Symposium: A Citywide Approach to Prevent Human Trafficking

28 March 2019
Research Innovation

Megan Tackney  | Pathways to Freedom Program Manager, Humanity United

Alison Gardner’s exploration of what underpins effective local anti-trafficking action is focused on the importance of diverse local partnerships. She examines what might be learned from looking at local multi-agency partnerships across the UK, and at the same time is testing the impact of a “place-based” approach to addressing human trafficking by working to create a slavery-free Notthinghamshire. Humanity United is supporting similar work to encourage and share learnings from new collaborative approaches in US cities. While not all lessons may be transferrable, there are common themes and learnings that may be useful more broadly.

In 2012, Humanity United launched the Partnership for Freedom, a public-private partnership aimed at catalysing new ideas, data, commitments and actions in the anti-trafficking movement. Part of the challenge, Pathways to Freedom, was launched in 2017 with the NoVo Foundation and in collaboration with 100 Resilient Cities. As a sign of growing need and interest, 14 major US cities applied, and three were selected to receive support in developing new comprehensive approaches to the problem of human trafficking: Atlanta, Chicago and Minneapolis. With our investment, these US cities join Houston as being the only ones with a full-time position dedicated to human trafficking.

This challenge was motivated by the exactly the same gaps Gardner identifies: a complex web of local services and law enforcement with no guidance on what should be prioritized or how coordination should work; government agencies working in isolation with poor or no data on what human trafficking is and what’s needed to stop it; and lack of dedicated funding to resolve such challenges.

Cabinet-level Senior Fellows in the Mayor’s offices in Atlanta, Chicago and Minneapolis are now receiving dedicated funding for two years to bring together multiple city agencies, NGO groups and service providers to develop new policies, practices, funding streams and relationships with communities impacted by trafficking. They are developing and implementing policy blueprints for their cities, and our hope is that the benefits of this approach will move the cities to continue the investment themselves after our funding period ends.

Prioritizing prevention in cities

To the extent that US cities are engaging in anti-trafficking efforts, it has generally been through local police departments or federally funded law enforcement task forces. While law enforcement is crucial to stopping trafficking after it is uncovered, its interventions are typically applied after human trafficking has already created victims, and, as noted by Gardner, local police do not always coordinate with other departments or highlight trends, patterns or non-prosecutorial needs.

If cities expand their view of human trafficking beyond what’s possible with law enforcement resources, we believe they can play a critical role in identifying who might be at risk or may currently be experiencing exploitation, and as a next step, tailor existing initiatives and add resources to better meet the needs of trafficking survivors.

We know that women, men and children who are vulnerable to exploitation often pass through multiple US city systems such as labour enforcement, child welfare, housing and homelessness services, hospitals, health and safety inspections, drug treatment programs, immigrant services and more. At the same time, we want our fellows to consider an anti-trafficking lens, as Gardner notes, that allows them to see that there might actually be a community problem that normalizes exploitation. They must consider who is facing discrimination in their city: The immigrant? The youth who is transgender or homosexual? The person who can’t leave their violent home? Those who continue to be poor or addicted, unassisted by the city? It’s past time to think that finding one or two perpetrators means the work is finished.

One of the greatest challenges in our cities is that we are asking people to think about a holistic, coordinated response that doesn’t easily match how they have understood human trafficking. A lack of data, misperceptions fueled by the media, limited resources and competing political agendas all contribute to city departments’ reluctance to act on an issue they don’t identify as their own. We’ve seen this most concretely in encouraging cities to work on both labour and sexual exploitation. For example, while most people understand why a sex trafficking victim needs a safe home to go to, some are slower, or even reluctant, to recognize how the city’s weak labour laws or lack of services for immigrants are relevant to labour trafficking.

We know that in the US, increased threats of deportation and heightened anti-immigrant rhetoric may cause immigrant communities to become even more vulnerable to exploitation. They are also less likely to seek help or services for fear of deportation or other immigration consequences. This problem is especially challenging today as a notice of proposed rulemaking was recently released by the federal government that would use an immigrant’s usage or likely use of government benefits like food stamps, housing assistance, or Medicaid as a reason to deny them a Green Card or visa. Fortunately, some local governments are responding with innovative policies and practices to protect immigrants in their communities as well as ensure that immigrant victims of human trafficking and other crimes can access needed services. These cities may not think of this work as part of their anti-trafficking program, but it is just that.

Diverse leadership in city anti-trafficking efforts

As Gardner pointed out, we must recognize that in the absence of city leadership and resources until now, non-governmental partners have had to step up to create an inconsistent patchwork of services with little help from city government. Our city leaders have had to step into their roles with some humility for the action and leadership that has already been taken, and instead offer themselves as an ally and new resource.

At the same time, as funders, we are supporting local grassroots organizations in each Pathways city because we believe government efforts must be matched by leaders and organizations that can reach deep within their communities and lift the voices of the most vulnerable. These groups have the ability to reach thousands of low-wage worker communities that have traditionally been vulnerable to exploitation, including immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community, communities of colour and women. Our hope is that these organizations will become part of the cities’ fabric of anti-trafficking efforts.

In her paper, Gardner makes the point that understanding survivors’ journeys is critical to developing effective policies and support services. For just that reason, we also believe it is crucial that survivors be part of any local partnership working to identify problems and shape solutions. We are partnering with the Survivor Alliance to identify and train survivor leaders in each Pathway city. Our hope is that other cities and philanthropists will see the value of survivors’ involvement and invest similarly.

Local communities have the best understanding of their own unique challenges and are best positioned to design the reforms and solutions needed. When efforts by city governments are matched by organizations that can reach deep into impacted communities, we may be able to finally reach the most vulnerable.

This piece has been prepared as part of the Delta 8.7 Local Approaches to Tackling Modern Slavery symposium. Read all the responses here.

Megan Tackney is a Program Manager for Humanity United.

This article has been prepared by Megan Tackney as a contributor to Delta 8.7. As provided for in the Terms and Conditions of Use of Delta 8.7, the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of UNU or its partners.

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