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Synopsis:  Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services for Victims of Human Trafficking in the United States (2013 – 2017)

By Mariam Garuba, M.D.

Cancer InCytes Magazine - Volume 4, Issue 1, Summer 2015

Published July 3, 2015


Managing Editor: Danielle Fumagalli, M.A.





2013 was the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the principles of this proclamation are embraced by the Coordination Collaboration Capacity: Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services for Victims of Human Trafficking in the United States 2013-2017, or “the plan” as it will be referred to in this summarization.


Endorsed by the current President of the United States, Barack Hussein Obama, the plan calls for holistic, streamlined, and compassionate aid for victims of human trafficking because they deserve such proper and necessary treatment regardless of the particular background of human trafficking each victim experienced.  The President, Attorney General, Secretary of Health and Human Services, as well as the Secretary of Homeland Security all recognize the insidious and widespread nature of human trafficking activity. The plan is part of their collective commitment to doing more about this dangerous problem.


The President's awareness is shared by many other entities and individuals.  There is now greater recognition of the complex web of exploitation affecting diverse communities across America.   Acknowledging that human trafficking affects U.S. citizens, foreign nationals, adults, children, men, women and transgender individuals who are victimized across commercial sex and forced labor schemes, the plan responds and reacts to this acknowledgment by detailing its proposed 5-year effort to increase the effectiveness of the coordinative and collaborative efforts and capacity of multiple governmental agencies and entities focused on giving support to human trafficking victims.  Crucial factors of improvement to access to services, increased understanding among federal and nonfederal entities working in support of victims, and creating improved overall outcomes for survivors and victims of human trafficking crimes are all detailed in the plan.


The purpose of the plan is “to describe the steps that federal agencies will take to ensure that all victims of human trafficking in the United States are identified and have access to the services they need to recover” (The Plan, 1). This involves creating a victim services network that is trauma-informed and responsive to the needs of all victims.  Though prevention and prosecution are not in the scope of the plan, it does address several critical elements and factors like prevention, and using prosecution to hold offenders accountable.


The plan focuses on its core values.  These core values are related to trafficking victim services in key areas and improving service delivery.  There has been a recognition that government alone cannot stop this crime.  The plan was written to appeal to a large audience that included more than just government entities and employees.  


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Human Trafficking in the United States: An Overview

Definition of human trafficking: also known as trafficking in persons or modern slavery. It is a crime involving the exploitation of a person for the purpose of compelled labor or a commercial sex act. The enactment of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in 2000 was a turning point. It includes the strategy of the 3 P’s, which the United States wanted to direct its efforts towards: prevention, protection, prosecution.

There are many terms to describe this crime. To be eligible for victim services, TVPA limits victims to a “severe form of trafficking in persons,” which is:


Sex trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person is induced to perform such acts has not attained 18 years of age; or


Labor trafficking, which is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of labor or services, through the use of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.


Though difficult to measure, it is estimated that more than 20 million women, men, and children worldwide are victims of forced labor and sex trafficking. Many are lured with false promises and can be found in legitimate and illegitimate industries, such as restaurants, massage parlors, and domestic service.

Human trafficking is deemed a threat to national security by the U.S. government. It is one of the most profitable forms of transnational crime, worth an estimated $32 billion in profits per year globally. According to the International Labor Organization, approximately 55% of victims are women and girls, and 95% are sex trafficking victims.



Statutory Framework/Government Response

The TVPA created stronger tools for prosecutors, which included increasing penalties, mandatory restitution for victims, and funding for victim services. Subsequent reauthorizations strengthened prosecutorial tools, awareness efforts, and support for victims in response to an enhanced understanding of human trafficking. The reauthorization act of 2003 mandated new information campaigns, required an annual report from the Attorney General to Congress about federal efforts to combat trafficking, and created a new civil cause of action allowing victims to sue their traffickers in court. The reauthorization act of 2005 authorized new resources, such as grant assistance programs to citizens and permanent residents. In 2008 measures included expanding the T visa program, and in 2013 the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) included the TVPA reauthorization, which improved support for local and state efforts to address human trafficking victims and minor sex-trafficking victims.


The Presidents Interagency task force (PITF) to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons is cabinet level and brings together several federal agencies to address all aspects of human trafficking, criminal and law enforcement, victim identification and protection, education and public awareness, international development, enhanced partnerships and research opportunities, or international engagement and diplomacy. The members are DOS, DOD, DOJ, DOI, USDA, DOL, HHS, DOT, ED, DHS, Office of Management and Budget, National Security Council, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Domestic Policy Council, FBI, USAID, and the EEOC.  Senior officials designated as representatives of the PITF convene as the Senior Policy Operating Group (SPOG).


State and local governments have built stronger response systems, and more states have enacted laws to better protect victims of human trafficking, enhance prosecution efforts, and identify ways to adapt to the changing methods of traffickers.  Federal, state, territorial, tribal, and local law enforcement coordinate with community-based victims service providers to strengthen enforcement efforts through federal funding assistance.  Other agencies forming communities and assisting survivors include mayors’ offices, city councils, private sector and non-governmental organizations, and faith based communities. More recognition and response to the impact of human trafficking in the lives of youth is occurring amongst state and county child protection workers, and educators.

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Victims of Human Trafficking

Victims of human trafficking can be anyone. They come from all walks of life.  There is no defining characteristic, but traffickers prey on poor, vulnerable people looking for a better life, who may or may not be in unsafe conditions.  There are different types of traffickers, ones that work alone, families who have been in the business, businesses that appear legitimate initially, but are not. Trafficking can occur without chains, as prosecutors have found. Traffickers go beyond physical abuse and psychological abuse to control and exploit their victims. They instill fear, terrors, the fear of deportation, threats of harm to family members, and even drug dependency that make the victims reliant on the trafficker. This form of abuse is unique and complex, as found by law enforcement, prosecutors, and victim advocates. It requires a comprehensive and trauma-informed approach.



Providing Effective, Comprehensive Services to Victims

Trafficking victims require emergency and long-term services, intensive case management, victim advocacy, shelter/housing, food, medical and dental care, mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, support groups, interpretation/translation services, immigration, legal assistance, literary education, employment and training services.


The HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement and the DOJ Office for Victims of Crime provide federal grant funding, which is primarily for victims.  Victim assistance is provided by system based victim/witness coordinators through the FBI, ICE, HIS, and USAO when victims are involved in investigations and prosecutions. Child welfare systems and runaway/homeless youth and domestic violence shelters also identify these vulnerable populations.



Areas for Improvement

The Federal Government, since the inception of the TVPA 12 years ago, has improved the development of a victim-centered approach to fight human trafficking. This plan addresses areas for improvement with strategies to improve services and enhance the response to human trafficking needs. They include:

1. Enhancing coordination and improving guidance

2. Expanding database collection and research efforts

3. Enhancing understanding and awareness

4. Overcoming resource constraints and limitations in access to services.



Plan Development

The Federal Human Trafficking Strategic Plan is part of the current administration's ongoing effort to fight human trafficking both in the United States and abroad.  It is edified by the already existing Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.  The plan was announced on September 25, 2012 in a speech in which President Obama pledged to “do even more to help victims recover and rebuild their lives”.


Phase I of the plan, called the “Initial Framework,” saw the drafting of the plan with input from different relevant agency members.  A meeting was held in the White House in December of 2012.  During the meeting, a multidisciplinary group that included survivors of human trafficking, law enforcement, experts, academia, and nonprofit groups shared information and further input on human trafficking issues.  This input was used to target gaps in the then current human trafficking services for victims in America.  Furthermore, that same input improved the core values and guiding principles on which the plan was built. 


Phase II is called “Expansion and Publication.”  The Initial Framework of the plan was released on April 9, 2013 and the public was allowed to comment on it for 45 days.  The plan was widely distributed through various collaborations on the federal, state, and local/tribe/territorial level.  There were six national and regional listening sessions that were held using conference call technology and in-person meetings.  There was also an email process that facilitated leaving comments and or perusing the Interactive Web site.  Traditional letters were also encouraged.  A total of 67 messages were received using the electronic and traditional forms of correspondence.  Nearly 500 comments were received on the Interactive Web site.  The final plan was published in early 2014.


Phase III is called the “Accountability” phase and it ensures the success of the plan by providing the critical element of transparency to the plan.  The process is controlled and pushed forward by feasible goals and definitive action items that can be measured and outlined. The responsibilities necessary to achieve the overall goal can be delegated efficiently to the different departments involved in the plan.  Measurements to keep track of the level of transparency will be used to ensure that accountability standards remain high throughout the execution of the plan.  Some of these measures include an annual report that will show the cumulative results of the progress made on reaching the goals and objectives of the plan.

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Human Trafficking in the United States

An overview of human trafficking in the United States reveals several things.  It is a crime to traffic persons.  The Department of Justice enforces laws against this modern form of slavery.  In 2000, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) was enacted and created a turning point in how human trafficking was dealt with by giving prosecutors. Stronger tools were created, such as increased penalties for human traffickers.  Eligibility for victim services' is limited under the TVPA to victims of who suffer from “a severe form of trafficking in persons.”  This is one of the limitations that this plan addresses in the expansion phase summarized earlier in this synopsis.


Victims of human trafficking are a heterogeneous group and come from different places, races, and backgrounds.  Many are lied to and tricked into human trafficking situations with promises of a better life, job, etc.  Many come from impoverished financial backgrounds and are desperate for the illusory life they have been promised.  When they are forced to work with little or no pay, whether it be in homes as domestic servants, or strip clubs, the federal law recognizes them as being victims of human trafficking.


It is necessary to provide effective and comprehensive services to such victims.  Many require extensive emergency and long-term services such as intensive case management, victim advocacy, shelter or housing, food, medical care, and more.  All of this requires money and the main source is federal grant funding for services that are in line with trafficking victims’ needs. 


Despite this impressive organization of services, and the recognition of the need for such services based on the state of victims of human trafficking in America, the plan and its creators also recognized that there are areas of improvement.  After passing the TVPA, significant improvements were made in developing an even more thorough victim-centered approach to fighting cases of human trafficking.  Areas of improvement still exist, however, in the fields of enhanced understanding and awareness, expanded data collection and research efforts, enhanced coordination and improved guidance, and overcoming resource constraints and limitations access to services.



The Vision of the Plan

The plan envisions every victim of human trafficking being identified and provided with access to the services they need to recover and rebuild their lives through responsive, sustainable, comprehensive, and trauma-informed victim service networks that effectively leverage public and private partnerships, and resources.


The guiding principles include developing the plan in a collaborative fashion that involves multiple agencies of the federal government, and different stakeholders from different levels of state, federal, and local/tribe entities.  The plan needs to be realistic and demonstrate a vision of goals leading towards a long term accomplishment in the five year period designated to the plan.  The plan should help all partners be accountable for the long term effects of the plan so that its impact is lasting, measurable, and scalable.  Finally, solutions and innovation should drive the plan, which should also be based on evidence and learned lessons.


The core values drawn from the different groups point towards survivors playing key roles in increasing an understanding and awareness of human trafficking, evaluating the service network, improving service delivery, and informing policymakers about other core values.  These services should be accessible, and the creation of public awareness/understanding of what human trafficking is at the different federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial levels is mandatory.  Anti-human-trafficking efforts need to be victim-centered and culturally relevant.  Those who engage with victims must respect and understand the victims’ experience of victimization.  They must have the capacity to appreciate the victim's capacity to move beyond victimization, while at the same time understand that the victim has been victimized.  



The Goal of the Plan

The Plan has 4 goals, 10 objectives, and more than 130 associated action items for victim service improvements to be achieved over the next 5 years.  The overall goal of the plan is to strengthen the reach and effectiveness of services to all victims of human trafficking, regardless of the victim’s race, color, national origin, disability, religion, age, gender, immigration status, sexual orientation, or type of trafficking endured.  Implementing the plan will create a more coordinated victim services network for America.


The plan's inception was a result of the United States Federal Government’s ongoing engagement with nongovernment stakeholders. A listening session was held at the White House on December 10, 2012 on the topic of human trafficking, hosted by the Department of Health and Human Services. Issues involving human trafficking as a crime and a human rights violation were discussed.  The discussed plan focuses on providing and coordinating support for victims as well as aligning with all other efforts of the Federal Government to eliminate human trafficking and prevent further victimization. This was in alignment with what is outlined in both the Attorney General’s Annual Report to Congress and the Assessment of U.S. Government Activities to Combat Trafficking in Persons.


The plan identifies several “core values” related to trafficking victim services and key areas for improving service delivery. The plan recognizes that government alone cannot stop this crime, and the plan is written to appeal to a wide set of actors to bring resources, expertise, and partnerships to end human trafficking and also better support victims. The quality of the services to be provided must be validated to ensure that victims are supported throughout their journey.


Goal 1 

Align Efforts: Promote a strategic and coordinated approach to the provision of services for victims of human trafficking at the federal, regional, state, territorial, tribal, and local levels.  The first objective of this plan is to provide federal leadership and direction to improve services to victims of human trafficking.  This objective includes recommendations for the implementation of systematic chance.  It also identifies promising practices in properly aiding the victims of human trafficking.  The second objective is to coordinate the services given to victims that are effective through the collaboration of several sectors of service.  This involves developing and promoting standard terminology, ensuring funding is coordinated, and improving coordination at all levels.


Goal 2 

Improve Understanding: Expand and coordinate human trafficking-related research data and evaluation to support the evidence-based practices in the services given to victims.  The third objective of this plan calls for establishing baseline knowledge of human trafficking and victim service needs by using thorough research and reporting.  Resource gaps need to be identified, new data collection mechanisms need to be established, and data and reports must be more efficiently shared.  The fourth objective of this plan calls for supporting the development of effective responses to the needs of victims of human trafficking.  This means evaluating screening and training tools, and improving the quality of evaluations.


Goal 3

Expand Access to Services: Provide and promote outreach, training, and technical assistance to increase victim identification and increase service availability. The fifth objective of this plan is to increase the ways of identifying victims by coordinating public outreach and awareness efforts.  Outreach and awareness activities will be conducted to provide resources for the public.  Also, research and awareness activities were conducted to give resources to communities that have been targeted for such services.  The sixth objective of this plan is to build the capacity to better identify and serve victims by targeted training and technical assistance.  This includes expanding the training that federal government employees receive pertaining to human trafficking.  These various departments like the Departments of State, Transportation, Agriculture, and Defense, must be trained in tribal law enforcement, task forces, and the criminal justice system.  Service providers must be trained and assisted, as well as the broader field of victim services.  Finally, the training of allied professionals in health care systems, labor and employment systems, faith- and community-based organizations, and education systems is necessary.


Goal 4

Improve Outcomes: Promote effective, culturally appropriate, trauma-informed services that improve the short- and long-term health, safety, and well-being of victims. The seventh objective of this plan fosters collaborative efforts for partnerships to enhance community responses to human trafficking.  This objective focuses on two things. First is developing networks to increase the identification of victims through general partnerships, faith- and community-based organizations, labor employment systems, and homeless and runaway youth systems.  Second is developing networks to expand access to services through the use of comprehensive victim services.  The objective here is to improve access to victim services by removing long established, or systemic, barriers.  Removing these barriers will improve access to the services and benefits that victims of human trafficking desperately need. These include housing, legal services that are holistic (comprehensive), immigration benefits in many cases (some victims of human trafficking are Americans), and victim compensation programs.  Removing these systemic barriers also includes increasing access to services for vulnerable populations through limited English communication services for non-English-speaking victims, and providing for victims with disabilities.



It is important to coordinate anti-human-trafficking efforts at the federal level. Federal support also encourages regional, state, tribal and local leaders to increase their engagement in and commitment to combat sex trafficking/ labor trafficking and supporting the victims of the crimes. It also hopes to engage business, philanthropic, and civic leaders with the hopes of bringing the full expertise and resources of the country to bear in this effort.


The federal agency needs to coordinate the federal approach to improving victim services.  The plan emphasizes the continued engagement amongst federal partners, stakeholders, and communities to meet with the tenets in its vision (comprehensive, trauma-informed, and sustainable victim services). Federal agencies are committed to maintain the plan as a living document, and it will be updated and maintained as a living document. 




About The Author

Mariam Garuba, M.D., is a psychiatrist who works in New York and provides care to the chronically and mentally ill. She obtained her medical degree from Creighton University in 2005, and completed a residency in psychiatry at Creighton University/University of Nebraska Medical Center in 2009. After working for a few years, she completed a research fellowship in forensic psychiatry at New York State Psychiatric Institute, where one of her projects focused on human trafficking and the T-visa. She then went on to complete a forensic psychiatry fellowship at Oregon Health Sciences University. She has an interest in all aspects of human trafficking, particularly where it involves education, prevention, and treatment.




“Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services for Victims of Human Trafficking in the United States 2013-2017” U.S. Department of Justice, 2015.




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