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Emphasizing a Victim-Centered Approach in Human Trafficking Prosecutions

Notes From the Field
Date Published
May 1, 2020

For victims of human trafficking, testifying or even appearing in court can be a very scary experience. Essentially, victims are put on the stand and feel like they are the ones on trial. Unfortunately, it is their character, decision-making, and other personal choices that end up being questioned and put at issue.

When working with survivors, it is important to remember that they have experienced and are continuing to experience trauma as a result of their exploitation. They are often displaced by this crime and have a variety of needs from food and clothing to housing. Many survivors also struggle with substance use disorders — something they used to survive their experience. We recognize that victims need to focus on their mental and physical health, safety, and well-being. These are priorities that may take precedence over coming into a courtroom and testifying or meeting with law enforcement to re-tell their experience.

My colleagues across the country have expressed how challenging human trafficking cases can be when you need to sustain victim participation for a year or even longer. In most instances, if you didn’t have that person, you didn’t have a case.

Building Cases

Here at the Denver District Attorney’s Office, our approach to human trafficking cases is to be victim-centered, but not victim-built. That means the victim is driving what the case will look like, but we are not requiring that victim to ever step in a courtroom if they don’t want to.

To do so, we investigate these crimes the way the trafficker sees them, which is a crime of opportunity and financial gain. We build these cases using financial crime statutes. We look to take traffickers down the same way they have built up their operation — through money. We search for a variety of records to understand their enterprise: where they advertise, how they communicate with and recruit potential victims, how they move victims to and from locations, and where they keep their money. In some cases, we never even charge trafficking.

Given the wealth of evidence and amount of work done on these cases, they are long-term investigations and can be as labor intensive as a homicide case. The last indictment we obtained for money laundering, racketeering, and pimping charges took us well over a year to put together and involved numerous locations, suspects, and victims.

Building a Human Trafficking Unit

Our efforts in Denver to improve our approach to human trafficking have ramped up significantly in the last few years. Our task force — the Denver Anti-Trafficking Alliance (DATA), which is housed in the Denver DA’s office — began several years ago, but we did not have a dedicated prosecutor or investigator whose primary focus was trafficking.

We began building a stand-alone human trafficking team at the Denver DA’s office in the fall of 2017. At the time, it was just me along with the DATA program director. Between the two of us, we identified that the most pressing need was for a full-time investigator. We didn’t wait long to fill that position and recruited a tech-savvy investigator with experience with gangs and organized crime.

Outside of building a staff, my program director, investigator, and I spent a lot of time throughout that first year visiting with community-based nonprofits. It was critical for us to learn more about their role, the services they provided, the issues they were seeing, and how we could partner with them to fill gaps in either identification or services.

One thing that was very apparent to me through those meetings was the lack of communication between law enforcement and service providers. During those meetings, we received some not so positive feedback about service providers’ prior experiences, which was really important to hear. These organizations were frustrated with law enforcement treating victims like suspects but did believe that the criminal justice process could be empowering for the clients they worked with.

Overall, the key in these conversations was to listen and learn. A lot of these organizations were used to law enforcement coming in, talking at them, and then saying ‘Hey, give us cases.’ Instead, we tried to spend a lot of time listening to where they felt that gaps and challenges existed.

When our local police department created a stand-alone human trafficking unit after our formation, we were able to share this feedback with them and they incorporated it into their protocols and operations. For instance, the police department now has our community based victim advocates on scene with them when we contact potential victims of human trafficking and the advocates are the first point of contact. This is a significant shift from prior practice. The focus is on the immediate mental and physical well-being of the victims and their safety rather than interrogation.

Over the past two years, we have trained hundreds of government and other employees to assist with identifying potential trafficking victims and increasing awareness about this crime. This includes recruits at the Denver Police Academy, staff at the Denver County Sheriff’s Office, human services workers, police victim advocates, and others. Every time we do a training, we receive more tips about potential trafficking situations.

Once you start devoting resources and manpower to identification and investigation of these cases, you will find them everywhere. It has been amazing how many people have brought cases to me that were either completely overlooked or misidentified.

Over the past two years, our staff has grown to include six full-time positions in the District Attorney’s Office, along with support from a team of four at the Denver Police Department. We have handled more sex trafficking than labor trafficking cases, though we continue to make identification of labor trafficking a priority. To identify more labor trafficking cases and provide services to those victims, we continue to work with local organizations like the carpenters’ union and the day laborers’ group to build trust.

The Importance of Victim Advocacy

Having a full-time victim advocate in our unit here in the District Attorney’s Office is critical.

Originally, we had a part-time victim advocate who had another docket as well, but it quickly became evident that we needed a full-time position to support trafficking victims/survivors. The sheer volume of victims and the variety of their needs makes it a necessity.

Our victim advocate also works closely with the police department throughout their operations. She is part of the pre-operation meetings and is onsite with police to map out potential service needs, and to discuss how to best approach victims and how to transport them following an operation.

Having a victim advocate more involved in these operations has ensured that they are victim-centered and creates an immediate relationship between the advocate and the victim. Previously, months may have passed after an incident before our advocate would have been able to contact a victim.

That gap in time historically resulted in victims leaving the area or changing their contact information. They were gone, and the opportunity to offer support if that person wanted it was lost.

That is an unfortunate outcome we need to avoid because we can serve as a liaison to a whole host of resources for survivors.

We need to be aware of the trauma they have experienced, the unique challenges they face, and have those connections with community providers in place to help survivors outside of a prosecution. If we are just getting a prosecution, we are not necessarily helping survivors in their healing process.

About Notes From the Field

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research, development, and evaluation arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. NIJ aims to address the critical questions of the criminal justice field, particularly at the state and local levels.

NIJ Director David Muhlhausen developed the Notes From the Field series to allow leading voices in the field to share their strategies for responding to the most pressing issues on America’s streets today.

Notes From the Field is not a research-based publication. Instead, it presents lessons learned by on-the-ground criminal justice leaders, from years of experience and thinking deeply about criminal justice issues.

Date Published: May 1, 2020