Skip to main content Skip to main content

The National Prevention Toolkit

on Officer-Involved Domestic Violence and Human Trafficking

Victims and Trauma

Victim-Centered Investigations

Officers should conduct victim-centered investigations to ensure that victims of the crime of human trafficking receive humane, empathetic treatment.

What Are Victim-Centered Investigations?

  • They adapt to meet the victims’ needs.
  • They respect the victims’ dignity.
  • They empower victims to share their stories.

What Is a Trauma-Informed Approach?

  • A trauma-informed approach is a key aspect of victim-centered investigations.
  • Trauma-informed care focuses on:
    • Recognizing the signs and interrelated symptoms of trauma
    • Constantly working to avoid re-traumatization, and
    • Working collaboratively with victims, family, friends, and service agencies in a way that will empower victims.

Why Is Trauma-Informed Care Important?

  • Victims have been traumatized and may not react the way that law enforcement officers expect. Understanding trauma responses and responding appropriately may help an investigation go more smoothly.
  • Victims may suffer from “complex trauma” or “complex PTSD”:
    • Their sense of safety, their feelings of control over their own body, and their self-esteem has been taken away through victimization.
    • They often blame themselves and perceive themselves as damaged or “bad”.
    • They feel helpless and out of control.
    • They may see others as threats and shut down connection with others.
    • They have difficulty regulating their emotional states and have physical symptoms as a result.
  • Victims may feel trapped even after they have escaped.
  • Victims may have been repressing their experiences or dissociating to cope – and they may continue this coping behavior even after law enforcement gets involved.
  • Officers may misunderstand and believe that victims are not traumatized just because they are not acting out.
  • Victims may have a ‘trauma-bond’ with a trafficker.
    • A trauma-bond is created when the trafficker acts periodically kind and cruel. The trafficker may initiate a safe, accepting environment for the victim, then periodically become hostile or aggressive towards the victim.
    • The power difference, the periodic positive encounters, and the irregular cyclical abuse can create a strong emotional connection for the victim. The victim may see the trafficker as a provider/protector and may be grateful that the trafficker allows them to live.
    • A victim with a trauma-bond may:
      • Defend the trafficker.
      • Appear to be a willing participant in the crime because they are reluctant to separate from the trafficker.
      • Become adversarial or aggressive with law enforcement, who should to exercise a calm, supportive manner with these victims whenever possible.

How can officers use trauma-informed care with trafficking victims?

  • Do not expect victims to go into detail about trafficking experiences during the first interview – disclosure often takes time.
  • Do not ask questions just to satisfy curiosity.
  • Introduce yourself and explain your role at the beginning of every interview.
  • Address victims’ safety and security needs first by ensuring physical concerns are acknowledged and addressed.
  • When called out to situations of potential trafficking, there could be range of unexpected reactions from victims:
    • An apparent lack of emotion does not mean that a person has not been abused or trafficked.
    • Victims have a variety of experiences that lead them to distrust law enforcement.
    • Victims are taught by traffickers to distrust law enforcement
    • Foreign victims are told they will be deported if they talk to law enforcement.
    • Be sensitive to race; people of color have a different history with law enforcement and may react differently.
  • Allow traumatized victims to vent about their feelings and try to validate those feelings.
  • Listen attentively with a non-judgmental demeanor.
  • Explain what happens next in processing of the case and victims’ role in the process.
  • Identify information about the criminal justice system that will help victims heal and prepare for their future.
  • Traumatized people often have disorganized and disoriented thinking:
    • Give victims time; do not be surprised by inconsistencies at first.
    • Approach gradually and non-threateningly.
    • Start by believing the victim.
    • Investigate the offender, not the victim in front of you.
    • Clarify anything you do not understand or are confused by.
  • Make sure people who do not speak English as a first language understand your questions. Offer an interpreter to make sure you are fully communicating.

How Can Officers Use Trauma-Informed Language with Trafficking Victims?

  • Do not use law enforcement jargon.
  • Do not use labels like “offender,” “perpetrator,” or “trafficker”:
    • These labels could describe a beloved family member that abused the victim or trauma bonding could be occurring for the victim.
    • Instead, use phrases such as “behaved abusively”.
  • Do not assume the gender of perpetrators and victims. Perpetrators are not always male, and victims are not always female; victims and perpetrators can be either sex.
  • Do not use victim-blaming questions such as “Why did you…?” or “Why didn’t you…?”
  • Use age and developmentally appropriate language.
  • Use victim’s name when talking to them; do not simply call them the “victim” or “survivor”.
  • Use a conversational approach rather than rapid series of questions:
    • Open-ended questions will prompt more information than yes or no questions.
  • Use words free from assumptions or judgments.
  • Example Phrases:
    • “I know this must be difficult. Please bear with me as I ask you some questions about what happened to you…”
    • “What are you able to tell me about your experience? Where would you like to begin?”
  • Ineffective Techniques:
    • Responding to victims in an intense, heavy-handed way may resemble the behaviors of traffickers.
    • This style of communicating could cause a victim to shut down and lose their sense of safety and trust, similar to the way they felt with traffickers.
  • Effective Techniques:
    • It is important for law enforcement officers to use words and mannerisms that come across as patient and nonjudgmental. Many victims already mistrust law enforcement, so officers should demonstrate their support and understanding when working with victims.
    • It is imperative to treat victims with respect and to demonstrate professionalism regardless of victims’ immigration status.

What Nonverbal Mannerisms Should Officers Use Around Trafficking Victims?

  • Do not stand over victims; meet their eye level.
  • Do not rush their responses or interrupt.
  • Do not appear angry or impatient.
  • Make eye contact with them.
  • Use a sensitive tone – don’t be aggressive.
  • Allow enough physical space between you and the victim.
  • If possible, put guns or other weapons out of sight.
  • Be sure victims have some control over the situation (they should have breaks, access to water, someplace to sit).
  • Refrain from touching the victim.
  • Make sure the interview is in a comfortable environment.
  • Pay attention to your body language as well as theirs.
  • Acknowledge silence as a way of communicating:
    • Understand that some people are not able to speak about their trauma or will need time before they feel comfortable disclosing.

Examples of a Trauma-Informed Approach to Interviewing


What To Look For

Living Situation

  • Where do you eat and sleep?
  • Who else lives here?
  • Do you feel safe here?
  • Victims of trafficking may have limited knowledge of the area surrounding their residence because they are not permitted to leave by themselves.
  • They often live with many other people that are not family members. There may be high security measures at their place of work and/or living, such as boarded up windows, security cameras, barbed wire, and so on.
  • Victims may be forced to live and work in the same place, like in restaurants, stores, and motels.

Social Interactions

  • Who do you spend most of your time with?
  • Who are your close friends?
  • Consider who they are living with. Are they close to the people they live with?
  • Victims are forced to work long hours; do they report most of their time is spent with customers?
  • Victims are often isolated from their friends and family, so their trafficker can maintain control.

Mental and Physical Health

  • How have you been sleeping?
  • How is your energy?
  • What does that tattoo mean?
  • Poor sleep habits and low energy levels may be signs of posttraumatic stress disorder, which is common among victims of trafficking.
  • Tattoos of names, phrases, or monetary symbols could indicate a trafficker has control over the victim’s body. In this case, the victims may be reluctant to talk about the tattoo.
  • Victims may be in poor physical health, look malnourished, and have bruising and other signs of physical abuse.

School and Work

  • Do you go to school?
  • Where do you work?
  • Who holds onto the money you make?
  • How do you get back and forth to school/work?
  • Traffickers often do not allow victims to attend school. Traffickers will transport victims to and from work (and sometimes school) to limit their movement.
  • Victims may have been lured into work through false promises of economic opportunity, good working conditions, and love and marriage.
  • Traffickers control victims’ money and any identification. Victims earn and control little money, if any.

Sense of Safety

  • Are you allowed to leave your house/apartment if you want?
  • Has anyone threatened you or made you feel unsafe?
  • Has anyone told you what to say to law enforcement officers?
  • Traffickers may install security devices on the victim’s residence. Living with a trafficker would limit the victims’ ability to leave as they wish.
  • Victims may exhibit paranoid behavior because of past trauma.
  • Traffickers may coach victims on what to say if they encounter law enforcement.

Victim Demeanor

A victim of human trafficking can express a variety of emotions during an investigation. Officers should adapt their investigation strategies to accommodate victim’s attitudes and experiences. Some common victim demeanors include:

  • Submission.
  • Relief.
  • Fear.
  • Mistrust.
  • Shame.
  • Defending the trafficker.
  • Not cooperating with the investigation.
  • Attachment to the trafficker.
  • Tenseness, nervousness, and/or
  • Skepticism of law enforcement.

No matter what the victim’s demeanor is, empathetic officers who attempt to understand what the victim is going through will be able to help the victim most effectively.

Victim reactions may be due to a number of factors, including:

  • Fear of being blamed.
  • Not viewing themselves as victims.
  • Threats made by the trafficker to the victims’ and/or their family’s safety.
  • Fear of deportation.
  • For racial/ethnic minorities, fear of their group not being treated fairly by the justice system.

Why Victims of Human Trafficking May Not Ask for Help



Unaware of Available Resources

Victims may not be aware that there are resources available to help them or they may not know how to access local resources available in their community.

Unaware of Their Rights

Victims may be completely unaware of their rights or may have been intentionally misinformed about their rights in this country. This is especially true for youth or illegal aliens.

Stockholm Syndrome

In some cases, victims form a powerful emotional attachment to their captors and may not want to leave because they are convinced that their captor cares for them.

Threats of Violence

Victims may fear for their safety and for their family’s safety.

Distrust of Authorities

Victims are distrustful of law enforcement and may be fearful of imprisonment or deportation.

Illegitimacy of Law Enforcement

Victims may not believe that law enforcement can keep them safe from their perpetrators. Officers usually do not know all of the perpetrators; therefore, victims can face retaliation from unknown sources.


Victims may be unfamiliar with their surroundings, far from relatives, and may not know how to get around the area. The perpetrator could also be restricting their movement.


Victims may be reluctant to self-identify as a victim.

Drug Addiction

Human traffickers get victims addicted to drugs to make it easier for them to control their victims. Drug addictions make victims more dependent upon their trafficker and may make it less likely that victims would ask someone for help.

Language Barrier

Victims may face a language barrier and have limited contact with the outside world.

In the U.S. as an Illegal Alien

Victims of human trafficking may be hesitant to come forward because of their fear of being deported.

Reliance on Money Sent Home

Victims can be lured in to the U.S. through the promise of school or work. Afterwards, they may send money back home to support their struggling families.

Feelings of Hopelessness

Extreme violence, having tried to escape and failed, lack of resources, and high levels of dependency can lead to feelings of hopelessness and prevent victims from attempting to get out of the situation.

Inability or Fear of Returning Home

Traffickers confiscate victims’ passport, visa, and/or identification documents to make it more difficult for them to return home. Victims may also fear returning home because of guilt or shame.

Lack of Resources

In some communities, there is a lack of victim assistance services for victims of human trafficking.

Potential Consequences

Victims and their families face extreme security risks because traffickers may have ties with other forms of organized crime.

Sources for Victims and Trauma*

Juvenile Victims of Trafficking

Many cases involving the labor and sex trafficking of juveniles are hidden in plain sight. Whether the case involves an underage female victim staying in a motel room or a young boy working as a domestic servant in a middle-class home, human trafficking of children often goes unnoticed. The following seven facts will build your knowledge of juvenile victims.

1. The internet is frequently used in the grooming, vetting, and selling of juvenile victims.

  • The recruitment of juvenile sex trafficking victims often occurs through internet forums such as chat rooms or social media websites. Even though the internet is a fairly public environment, these human trafficking tactics often go undetected, leaving vulnerable children at risk of being manipulated by traffickers.
  • In one study, 49.9% of sex traffickers reported using internet ads to attract business and sell the services of juvenile victims.

2. There are specific high-risk juvenile populations who are vulnerable to human trafficking because traffickers prey on children with minimal social and family support.

Children at high risk for trafficking include those who:

  • Have a history of parental neglect or family abuse, particularly sexual abuse,
  • Are youth in foster care,
  • Have been involved in the child welfare and/or juvenile justice systems,
  • Are homeless youth or runaways, and
  • Are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth. LGBTQ youth can be up to five times more likely than heterosexual youth to be victims of trafficking, due to the high levels of homelessness in this population.

3. The federal government recognizes that minors are victims of sex trafficking and are not prostitutes regardless of a state’s law mandating the age of consent.

  • In Florida, minors cannot be charged with prostitution offenses. It is essential that regardless of an individual’s age, a victim of sexual exploitation is treated in a trauma-informed and compassionate way.
  • Each year, at least one-third of vulnerable minors are lured into prostitution within two days of leaving home.

4. The majority of child prostitution cases in the U.S. involve domestic (as opposed to foreign) youth.

  • There are between 200,000 to 300,000 U.S. minors who are at risk of exploitation by the commercial sex industry in the U.S.

5. While sex trafficking is the most common offense against juvenile trafficking victims, labor trafficking occurs as well.

  • Most (over 70%) of the unaccompanied trafficked children in the United States have been trafficked for sexual exploitation or a combination of sexual and labor exploitation.
  • Twenty-four percent were trafficked solely for labor, primarily for domestic servitude.
  • According to the International Labor Organization, there are 115 million child laborers worldwide.

6. Children have multiple encounters with law enforcement officials before being correctly identified as trafficking victims.

  • In many cases, child trafficking victims go unrecognized because the professionals they encounter are not familiar with the ways in which human trafficking can occur.

7. There are long-term mental and physical health consequences of child labor and sex trafficking.

  • Child victims of sex trafficking often have health problems including:
    • Sexually transmitted diseases,
    • HIV/AIDS,
    • Unwanted pregnancy,
    • Pubic pain,
    • Rectal trauma,
    • Urinary difficulties, and
    • Broken bones, bruises, and other injuries caused by violence.
  • Child victims of labor trafficking experience the following physical health problems:
    • Chronic back pain,
    • Hearing loss,
    • Cardiovascular or respiratory problems,
    • Broken bones, and
    • Lacerations, cuts, or wounds.
  • Victims of juvenile sex and labor trafficking often suffer from poor self-esteem, posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. More than 71% of individuals who were trafficked for sex as children show suicidal tendencies as they get older.


Sponsored by the

The Human Trafficking Project was supported by Award No. VF011 awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, Sponsored by the Institute for Family Violence Studies and the State of Florida.


If you have questions or comments, please click the button below to contact the Institute for Family Violence Studies.

Contact Us