Courts across the country are developing new and unique ways to address sex trafficking. Many family courts work with juveniles, focusing largely on the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Many criminal courts work with adults and tackle a broader range of relevant criminal cases, such as prostitution, loitering, and drug possession.
Given the differences in local laws, culture, and available resources, there is no universally applicable model. Instead, human trafficking courts rely on common strategies and goals that aim to identify victims and link them to services, enhance victim safety, promote interagency collaboration, and educate justice practitioners on the dynamics of human trafficking and trauma.
Below, practitioners from courts around the country explain and discuss five key principles that animate their work.
Understanding the trauma and coercion victims have experienced judges and courtroom staff adopt practices that recognize the victim-defendant paradigm and promote safety and procedural justice in the courtroom to reduce the risk of re-traumatization. The approach is not just about linking victims to services, but also about adapting practices throughout the courtroom to emphasize concern and safety over fear and punishment. By helping to keep victim-defendants safe in the courtroom and reduce the harmful impacts of justice involvement, courts can better respond to potential trauma reactions among victim-defendants.
Trafficking victims are not going to self-identify as victims for many reasons. Victims of sex trafficking confront a number of complicated barriers to accessing justice via the courts because of involvement in prostitution, but it’s important to remember the additional barriers for victims of sex trafficking posed by culture, language capacity, and gender identity. Human trafficking court models have implemented practices to overcome these barriers to victim identification, which begins with training to help shift perspectives.
Linking to Services
Once victims are identified, the courts can act as a portal, connecting them to a range of individualized services based on their most salient needs. Services should be evidence-based and trauma-informed, and include counseling, case management, housing, child welfare, advocacy, medical services, legal services, and drug treatment.
By bringing together an interdisciplinary team of judges, court administrators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, probation, child welfare agencies, and victim advocates and service providers, the courts can develop protocols and improve communication to enhance victim safety and create access to services. The purpose of these teams is to ensure the provision of immediate services for victims, facilitate communication among court stakeholders, and effectively monitor cases.
Program evaluation is a key component of any court-based response to human trafficking. But typical metrics used in other problem-solving courts, such as compliance and recidivism, are not effective measures for victims of human trafficking. While recidivism is often the gold standard for measuring success, it is not a realistic measure when working with victims who may still be in coercive and exploitative situations. So instead, jurisdictions rely on incremental performance indicators that gauge measures such as enhancing victim safety, reducing barriers to services, identifying victims, and incrementally completing services.
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