Kristen Powell

April 17, 2024

***Content Warning: This article is about human trafficking. Content within this article may contain descriptions of exploitation, abuse, and trauma. If you find yourself feeling activated, triggered, or overwhelmed while reading, please prioritize your well-being. Consider taking breaks, reaching out to a trusted individual for support, or accessing resources for mental health assistance (see references at the end of the article). Remember, self-care is important.***

This year, I will have been an advocate for a decade. A bittersweet moment for me to think about. Since I was 17 years old fighting my own criminal case, these two issues have had a hold on my heart: youth being charged as adults, and survivors of trafficking being criminalized for their own victimization. The intersection of these two issues highlights a huge failure in our approach to justice and anti-trafficking work. A failure that not only perpetuates cycles of abuse, but also deprives survivors of the compassion and support they desperately need. As a survivor leader I will use my voice and experiences to unpack the impact of charging youth as adults and the criminalization and adultification of trafficking survivors. 

Many victims and survivors of human trafficking may not recognize their exploitation because of  manipulation and coercion by the trafficker and/or lack of awareness about what trafficking is. This self-image can limit their access to support services and legal protections and make them more vulnerable to further exploitation. When victims and survivors do not understand or recognize that they are being trafficked, it puts them at risk for being criminalized by the police. Contrary to common misconceptions and media, victims of human trafficking may not always exhibit physical signs of restraint or entrapment. Many are controlled through psychological manipulation, threats, or other forms of coercion, making it challenging to identify them and even more challenging to intervene effectively.

In the last decade the understanding and awareness of human trafficking has improved yet  survivors continue to suffer because of the lack of understanding of trafficking dynamics. When a survivor is combative or angry with law enforcement they are viewed differently. In an instant an officer’s mindset can switch from the perfect victim to someone who is not worthy of protection or compassion. From my experience, the survivor who is cussing you out, angry, and even sometimes taking ownership for their trafficking is the one who is experiencing the most pain. I have talked to girls who have been trafficked who have looked me in the eyes and told me:

“I am a prostitute, and this is what I love to do”. 

Does that mean I believe that? ABSOLUTELY NOT. I was one of those girls myself. Why did I respond that way? It was easier for me to get ahead of the shame and the put downs by owning my trauma. I thought nobody could have power over my story if I am the first one to say “I am a (fill in the blank)”. When I explain trafficking to a survivor who does not identify with being trafficked, the easiest way to get it to click for them is breaking it down as an exploitation of vulnerability. 

When I was 13 years old I was charged with 3 counts of prostitution. I was being charged with crimes to “keep me safe”. In some cases, survivors of human trafficking may be arrested or charged with offenses such as prostitution, attempted robbery, drug-related crimes, etc., as a misguided attempt by law enforcement to remove them from exploitative situations. Charging survivors does not keep them safe. We are punishing victims for being victims and this is how young people are funneled into the criminal legal system and lose all trust for systems and law enforcement. Criminal charges have also been leveraged to get victims to testify against their trafficker and sometimes even the buyers. In these situations a survivor is charged with a crime to keep them detained until they are needed to testify and once they testify against their trafficker the charges are dropped. 

 

What does being labeled as a “bottom b***h” mean? This derogatory term is commonly used within a human trafficking ring. A survivor will even refer to herself as a “bottom b****”. When law enforcement refer to a victim as a “bottom  b” they usually view them as a person who holds a position of authority within the trafficking ring and as someone who has culpability in the crime. This belief is extremely harmful and misleading. The victim who is seen as the “bottom b” is usually the closest to the trafficker, has often been with the trafficker the longest and is the most physically, mentally, and sexually abused by the trafficker. 

Victims of human trafficking often develop complex emotional trauma bonds with their traffickers, leading to a sense of loyalty or obligation to protect them. This loyalty can stem from various factors including access to resources, fear, or psychological manipulation making it difficult for survivors to seek help or escape their situations. Survivors of human trafficking may hesitate to cooperate with law enforcement due to fear of retaliation, distrust of authorities, or concerns about their own safety. But a common problem we run into is who is going to believe someone is a victim when they swear that they love their trafficker and they want to be with them? 

Kristen’s mentors protesting for her release from the Sedgwick County Jail in 2016

 

What is Adultification? Understanding adultification is important in the context of trafficking because when a trafficking survivor is perceived as older they begin to be held accountable for their own victimization. Simply put, adultification robs brown and black children of their innocence. This is dangerous for teenagers, especially those who are 16 +. The Human Trafficking Victims Protection Act is a federal law that defines Aggravated human trafficking as recruitment, harboring, transporting, or receiving any money. Many victims across the country have been charged with aggravated human trafficking, facing 25 years to life in prison because there was a victim younger than them in the trafficking ring. It is not uncommon for a trafficker to use survivors to recruit others. By doing this a trafficker is able to distance themselves from the crime. When a 16 or 17 year old is charged with a crime of this severity level, it is likely their case could be sent to the adult court where they will be charged and tried as an adult. According to the National Juvenile Justice Network as of October 2022, 24 states in the U.S. have no minimum age for prosecuting children and 14 is the most common minimum age of criminal responsibility internationally.

What does being charged as an adult mean for a 16 year old survivor? It means they will be transferred from the juvenile jail to the adult county jail while they are pending trial. It means they now face twice or more the amount of time that they would have faced in juvenile court. It means that their likelihood of healing and moving past trafficking has significantly decreased. 

Without receiving the critical support or resources of the juvenile system, these young survivors find themselves thrown into a world where they are forced to navigate complex legal proceedings without the proper resources or emotional maturity to fully comprehend their situation. Being charged as an adult often carries significantly harsher sentences. Suddenly faced with the possibility of spending years if not decades behind bars, these youth are forced to confront the very real reality of losing years of both their youth and adult life to incarceration. Rather than receiving the specialized support and therapeutic services necessary, they are instead thrown into an environment ill-equipped to meet their complex needs. This is a betrayal of these young survivors’ rights and dignity. It robs them of the opportunity for redemption, rehabilitation, and healing and it condemns them to shame and isolation. 

Kristen on her way to a placement after being released from Sedgwick County Jail in 2016

 

We cannot continue to be silent and allow a system to punish survivors for their victimization. It is time to demand justice for survivors of human trafficking by:

1.) Advocating for policy and legislative changes. Reach out to your local representatives and demand reforms to the criminal legal system that prioritize support and healing for survivors of trafficking. Support legislation that raises the minimum age for prosecuting children as adults and ensures the protection of trafficking survivors from any criminal charges for actions made while they were under the control of a trafficker.

2.) Educating yourself and others about the realities of human trafficking and the intersecting issues of youth justice and child welfare. Share articles, statistics, and personal stories to raise awareness and challenge misconceptions about trafficking and the criminalization of survivors.

3.) Standing in solidarity with survivor-led organizations that are working tirelessly to support survivors of trafficking and youth impacted by the justice system. Donate your time, resources, or expertise to help amplify their voices and support their advocacy efforts.

4.) Demanding accountability from law enforcement agencies and challenging biased perceptions and practices that contribute to the criminalization of trafficking survivors. Advocate for training programs that educate officers on trauma-informed approaches and challenge them to recognize and respond to trafficking with compassion and support.

Helpful Resources: 

GEMS, A Survivor’s Guide to Leaving

https://humantraffickinghotline.org/en

https://www.acf.hhs.gov/blog/2021/10/mental-health-resources-human-trafficking-survivors-and-allies

https://combatinghumantrafficking.com/child-victims-of-sex-trafficking-receive-mixed-messages-if-we-arent-aggressors-then-why-are-we-arrested/

https://www.njjn.org/our-work/raising-the-minimum-age-for-prosecuting-children#:~:text=As%20of%20October%202022%2C%2024,age%20of%20criminal%20responsibility%20internationally.

https://www.justice.gov/humantrafficking/key-legislation#:~:text=The%20Trafficking%20Victims%20Protection%20Act%20of%202000%20(TVPA)%2C%20Pub,of%20slavery%20domestically%20and%20internationally.

Kristen is a national leader, advocate, and young mama who is currently co-leading the IMPACT work to advance the National Advocacy Alliance. To learn more about IMPACT click here.

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