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By Kelly Twedell

Based on the many harrowing news reports about human trafficking and sexual violence, one might wonder why victims don’t just ask for help, or why they don’t come forward to give impact statements to police upon an initial arrest during a sting operation. Society’s long and shameful history of meeting claims of sexual violence with doubt and derision suggests at least one answer.

In fact, there are many barriers to seeking help. At 5 Sparrows in Cumberland County, North Carolina, we asked many of the 107 victims of sex and labor trafficking we served in 2017-2018 what were some of the obstacles to seeking and utilizing services. Following are some of the answers we have permission to share:

– “He is my boyfriend, and I’d get in trouble.”
“I thought I’d get arrested with the drugs.”
“I don’t trust the police; sometimes they are the ones paying for my time.”
“He gives me some of the money, and I need it to pay bills.”
“What happens next to me?”
“It’s embarrassing.”
“I thought he would change, but it kept getting worse.”
“I lost hope.”
“He had a gun, and I was afraid.”
“He threatened to hurt my parents if I told.”
“I am part of this, and I don’t want to go to jail.”

These statements – evidencing fear, despair, and shame – are just some of the reasons that trafficking victims may not seek help. Researchers have noted the potent effects of psychological harm directed at victims by their traffickers. “This ingrained fear, lack of knowledge about alternatives, systemic isolation leading to a mistrust in others, and physical and psychological confinement is what causes many victims to be afraid to ask for help,” wrote Gonzalez, Spencer and Smith in a 2017 study of the experiences of women exiting sex trafficking.

For service providers like us, of course, a first step is to identify victims. Often, in the screening process, we realize that a person does not understand they have been exploited. Some victims mistakenly believe they were complicit in their exploitation because they were in a romantic relationship with their trafficker. Others have told us, “I agreed to do this on my own; nobody is forcing me.” The myths about trafficking and the lies of the traffickers have to be unraveled before victims come to understand they were exploited for others’ personal gain.

Another barrier to seeking help is substance addiction. A 2014 study of the healthcare consequences of trafficking found that among 102 survivors, 84.3% reported they were alcohol or drug dependent while they were being trafficked. In the many victim testimonies we have heard, women said that drugs helped them ‘zone out’ from the sex work. Others said that drugs, mainly heroin and cocaine, helped them stay awake through the night to meet the quotas set for them by their traffickers.

Some victims become caught in the perpetual cycle of drug addiction while being exploited.
Understandably, they may fear they’ll be arrested for drugs “willfully” accepted as part of their “compensation” from the trafficker, when in fact the trafficker has likely used drugs as a means of controlling the victim. Fortunately, Cumberland County judges are educated about what trafficking looks like, and as a result they might choose to defer charges or grant a continuance in a case while a victim seeks treatment.

An extended restoration program can be part of a broader effort to provide trafficking victims with lasting results (as opposed to the quick-fix of being bonded out of jail). However, fear of the unknown discourages some victims from asking for help. Knowing there will be a five- to seven-day detox period from drugs and unsure whether they are safe in the community where they were victimized exacerbates feelings of insecurity. Some worry that victims who leave a detox program prematurely will disclose the names and locations of victims still in treatment. Others fear the prospect of being separated from children temporarily when they enter treatment, or of losing custody altogether.

The fact is, a person becomes ready to ask for and accept help in her own time (I say “her” because 96 percent of the victims we served at 5 Sparrows during this time were female or identified as female). An initial meeting with organizations like ours establishes for victims where we are and what we do. Sometimes, they contact us to begin the process of restoration, only to return to trafficking – it’s not unusual for that cycle to repeat itself. In some cases, it has taken victims three to four attempts before they complete a restoration program and reintegrate with a healthier view on life and on themselves. Each person’s healing journey looks different, and we respect that.

People are mistaken if they believe that trafficking victims do not want help – on the contrary, our experience shows that they want help, but they might not be sure what that looks like. Victim service organizations are in a position to start the conversation and illuminate the range of resources available to them without cost.

Nicole Gonzalez, Chelsea Spencer and Sandra Stith, “Moving to Restoration: The Experiences of Women Exiting Sex Trafficking,” Journal of Human Trafficking (2017), advance online publication,

Laura J. Lederer and Christopher A. Wetzel, “The Health Consequences of Sex Trafficking and Their Implications for Identifying Victims in Healthcare Facilities,” The Annals of Health Law 23 (2014): 61-91.

Kelly Twedell is the co-founder of 5 Sparrows, an anti-trafficking nonprofit established in 2012 with her spouse. She is passionate about tackling social injustice and left a career in journalism to begin advocating for victims in the Fayetteville community. Kelly has been in her role for five years and has served on numerous boards. She cannot stress enough the importance of self-care for all volunteers and paid staff working in the anti-human trafficking arena.

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