Reactivating Trauma in Sex Trafficking Testimony

Reactivating Trauma in Sex Trafficking Testimony

Sex trafficking victims face a long road to recovery, and testifying against their exploiters can often hinder that process. While witness testimony can be an effective and necessary form of evidence for a criminal trial, the primary trauma experienced by a victim during the trafficking situation may be reactivated when recounting the exploitation or confronting the exploiter face-to-face. In many cases, the victim-witness has been threatened by the trafficker directly warning against reporting to law enforcement, or the witness’s family members have been threatened or intimidated as a way to prevent cooperation in an investigation or prosecution. In addition, a victim may fear possible prosecution for unlawful activities committed as part of the victimization such as prostitution, drug use, and illegal immigration. This fear is compounded in some cases in which victims experienced previous instances of being treated as criminals, whether arrested, detained, charged, or even prosecuted. The defense may also cite the victim’s engagement in criminal activity or criminal record as evidence of his or her lack of credibility. In fact, sometimes victims are not ideal witnesses. If the victim had a close relationship with the trafficker (also known as trauma bonding), has a deep-rooted distrust of law enforcement, or fears retaliation, a victim may be a reluctant or ineffective witness.

The need for resources for victims throughout, and even after, the investigation and prosecution is critical, especially because some human trafficking trials last several years. During this time, victims often face financial difficulties—including lack of housing and employment—and continued emotional and psychological stress, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in many cases, resulting from the trafficking situation, that require long-term medical and mental health care.

To prevent or reduce the chance of reactivating primary trauma, experts encourage government officials to incorporate a victim-centered approach and provide support to victim-witnesses when investigating and prosecuting trafficking offenses. Specialized courts to hear human trafficking cases and the designation of specific prosecutors who have significant experience in handling these cases have led to a greater number of prosecutions while minimizing victim re-traumatization. Collaboration between law enforcement officials and NGOs that provide comprehensive victim assistance, including legal and case management services, has also proven to be a necessary component in successful prosecutions. The Government of Canada, for example, has fostered partnerships with NGOs through the Victims Fund, resulting in additional support for victims, such as projects that raise awareness and provide services and assistance. Law enforcement officials in many countries would benefit from sharing best practices to ensure that victims are not re-traumatized and traffickers are prosecuted in accordance with due process. Best practices include:

  • Interviewing victims in a comfortable, non-group setting with a legal advocate present where possible.
  • Providing the option, where legally possible, to pre-record statements for use as evidence to avoid the need for repeated accounts of abuse.
  • Adopting evidentiary rules to preclude introduction of prior sexual history.
  • Providing support—such as victim advocates, free legal counsel, and change in immigration status—that is not conditional on live trial testimony.

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