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January 27, 2017Washington, DC, United StatesHuman Smuggling/Trafficking

Victim Assistance Program leading ICE's fight to end human trafficking

Despair. Isolation. Feeling like nobody cares.

For the millions of women, men and children around the world who are subjected to forced labor, domestic servitude or the sex trade at the hands of human traffickers, those are just a few of a wide range of emotions they experience during and after being trapped in what is essentially modern day slavery.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) recognizes that severe consequences of human trafficking continue even after perpetrators have been arrested. ICE’s Victim Assistance Program (VAP) helps coordinate services such as crisis intervention, counseling and emotional support to help human trafficking victims.

“Promoting awareness is a large part of our job,” said HSI El Paso Victim Assistance Specialist Laura Moreno. “When we collaborate with our law enforcement and nonprofit partners in the community, we are constantly promoting awareness.”

Those efforts to promote awareness and encourage partners to attend events can now be pointed to the month of January as it has been designated by the White House as National Human Trafficking and Slavery Prevention Month. 

According to Moreno, setting aside time to bring awareness to human trafficking not only helps educate the public, but it also sends a message to victims that not only do you exist and have a voice, but there are people who are promoting awareness and being trained to recognize indicators of human trafficking and understanding the complexities of trauma.

“The victims are very surprised because they often feel like society has turned their backs on them,” Moreno said. “It’s good for them to see that we are promoting awareness on their behalf.”

ICE established the VAP in 2008. Currently, the VAP has forensic interview specialists, victim assistance specialists and victim assistance coordinators located in HSI field offices throughout the United States. VAP provides support to HSI special agents and investigators if and when they identify potential victims. The two sides work together in partnership as special agents pass along information about the investigations and in return VAP educates the investigators about victimology and trauma.

With special agents dedicating long hours to working with offenders and investigating, the VAP addresses the victims’ immediate needs, whatever they may be. VAP’s forensic interview specialists work with victims through a trauma-informed interviewing style and trauma-informed care, utilizing HSI’s Prepare and Predict protocol.

“I go in and start building the trust and rapport immediately and let the victims know ‘hey, I’m here,’” Moreno said. “I tell them I’m not your parole officer. I’m just here to support you and make sure nobody takes advantage of you. It allows them to open up and tell us what they need.”

Working with victims of human trafficking takes time and patience. Some victims open up naturally and share their stories immediately. However for others, there’s an apprehension to talk to law enforcement, so it takes time to build trust before they are willing to open up. The process, especially early on, requires an ongoing dialogue with the victims.  

“Our victims are always telling us there are more victims out there. They tell us ‘I know so many girls that this happened to who don’t want to come forward,’” Moreno said. “I never turn it around like oh my God that happened to you. It’s not a spotlight on the victimization. It’s making sure it doesn’t happen again.”

For many VAP specialists, the hardest part is to not have false expectations of victims. The role requires having realistic expectations about where the victims are emotionally and mentally. Working with victims requires the understanding that there are no two stories or victims that are the same.

It’s a relationship that can extend for years after a case is closed. According to Moreno, she still keeps in contact with a victim from her days working with the state police department. Victim assistance specialists become part of victim’s everyday lives as a result of the support provided in order to get them integrated with society.

“The victims will ask us ‘well how long are you going to be with me?’ because sometimes with other agencies, once they’re done at the shelter, that’s it,” Moreno said. “We make sure they go to their substance abuse classes. We make them follow through with school and court dates.”

The work of the VAP is endless. The nature of the job, particularly the subject matter, requires self-care. VAP specialists are encouraged to take time off, check in with each other and get involved with whatever gives them peace. It can also be thankless. Some victims are very grateful, while for others, it takes years for them to come around.

The ultimate expectation of the VAP and its specialists is to empower victims and show them that what they have gone through is not the end for them. With the help of the VAP, victims can take the necessary steps to get rid of those feelings of being isolated and alone and start a new life.

“The end game is never ‘thank you.’ It’s the hope that they get back to normalcy, whatever that is for them,” Moreno said. “If they want to go to school, if they want to go to work, if they want to go back to their families, whatever it is. We’ll know we’ve done something right.”