Oklahoma Attorney General’s Task Force on Human Trafficking

Early in the Obama administration, the Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons was formed to find a comprehensive solution that could combat human trafficking. The result was a five-year plan titled Coordination, Collaboration, Capacity: Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services for Victims of Human Trafficking in the United States 2013-2017 (Office for Victims ofCrime 2014). I was one of about 350 citizens and practitioners who attended a meeting alongside federal, state, and local agencies to coordinate data collection, policy development, and services coordination on the issue of human trafficking. The action plan that resulted was a collaboration among government agencies, tribal representatives, NGOs, law enforcement, medical staff, practitioners, administrators, educators, church communities, and other experts in the field of human trafficking. The committee’s goal was to develop state-based task forces to investigate and prosecute traffickers, support trafficking victims, and increase public awareness of the problem (Office for Victims of Crime 2014).

My participation in the task force on addressing human trafficking in Oklahoma began in May 2014, in response to the Federal Task Force. My involvement with the task force, run through the Attorney General’s office, has included assisting with event planning for conferences, as well as serving on an education subcommittee that has designed presentation materials for use by trainers for public education purposes. I worked on modules aimed at professionals likely to come into contact with victims, such as schoolteachers, medical staff, law enforcement officers, social workers, and lawyers, and on modules addressing ethical issues in therapy and cultural differences that might impede communication. My philosophical expertise helped with framing clear definitions and exploring the implications of ethical assumptions that affect how professionals relate to victims. My aim was to help with the expression of concepts of autonomy and choice in ways that will lessen the possibility that those who come in contact with victims will unintentionally revictimize or disempower them.

Although I have only been working on the task force and with practitioners for a few years, I see an urgent need for philosophers to contribute to community dialogue, professional training, and the formation of policy. First, the discussion of relevant ethical concepts in the philosophical literature, such as choice, autonomy, and agency, is far ahead of the uptake and implementation of these concepts by law enforcement and service providers. As mentioned above, philosophers can do translational work to demonstrate the value of these concepts in criminal justice contexts. NGOs are sometimes unaware of the difference between women who choose to engage in sex work, even where it is illegal, and victims of sex trafficking who are coerced, manipulated, or trapped. The former might not need or want to be “rescued,” and “rescuing” her will only displace her, stress her home life, uproot her community connections, and waste limited resources that could benefit someone else. Likewise, when religiously-affiliated NGOs express an expectation that human trafficking victims will participate in religious services, this may amplify their earlier loss of autonomy, triggering the sense of helplessness they felt while they were being trafficked.

Second, local law enforcement officers are an important source of community' knowledge about human trafficking because they come into contact with both victims and traffickers. I have invited law enforcement officers to my classes and to speak at inter- and transdisciplinary conferences, and they are able to provide first-person insight to the public about victims, pimps, sex work clients, the court system, and prisons. However, I have found that some individuals in law enforcement participate in a culture that carries implicit biases related to race, and there is a danger of perpetuating racist stereotypes of both traffickers and victims. Changing a culture is a long process, but honest, open conversations about implicit bias and racial stereotypes is relevant when using ethical theory to enact positive social change.

Finally, the issue of human trafficking is tied up with other social issues, such as the legal status of prostitution. Applied philosophers have examined the ethical and legal implications of sex work and prostitution for decades, but there is more conceptual work to be done in examining how the ethical implications of banning or permitting sex work change as socioeconomic systems, immigration laws, labor practices, and global trafficking routes themselves change. The conceptual work of applied ethicists intersects with policy—because policy is often crafted to eliminate the worst harms or to simplify conceptual complexities. For instance, since prostitution is illegal in Oklahoma, care workers and service providers often assume that all sex workers are victims of sex trafficking, and hence are forced to break the law or else have criminal intent. This creates a policy context in which people in the sex trade are either victims or perpetrators; however, such a simplified policy context overlooks complex behaviors and how a single individual’s roles, strategies, and motivations may change over time. I have discussed this with law enforcement and service providers to address the significant differences between these two populations.

Along with others, I advocate that those who support former sex workers should adopt a victim-centered approach. Even law enforcement agencies are recognizing the benefits of adopting an attitude of victim advocacy when dealing with victims of sexual violence. Threatening sex workers or sex trafficking victims does not help law enforcement build a case against pimps or traffickers, which is their main goal. Although their usual motive has been to build a case for arrest (to protect the larger community), at least some are aware of the value of building trust in law enforcement among former and current sex workers. In Oklahoma, a law enforcement victim advocate can help victims with the process of purging prostitution charges or convictions from their criminal record if they can show that they are adult victims of sex trafficking, have been prostituted since they were under the age of 18, or were teenagers at the time of first arrest (NewsOK 2013). These services are often unknown to victims.

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