12:47pm Tuesday 14 July 2020

APA Task Force Report Highlights Problem of Human Trafficking of US Women and Girls

WASHINGTON — Preventing the trafficking of women and girls is a complex problem that requires cross-disciplinary research, training and education, public awareness and new policies at every level of government, according to the report of a task force appointed by the American Psychological Association.

“There is no typical case of human trafficking, which often overlaps with other closely related crimes, such as human smuggling, prostitution, intimate partner violence and child abuse,” according to the Report of the Task Force on Trafficking of Women and Girls. “Human trafficking is also extremely difficult to measure. The clandestine nature of the crime, the lack of a comprehensive centralized database of human trafficking cases, the sheer diversity of trafficking situations and experience, and the difficulty in accessing persons with knowledge of the phenomenon, including trafficked women and girls themselves, contribute to the gaps and weaknesses in the empirical research.”

Task force members reviewed the scientific literature published since 1980 pertaining to the trafficking of women and girls in the United States. While noting that trafficking occurs throughout the nation, they found that there is no reliable estimate of the prevalence and incidence of trafficking of women and girls in the United States, and no consistent profile of a trafficker.

“[H]e or she may be a family member, an acquaintance, an intimate partner, a known and trusted member of the victim’s community, or a stranger,” the authors wrote.

According to the research, traffickers who recruit, transport and exploit women and girls range from a single individual to organized networks. Research indicates that traffickers use a variety of means to obtain victims, from brutalization and physical violence to establishing trusting relationships with potential victims or with victims’ families to ensnare and exploit them.

The mental and physical health impact of trafficking on survivors is dire, according to the task force. “Trafficked women and girls experience severe and potentially life-threatening physical and mental health consequences, which can be lifelong,” they wrote. These include anxiety, depression, self-injurious behavior, substance addiction, suicidal ideation and suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder, neurological issues, sexually transmitted diseases and traumatic brain injuries. 

Nevertheless, despite the devastating impacts of the trafficking experience, survivors can and do heal. Survivors of trafficking have been leaders in anti-trafficking work in the United States, and provide essential expertise for developing prevention efforts, treatment programs and policy responses. 

Effective anti-trafficking programs in the United States are in their infancy, according to the task force. “Prevention, protection, prosecution and partnership (4Ps)” constitute the fundamental framework, but programs “are not always guided by a comprehensive understanding of the problem,” they wrote. “The field is in need of systematic, high-quality research to determine what works and what does not in preventing trafficking, in protecting victims and in prosecuting those engaged in the crime of human trafficking.”

Among the report’s other recommendations:

  • Comprehensive, interdisciplinary research into the problem.
  • Coordinated, effective, community-level treatment programs for trafficked persons.
  • Education and training, both for those who treat survivors of trafficking and youth who might be at risk of being trafficked.
  • Evidence-based, culturally competent services for trafficking survivors.
  • Public education, especially to increase awareness that human trafficking occurs in the United States in both urban and rural settings.

Members of the APA Task Force on Trafficking of Women and Girls:

  • Nancy M. Sidun, PsyD, ABPP, ATR, co-chair, Kaiser-Permanente-Hawaii.
  • Deborah L. Hume, PhD, co-chair, University of Missouri.
  • AnnJanette Alejano-Steele, PhD, Metropolitan State University of Denver and Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking.
  • Mary C. Burke, PhD, Carlow University.
  • Michelle Contreras, PsyD, Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology, Trauma Center at JRI—Project Reach.
  • James O Finckenauer, PhD, Rutgers University.
  • Marsha B. Liss, PhD, JD, Bethesda, Md.
  • Terri D. Patterson, PhD, Federal Bureau of Investigation.
  • Alexandra Pierce, PhD, Othayonih Research, Metropolitan State University.

Pre-publication text of the Report of the Task Force on Trafficking of Women and Girls is available by contacting APA Public Affairs by email or by phone at or (202) 336-5700.

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States. APA’s membership includes more than 134,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives.

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