Human trafficking can be hard to detect and harder to stop. Inherently complex, human trafficking crimes can pose a number of barriers to enforcement. They include victim identification challenges, victim fear of seeking help, and a lack of appropriate agency resources.
A significant barrier to progress, in many jurisdictions, is local authorities’ lack of recognition of trafficking crimes as such, for both sex and labor trafficking. As a result, those offenses are often not prosecuted under available trafficking statutes, denying survivors the full protection of the law.
In the past two decades, federal reforms have spurred progress against trafficking, but hurdles remain. Research shows, including local and state law enforcement’s concentration on sex trafficking, to the exclusion of the labor trafficking problem.
Innovative multi-disciplinary trafficking task forces, employing the Enhanced Collaborative Model (ECM) to Combat Human Trafficking, were launched with federal backing in 2010. The state-based task forces have increased trafficking prosecutions and demonstrated the value of, and ongoing need for, collaboration between local and state law enforcement and victim service providers. The influx of federal task force resources has helped expose local trafficking offenses, those who commit them, and victims previously hidden from view.
A limited study of 10 of those task forces, however, reveals inconsistent progress across jurisdictions, with a continuation of concerning practices, such as the arrest of trafficking survivors. Some agencies that arrest trafficking survivors have reported that they do so to protect them, or to leverage their testimony against traffickers.
This article summarizes the trafficking task force study, with a focus on major findings and conclusions, and recommendations for policy and practice.
The final study report contained both new insights on the impact of task forces and continuing trafficking abatement needs and significant study limitations, which are discussed below.
The ECM task force model was developed and implemented by the federal Office for Victims of Crime and Bureau of Justice Assistance. The evaluation of 10 ECM task forces was supported by the National Institute of Justice and conducted by the Urban Institute.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act, enacted in 2000, was a major federal response to trafficking that focused on prosecuting cases, protecting survivors, and mobilizing agencies to prevent trafficking offenses.
Later federal legislation funded multi-agency trafficking task forces across the country to combat sex and labor trafficking collaboratively.
The study underscores a need to improve law enforcement response to trafficking recognized in previous research supported by the National Institute of Justice. Many factors contribute to limited arrests and prosecutions of sex and labor trafficking offenses. These include misunderstanding regarding what constitutes human trafficking, how to determine whether an individual has been coerced into certain behavior, and criminal justice system stakeholder perceptions of trafficking survivors (e.g., perception that survivors are complacent in their victimization). Law enforcement has a particular challenge in identifying labor trafficking offenses and labor trafficking victims are unlikely to report offenses to law enforcement. There has been a lack of institutional support or infrastructure to fund trainings to improve the investigation and prosecution of cases of human trafficking.
In 2010, the federal Office for Victims of Crime and Bureau of Justice Assistance, both units of the Office of Justice Programs, launched the ECM framework for those multi-disciplinary task forces. The intent of the ECM program was to support communities’ development of multi-disciplinary trafficking task forces that:
- Employ victim-centered approaches to identifying trafficking survivors.
- Provide services to victims of all forms of human trafficking.
- Investigate and process all forms of trafficking.
The ECM model continues to evolve over time.
The ECM task force stakeholders are law enforcement, prosecutors, victim services providers, and others at the local, state, and federal levels. As of Fiscal Year 2020, there were 47 active ECM task forces across the United States.
Despite legislative progress in buttressing anti-trafficking programming, and shielding survivors, challenges persist. The Urban Institute’s report noted that more work is needed to identify, investigate and prosecute human trafficking and to provide survivor services.
The study’s purpose was to evaluate the impact of ECM task forces on human trafficking. The research sought to:
- Understand the impacts of the ECM task forces in improving the identification and assistance of human trafficking survivors as well as investigation and prosecution of human trafficking.
- Analyze differences in task force implementation to understand which approaches and features contribute most to prosecutions.
- Gain insight into:
- Investigative, prosecutorial, and victim services practices among the task forces.
- Challenges and barriers faced by the task forces in fighting trafficking.
- Best practices for developing and implementing ECM task forces.
To meet those objectives, the research team conducted in-depth interviews of 143 stakeholders from the 10 task forces (out of the 47 active task forces). Most of those interviewed were law enforcement officials (60), victim services providers (55), and prosecutors (23). On the quantitative data side, researchers coded 226 closed law enforcement case files on potential human trafficking, from eight of the 10 ECM task forces studied. They also analyzed performance measure data from the Office for Victims of Crime and Bureau of Justice Assistance.
The National Institute of Justice-sponsored evaluation yielded a number of positive results, but noted room for more improvement. Generally, the 10 ECM task forces were found to make a significant impact, in terms of applying more resources to the problem, driving more prosecutions, and creating more cooperation between justice agencies and victim service providers, the researchers reported. Many investigations by task force agencies led to arrest and prosecution, with a third of those charges brought under trafficking statutes, the evaluation found. Areas needing improvement, however, included better balancing of sex trafficking and labor trafficking prosecutions and reduced criminal prosecution of trafficking survivors.
The ECM task force research results were subject to significant limitations including:
- The study findings are not generalizable because they “are not nationally representative of all ECM task forces in the country,” to quote the report. The study included 10 intentionally selected ECM task force sites, out of 47. The small number of selected sites limited the analyses that could be undertaken.
- Labor trafficking cases are underrepresented in the study.
- The research team was not involved in the selection of investigative case files to be reviewed in the human trafficking study. Rather, the task forces themselves identified the case files provided to the research team as trafficking cases.
- The case-level data analyses used case information only from the eight ECM task forces that provided those data. Thus, those results are not nationally representative and can only be generalizable to those eight task forces.
- Only closed case files were used for the case-level analyses.
- Qualitative interviews only involved task force stakeholders. The researchers did not interview survivors, “who could have different perspectives on the ECM task forces’ approaches and practices,” the report said. “In retrospect, it would have been worthwhile to include survivors’ perspectives as well.”
The research team identified the following major findings of the ECM task force study, limited to the sites included in the study:
- The ECM model has helped task forces obtain resources needed to support their work.
- Most of the evaluated ECM task forces are primarily focused on identifying and investigating sex trafficking.
- The vast majority of investigations of suspected sex trafficking led to arrest (95%) and prosecution (77%). But only a third of those cases (33%) were prosecuted under human trafficking laws.
- Nearly all of the evaluated ECM task forces were having difficulty with responses to labor trafficking. Several task forces did not focus at all on labor trafficking. Law enforcement components of task forces were generally not well-positioned to address labor trafficking effectively. For example, many trafficking investigators are placed within sex crimes or vice units, so they tend to focus almost entirely on sex trafficking
- Collaboration and cooperation among stakeholders are crucial. Among study task forces, the ECM model proved largely effective in connecting stakeholders and increasing collaboration. Some local stakeholders, however, voiced a need for federal partners to be more involved in task force activities.
- Co-location of task force members and agency partners is valuable.
- Statewide task forces struggle more than local task forces with collaboration and service provision.
- Half of the evaluated task forces reported that they may arrest a survivor as part of an investigation. Although it has since changed, law enforcement representatives said in the course of the research that they arrest survivors as part of a strategy to ensure their safety and create leverage for survivor cooperation in investigations.
- Individuals who were investigated or arrested for human trafficking – both sex and labor – were disproportionately Black (66% of suspects, compared with 14% of the general population). It is unclear from the study why that was the case.
- More and better housing options are needed for human trafficking survivors.
- The task forces desire more targeted training on labor trafficking.
Given the limitations, NIJ concludes that the ECM approach would benefit from a more rigorous evaluation of its effectiveness.
The research team recommended that ECM task forces:
- Improve their response to labor trafficking.
- Be co-located, where feasible.
- Be survivor-informed. Individuals with lived experience can offer task forces victim-centered and trauma-informed insight.
- Avoid arresting survivors.
- Engage in pro-active work in communities.
- Receive additional funding.
- Benefit from more engagement by federal partners, and more collaboration with local partners.
- Develop resources to add housing options for trafficking survivors.
- Receive more opportunities for human trafficking training.
About this Article
The research described in this article was funded by NIJ award 2017-VF-GX-0004, awarded to the Urban Institute. This article is based on the grantee report “Evaluation of the Enhanced Collaborative Model to Combat Human Trafficking, Technical Report,” by William Adams, Jeanette Hussemann, Evelyn McCoy, Paige Thompson, Roderick Taylor, Krista White, and Sino Esthappan.
[note 1] Mapp, S., Hornung, E., D’Almeida, M., & Juhnke, J. 2016. Local Law Enforcement Officers’ Knowledge of Human Trafficking: Ability to Define, Identify, and Assist. Journal of Human Trafficking, 2(4), 329-342. It is also worth noting that between FY2015 and FY2019, BJA funded just over $3.5 million in training and technical assistance support for ECM task forces, a majority of which covered development and delivery of trainings.
[note 2] Owens, C., M. Dank, A. Farrell, J. Breaux, I. Banuelos, R. Pfeffer, R. Heitsmith, K. Bright, & J. McDevitt. 2014. Understanding the organization, operation, and victimization process of labor trafficking in the United States. Washington, DC: Urban Institute. 18 Farrell, A., McDevitt, J., & Fahy, S
[note 3] The report added that three of the evaluated task forces reported that officers were no longer arresting survivors, after a change in practice or state law. But survivors may still be arrested for trafficking-related offenses, such as drug possession or probation violations related to prostitution charges.