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How Psychologists Are Working to Eradicate Human Trafficking

By Paola M. Contreras, PsyD (Member, APA Task Force on Trafficking of Women and Girls)

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month – an important time to shed light on a crime that affects hundreds of thousands of people globally. While some groups, such as women and young girls, are certainly more vulnerable to this crime, overall human trafficking does not have a single face. It can affect:

  1. women, men, and transgender persons;

  2. children, adolescents, adults, and the elderly;

  3. poverty stricken, middle, and even upper class persons; and

  4. people of all races, ethnicities and nationalities.

It’s 2015 and efforts to counter human trafficking in the United States and around the world have come a long way. APA’s recent release of the Report of the Task Force on Trafficking of Women and Girls is an example of progress in raising awareness of a topic all too often overlooked. In addition to raising psychologists’ awareness about trafficking, the report aims to make recommendations for research, education and training, advocacy and public policy, public awareness, and practice as these pertain to psychology and the problem of human trafficking.

As a member of the Task Force, which was co-chaired by Nancy Sidun, PsyD, and Deborah Hume, PhD, it is an understatement to say that tackling an issue as complex and controversial as human trafficking was a huge undertaking. Nonetheless, the painstaking hours of work that we put in were fueled by our imperative that the voices of psychologists join the fight against human trafficking.

I started anti-trafficking work in 2006. Over the years, I have evaluated women from all parts of the globe at Project Reach, an anti-trafficking mobile consultation team (housed at the Trauma Center at the Justice Resource Institute funded by the U.S. Department of Justice). Our evaluations support T-Visa applications for international victims/survivors of trafficking. The T-Visa is a special type of visa program that allows victims/survivors to remain in the United States in order to assist law enforcement in human trafficking investigations (USCIS, 2011).

I recall my first evaluation was in New York City. I met with a 27 year-old South American woman who I will refer to as Salma. I asked Salma how she felt about meeting with me. She responded,

“Terrified, but I want to try to tell you what he [the trafficker] did to me because I haven’t told anyone everything that happened. I think not talking about what happened is what is making me feel so lonely.”

Salma was also pregnant and told me she had left a son in her mother’s care in her home country. Her attorney explained that Salma’s concern for her family’s safety only grew as law enforcement made progress in prosecuting her trafficker.

Unfortunately, such contradictions abound in efforts to assist victims/survivors of human trafficking. Prosecutions intended to protect victims/survivors may actually create additional risks. Traffickers can be connected to larger networks of organized crime. Imprisoning one trafficker in the U.S. may fail to protect a trafficking victim/survivor overseas, and even create more risk for the family who could be retaliated against by the imprisoned trafficker’s associates.

It becomes a powerful form of transnational coercion that is very difficult to address. It is one reason that Congress broadened the criteria allowing victims/survivors of trafficking to petition for derivative T-Visas for family members residing outside the U.S. (TVPA, 2000; TVPRA, 2003, 2005). This is but one example of many other efforts that have shifted to help relieve international victims/survivors of trafficking.

Domestically, there has also been considerable progress. When I started working at Project Reach, funding was exclusively for international victims/survivors of trafficking. Domestically trafficked adults and youth were excluded from the relief programs addressing the needs of international victims/survivors. Though it took some time to make the connections, today, there is widespread recognition in the U.S. that human trafficking is a domestic and international problem.

During one of my first trainings on international victims/survivors of trafficking in the Midwest, I recall a participant saying, “Thank goodness we don’t have to worry about kids being taken by traffickers around here.” When I clarified that trafficking was also a domestic problem, participant reactions ranged from confusion to complete disbelief. One participant asked me why he had never heard about the problem.

The truth was that everyone in the training had most likely heard about domestic trafficking, but part of the problem was that the victims/survivors were hidden in other marginalized groups ––prostituted women and men, sexually exploited/abused children, runaway youth, undocumented workers exploited in domestic work and factories, among many others. Providers saw the signs of exploitation and abuse but lacked the language of human trafficking to talk about the issue.

While the work of raising awareness has improved provider language and sensitivity, the tactics that traffickers use to keep victims psychologically locked into the exploitation are still largely misunderstood. Minors sexually exploited by adults (e.g., pimps, “boyfriends”, family members) are no longer termed “child prostitutes,” which fails to recognize the vulnerability and lack of agency to choose of youth. Instead, the new term “trafficked youth” recognizes a minor’s victim status and most importantly that there is a perpetrator ––the trafficker. It is a first important step towards demarginalizing this group.

Many U.S. states have passed laws to protect trafficked youth and providers and systems have mobilized to meet their needs. Numerous examples exist of law enforcement offices across the country that are joining the fight against trafficking. A Columbus Dispatch article describes a police officer who spoke filled with emotion at the city’s fourth annual human trafficking awareness day event about the trafficked youth his office identified (Johnson, 2013). It is a welcome shift away from the previous practice in some states of arresting and criminalizing sexually exploited youth for prostitution.

Another important conversation about trafficking that is happening in the U.S. is growing awareness about the vulnerabilities to trafficking and victimization of prostitutes, as well as the often indistinguishable traits that characterize trafficking and prostitution. In fact, the report found that attempts to distinguish trafficking and prostitution are probably some of the most contentious conversations unfolding today. The report points out that some consider prostitution to be a legitimate source of income and potentially empowering work, while other scholars argue that prostitution is inherently harmful.

I am pleased that for several years now the annual APA convention has included trafficking-specific programming. In 2012, APA’s Society for the Psychology of Women (Division 35) produced a film on human trafficking, “The Psychology of Modern Day Slavery,” and discussion guide available to the general public as an awareness raising tool. Graduate students regularly email me expressing interest in research on human trafficking. In fact, I am currently on two human trafficking-specific dissertation committees.

Psychologists’ interest is growing and we are working to answer some of the most difficult questions about human trafficking.

  1. How does bonding to the trafficker occur?

  2. Why is it hard for some trafficking victims to leave their traffickers?

  3. Why do some leave and then return?

  4. Who are the traffickers?

The release of this report is yet another example that APA is committed to joining the scores of efforts across the United States and the globe to eradicate the terrible crime of human trafficking.

Thank you to all the psychologists and mental health providers who have already joined these efforts. And for those of you who have not joined us yet, please do because we need you! For ideas on how to help, download APA’s report on human trafficking; the sections on responding to trafficking, the role of the psychologist and recommendations will be especially helpful to you.


American Psychological Association Task Force on the Trafficking of Women and Girls (2014). Report of the task force on trafficking of women and girls. Washington, D.C.: Author. Retrieved from:

Johnson, A. (2013, January 11). Ohio makes progress in helping victims of human trafficking. The Columbus Dispatch, Retrieved from

Trafficking Victims Protection Act, 22 U.S.C. § 7101 (b)(2). (2000).

Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, P.L. 108-193. (2003).

Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, 22 USC § 7104. (2005).

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. (2011). Victims of Human Trafficking: T Nonimmigrant Status. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from


Paola M. Contreras, PsyD, is a licensed psychologist and faculty at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology where she directs the Counseling Psychology in Global Mental Health Program. She served on the APA’s Presidential Task Force on the Trafficking of Women and Girls. She has conducted research on trafficking-related issues in Central America, including trafficking trends between that region and the U.S. She provides evaluation services to international survivors of trafficking in the U.S., and imparts cross discipline trainings and consultation nationally on trauma and trafficking to mental health and other health providers, attorneys, law enforcement, and social services providers. Her scholarship on issues that affect women and girls has been widely recognized. Most recently, the Committee on Women in Psychology of the American Psychological Association recognized Dr. Contreras with the Emerging Leader for Women in Psychology Award.

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