Human Trafficking: A Pervasive Human Rights Issue

Social Workers Educate, Raise Awareness, Aid Victims and Survivors

By Alison Laurio

fuzzy outline of a person

“Human trafficking takes place in every region of the world: Human beings are sold, bought and traded much like objects. Victims of trafficking end up in the hands of traffickers because they are being deceived, being forced or abducted.” — United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

The U.S. State Department estimates in the U.S. each year 600,000 to 800,000 men, women and children are trafficked across international borders—and the trade is growing. Polaris, which operates a national human trafficking hotline, states that 22,326 victims and survivors called them in 2019, a 20 percent increase from 2018.

Human trafficking is a challenge many social workers are addressing by educating others, raising awareness, and fighting to end trafficking as they aid and help its victims heal.

Healing Place

GenerateHope is for young women who have been victims of human trafficking, and it was founded by a social worker who also is a survivor. Susan Munsey started the facility in San Diego for two reasons.

“I had been trafficked myself when I was 16, and I wanted to give back to that population,” she said. “Also, I had the skills to do it.”

In trafficking for “a couple of months,” Munsey said she was lucky to be arrested fairly quickly. “I did not think I was fortunate at the time, but it helped me get away from my trafficker.”

Munsey, MSW, LCSW, a member of NASW-California, also is director of programs at GenerateHope. She said she was brought into trafficking in a common way: “Boyfriended by an older guy,” who showered her with gifts and pretended to love her, only to start trafficking her.

“I was confused and lost,” said Munsey, who later realized it was why she wanted to be in a helping profession. “I had to get my feet on the ground and decide how to go to college,” she said.

GenerateHope, founded in 2009, is a faith-based organization that provides long-term housing, trauma-informed therapy, education, and vocational support.

The women have programs five days a week, including group therapy, individual therapy, and school with a credentialed teacher who works with them to “make up for lost time with their education,” Munsey said.

Since 2009, the organization has helped 143 young women. The average age is 15, Munsey said. “We want to get them up to the point so they get in college classes for career training.”

Most choose to start college while at GenerateHope, which provides support before launching them into independent lives, she said. Additional classes taught by volunteers include yoga, photography and art. Also, any woman who wants to press charges against her trafficker will be helped to do so, Munsey said.

San Diego is on the FBI’s list of top 10 cities for exploitation, but Munsey said it is happening everywhere. “Even in small towns, it’s happening. It’s very lucrative. That’s what keeps traffickers wanting to continue to find more children to exploit. It’s been kept under wraps, but in the last 10 or 15 years, it’s come to light.”

Virus Impact

There are a lot of conversations around whether COVID-19 is going to increase human trafficking, said Kathleen M. Preble, MSSW, PhD, assistant professor at the University of Missouri School of Social Work in Columbia, Mo.

“Traffickers are really good at seeing opportunities,” she said.

Many people are teetering on vulnerability, and there can be income changes and isolation as some virus lockdowns continue.

“There are supports for people who are experiencing any kind of vulnerability, and when you have a person who is vulnerable, traffickers are really good at seizing opportunity,” Preble said. “That’s what some professors are talking about: How do we respond to this breakdown and shore up those gaps?”

To protect workers, many social service agencies have shut down or limited hours, and those who normally do home visits have stopped those, she said. This has created “an exacerbation of vulnerability, not just for those who are trafficked, but for those with a heightened risk for trafficking,” Preble said.

Trafficking is complex, she said, and a person can be drawn in for a variety of reasons. Someone can be at risk from adverse childhood experiences, being homeless, having few economic opportunities, leaving an intimate partner who is abusive, being a migrant, or having no community support—no one to trust.

“These are the same risks as for becoming a gang member or a substance abuser,” Preble said. “There are differences for someone becoming a trafficker and someone becoming a victim, but the pathways are largely the same—lack of job opportunities, experiencing job loss, experiencing violence or just trying to create a living. It’s based on opportunity, and sometimes it has to do with gender.”

In interviews with women who were trafficked, Preble was told they “basically thought their traffickers were complete losers, but they knew there were punishments.”

“One factor was not knowing anybody who could help them, and they didn’t know where to seek help,” Preble said. “But the fact their trafficker had to use violence, they saw that as a sign of weakness.”

There are situations where the person being trafficked will go home every night and return to traffickers in the morning. They have reasons to go back, including having their families being threatened. And there are some teen victims whose traffickers go to the same high school—so they can’t get away, she said. “It can go on for months or years.”

Preble recommends Walk Free for anyone interested in a global source of trafficking information and data that includes the United States.

Child Victims

Kristi Wood is a foster parent who has been researching child trafficking for years. In her state, trafficking of children is in every county, and it “definitely is an issue in all 50 states,” she said.

Although many people believe it only happens in cities, “it really does strike in rural areas,” Wood said. Child victims are forced into work, including domestic servitude, sex trafficking, prostitution and being child soldiers.

Wood, MSW, APSW, is a social work lecturer and BSW field coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where she incorporates information on the issue into her classes. A past-president of NASW-Wisconsin, she has worked in child welfare for more than 20 years and has been a foster parent trainer for the Milwaukee Child Welfare Partnership since 2014.

She and her partner have an adopted son and have had more than 40 foster sons. Children in the foster care system are extremely vulnerable to trafficking, in part because they already have suffered abuse or neglect, and traffickers are good at feeling out those vulnerabilities, Wood said.

“They woo them in, develop a relationship first, then force them into a trafficking relationship,” she said. “Youths often become dependent on them, especially runaways.”

Their young age adds to the vulnerability in terms of emotional attachments and relationships. Some can get lured in and become dependent on substances after being forced to use, or they are secretly given substances and become dependent on them, Wood said.

“Sex trafficking definitely is more common because there’s such a market out there,” she said. “Traffickers sell them as sexual objects to people. This happens pretty frequently at large events—like the Super Bowl—where people travel across the country to (attend); at large conventions; and at (other) sporting events.”

Law enforcement recently picked up on the prevalence at Super Bowls and were able to arrest more people in recent years,” Wood said. Forced labor, like work on farms or in factories is less common because of OSHA regulation checks. But between 2015 and 2016, reported cases increased by 35 percent, she said.

One positive aspect is, it’s possible more people are aware of the problem and reporting it, Wood said. “We do think it’s under-reported, although it’s a good thing truckers are more aware and are getting trained so they recognize the signs.”

Traffickers tend to move people across state lines to avoid getting caught, and they don’t always use interstates, Wood said. Some newer laws have favored victims, too, like a federal law also passed in Wisconsin so a person would not be charged with prostitution if they were arrested and it was found they were being trafficked.

“That’s one reason why it was not reported in the past,” Wood said. “[Victims] were afraid it would be on their record or they’d be put in jail.”

An important role for social work is public education, she said, which should include signs to watch for. Resources to use for information include the Polaris Project, which operates the national hotline, and the state department of justice in each person’s state.

The state justice department in Wisconsin has posters that can be downloaded for free, Wood said, and they can be placed in convenience stores, truck stops and other businesses. “I recommend putting posters in the bathroom,” she said. “It’s the only safe place they can go.”

Social workers can be added to the hotline directory as a resource if the social worker has worked with child welfare. “I encourage all social workers to hold a workshop to educate people or host someone who is an expert on the issue,” Wood said.

More awareness helps, and NASW chapters and private social workers can advertise posters and the hotline number to get this out to the public, she said.

Additional action steps include hosting a human trafficking training or film screening at their agency, school or organization; contacting local law enforcement for more information; and encouraging area communities and organizations to integrate information about human trafficking into their trainings, she said.

“The advocacy part is very important,” Wood said. “It’s also important to educate foster parents so they know what to look for. It’s easy for someone who has been abused or suffered trauma to get into it. We need to be advocates for youth.”

A Trafficking Textbook

Now, there’s a textbook on human trafficking, thanks to the collaboration of three social work professors.

“Human Trafficking: Applying Research, Theory, and Case Studies,” was written by Noël B. Busch-Armendariz, Maura B. Nsonwu and Laurie Cook Heffron. Published in 2018, it is the first college textbook on human trafficking.

Busch-Armendariz, MSW, MPA, PhD, LMSW, is University Presidential Professor at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, University of Texas at Austin, where she also is director of the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault. The NASW-Texas member also received the university’s Robert W. Hamilton Book Award.

In Texas, the top industries for exploitation include agriculture, construction and cleaning services, and having information on trafficking “is critical for industries like hotel chains,” Busch-Armendariz said. Hospitals, medical teams and family services are all “great places to be on the lookout.”

A national study a few years ago found human trafficking was approximately a $150 billion a year industry, she said. The idea for writing the textbook came about when she was teaching a class co-developed with Heffron, PhD, LMSW, assistant professor and social work program director at the School of Behavioral and Social Sciences at St. Edward’s University in Austin and also an NASW-Texas member.

“I kept thinking about wanting someone to write that textbook,” Bush-Armendariz said. Then she realized if she collaborated with Heffron and Nsonwu, the three of them had the knowledge to do it themselves. Nsonwu, PhD, LCSW, an NASW member, is a professor at the North Carolina State University School of Social Work in Raleigh, N.C. Her scholarship and service with refugee resettlement sparked an interest in human trafficking.

“We were excited to develop a textbook that addresses this human rights issue,” she said.

Students need to understand the complexity to understand “prosecution, protection, prevention and partnership as fundamental frameworks in addressing this pervasive social problem,” Nsonwu said.

They often understand human trafficking through what they see in films and media—not always accurate portrayals, so it’s important to teach trafficking within the context of human rights and social justice perspectives, she said.

Social workers often are on the front lines of service delivery and have been “instrumental in working with communities on education efforts, advocating for policy changes, and facilitating collaboration efforts and anti-trafficking community partnership,” Nsonwu said.

Most of her students are interested in learning more, and educators have a responsibility “to prepare prospective and current social workers to identify and respond to persons who are trafficked sensitively and appropriately wherever they appear in the service system.”

Many students are surprised it happens in America and to students like them, Nsonwu said, and they benefit from learning about it. One thing she believes makes the textbook unique is “we have developed decision cases for each chapter to help students develop practical experiences in open-ended, problem-based learning and critical thinking skills.”

“These decision cases are factual, real-life examples (with changes to ensure confidentiality) from interviews with professionals using a specific methodology,” Nsonwu said.

Heffron added: “We felt the need for an interdisciplinary text that could speak to students from multiple majors, and we aimed to blend research on human trafficking with useful theoretical lenses and practice considerations.”

She said it’s clear those who are exploited likely interact with social workers in varied settings, including domestic violence shelters, schools, hospitals, foster care, immigration services and more, so ‘it is critical that social workers and allied professionals understand the complexities of exploitation” and both risk and protective factors.

“While many of us hunger for neat and tidy recipes to address the suffering we see in our communities, exploitation is not simple to understand nor address,” Heffron said. “This work demands that we consider the multiple and interconnected impacts of sexism, racism, ageism, heterosexism, nativism and other systems of oppression—and that we commit to understanding and addressing the ways that anti-immigrant narratives and racial inequities influence the systems within which we work and the resulting services developed.”

Students often bring with them myths from film and the media, and some equate human trafficking with the commercial sex industry, she said. “It takes time, and intention, and cultural humility, and multiple perspectives to dispel these myths and to better understand the workings of exploitation and coercive violence.”

In This Together

The United States is not alone in efforts to address and halt human trafficking. It is a worldwide problem, a challenge for all living on this planet. In its 2020 report, “Stacked Odds,” the Australian-based Walk Free Foundation reports that one in every 130 females globally is living in modern slavery, and women are 58 percent of all victims of forced labor.

The Foundation states: “Fundamentally, modern slavery is enabled by power imbalances. For women and girls, this imbalance is exacerbated by gender inequality and discrimination, which, as this report shows, is embedded in the fabric of our lives — the laws and social norms we live by, the different expectations imposed on daughters as compared to sons.”


Study: San Diego Sex Trafficking Big Business

Sex trafficking is San Diego’s second-largest underground economy after drug trafficking, according to Measuring the Nature and Extent of Gang Involvement in Sex Trafficking in San Diego, a study funded by the National Institute of Justice. The findings were collected from nearly 1,200 people, including gang-affiliated persons and/or traffickers; first-time prostitution offenders; survivors from victim services programs; and county school administrators and staff. Findings include:

  • San Diego is an international gateway city for sex trafficking
  • $810 million in estimated annual revenue
  • 3,417 to 8,108 victims/survivors per year, 1,766 of whom came into contact with law enforcement
  • 110 gangs involved in commercial exploitation of people
  • 80 percent of pimps/sex trafficking facilitators interviewed were involved in gangs
  • The average age of entry into child commercial sexual exploitation is 16
  • 50 percent of adults arrested for prostitution meet the federal definition for classification as human trafficking victims, but they are unidentified or misidentified within the criminal justice system

U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline 2019 Statistics

The Polaris Project operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, where human trafficking victims can call for help or information. It collects data on victim numbers and experiences based on those calls, and states it has provided assistance to “thousands of victims and survivors” and helped “ensure countless traffickers were held accountable.”

In 2019, the Trafficking Hotline reported 4,312 contacts, a nearly 20 percent increase from 2018 in the number of victims and survivors who contacted it. The top three types of trafficking situations are sex trafficking, labor trafficking and combined sex and labor trafficking, like illicit massage or bars and strip clubs, Polaris says. The hotline provides information and meaningful help, including a safe place to stay the night, an attorney, a trauma counselor, and transportation if a victim is seeking law enforcement intervention.

State Enactments Available in Searchable Database

The National Conference of State Legislators website has a searchable database of states’ human trafficking enactments going back to 2015. Developed in coordination with the federal Office for Victims of Crime, the NCSL database can focus a search by state, topic or keyword, and includes 12 topics from Prevention and Awareness to Trafficking of Children and Youth. A search can be made for one state or several at a time, and the full text of bills is available.— Source:

NASW Social Work Talks, row of people, talk bubbles

Episode 24: Human Trafficking

In this episode of NASW Social Work Talks podcast, we speak with Susan Munsey, LCSW, founder of GenerateHope, a nonprofit that provides long-term housing and trauma-informed therapy, education, and vocational support for young women and teens who have survived the trauma of sex trafficking.

Listen to Episode 24 of NASW Social Work Talks podcast