U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

A Screening Tool for Identifying Trafficking Victims

Date Published
September 19, 2016

Identifying human trafficking victims is a challenge for service providers and law enforcement officers. A screening tool that reliably identifies victims could be an enormous help to law enforcement agencies and organizations involved in victim services. The Vera Institute of Justice undertook this study to answer several questions about a screening tool it had developed for use by front-line practitioners:

  • Does the tool accurately and reliably identify trafficking victims?
  • Under which conditions is it most effective?
  • What is the best way to share this tool and promote its use among law enforcement?

Working with 11 victims services agencies from around the country to develop and test a comprehensive screening tool that would make identification easier, Vera determined that this tool can reliably identify victims.

Accuracy and Reliability. The screening tool accurately measures several dimensions of human trafficking. It is highly reliable in predicting victimization for both sex and labor trafficking across diverse subgroups, including those divided by age, gender and country of origin. Most questions asked about migration, work and working/living conditions were good predictors of trafficking after taking demographics into account: 87 percent of the questions were strong predictors of trafficking victimization in general, 71 percent were strong predictors of labor trafficking, and 81 percent were strong predictors of sex trafficking.

Validity of a Short Version of the Tool. The researchers determined that a short version of the tool consisting of 16 questions (approximately half of the questions tested) accurately predicts victimization for both sex and labor trafficking cases. The tool can be further shortened if an interviewer suspects a specific type of trafficking victimization (sex or labor) based on circumstances.

Effectiveness Depends on Appropriate Use. The effectiveness of the screening tool depends upon its appropriate use. Because of the trauma and fear that trafficking victims endure, it is important that people who use the tool adopt a sensitive approach. Building trust; ensuring safety; and meeting victims’ legal, social and health needs are fundamental elements to consider during the victim identification process.

Suggestions From Law Enforcement to Encourage Use. In interviews with researchers, law enforcement experts made several recommendations, based on their experiences with trafficking victims, for adapting and implementing the screening tool to make it more useful for officers. These included making the tool shorter and finding ways to balance the need to stay focused on the most significant details against the need to maintain a conversational approach with the victim.

By using this tool, victim services agencies can not only help victims get the services they need but potentially improve case investigations and prosecutions.

Use of this field-tested tool expands the reach of those who serve victims and those who investigate and prosecute trafficking cases. It will help meet the four goals identified in the Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services for Victims of Human Trafficking in the United States 2013-2017 to increase coordination and collaboration, to increase awareness, to expand access to services and to improve outcomes. Study results also can strengthen crime victim services in general and law enforcement’s victim identification practices at all levels, including in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and state and local anti-trafficking task forces, by increasing understanding of the victimization process, of the means of control used to exploit victims and of their concerns and needs upon exiting.

Vera worked with 11 victim service providers to collect original data on more than 230 cases from interviews with potential trafficking victims and case file reviews to determine whether the screening tool could reliably identify victims, including adults, minors and domestic and foreign-born of sex and labor trafficking. Vera also facilitated participatory evaluation by conducting focus groups and 36 in-depth interviews with service providers, trafficking survivors and law enforcement personnel to identify best practices in implementation of the screening tool.

About this Article

The work discussed in this article was completed under grant number 2011-MU-MU-0066 awarded by NIJ to the Vera Institute of Justice. This article is based on the grant report Improving Human Trafficking Victim Identification-Validation and Dissemination of a Screening Tool by Laura Simich, Lucia Goyen, Andrew Powell, and Karen Mallozzi.

Download the screening tool and guidelines for its use, Screening for Human Trafficking: Guidelines for Administering the Trafficking Victim Identification Tool (TVIT) (pdf, 37 pages).

Date Published: September 19, 2016