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The Role Domestic Violence Shelters Play in Supporting Human Trafficking Survivors

One of my first cases when I worked on the National Human Trafficking Hotline involved a 26- year-old woman in a Midwest town, who had just run away from a hotel room she was sharing with her abusive husband when he stepped out to pick up dinner. She was scared, confused, and dizzy from the head injury he caused her earlier that day. She had nowhere to go.

This was not a new situation for me. Before taking the job on the National Human Trafficking Hotline I had spent six years working at a local domestic violence shelter and hotline, where I had taken hundreds of calls from people in similarly urgent, and desperate situations. The only difference here? For the last three years her husband had also been forcing her to work at a strip club and to provide sex to customers to fund his drug use.

Still, I was a pro at navigating shelter systems. Unfortunately, that confidence was quickly shattered when I found myself calling shelter after shelter after shelter, only for them to tell me they didn’t accept ‘those victims.’ It became clear. Despite my attempts to reason, advocate, and otherwise educate, sex trafficking and domestic violence were being thought of as mutually exclusive experiences.” – Brittany Anthony, Strategic Research Manager, Polaris

Luckily, a lot of things have changed since that call five years ago. Many domestic violence (DV) programs have come to understand the profound similarities in the experiences of DV and human trafficking. Both situations are rooted in power and control.  Survivors in both are often hurt by someone they see as an intimate partner. Both can face similar cycles of violence. And both often face a need for safe, emergency housing.

Since December 2007, 47 percent of all crisis cases coming into the National Human Trafficking Hotline involved a primary need for emergency shelter. In the many cases where a trafficking-specific shelter is not available, DV shelters are where we turn to fill the gap. And they are uniquely suited to do so.

Why DV shelters?

Homeless shelters are generally not ideal for survivors of violence as their physical locations are typically public and they commonly lack safety procedures and appropriate therapeutic services specific for survivors of DV and trafficking.

The following aspects of most DV shelters make them uniquely suited to serve trafficking survivors:

  • Unique staff education on interpersonal violence
  • A nuanced understanding of safety concerns
  • Confidential locationsHolistic services, such as counseling and case management
  • A focus on trauma-informed services

And most specifically, DV shelters are often already serving DV survivors who have also experienced forced labor or commercial sex, without even knowing it.

Closed doors

In just the last five years, we have seen significant improvements within DV services, with more programs opening their doors to trafficking survivors. However, despite how far we’ve come, many DV shelters still do not include trafficking survivors as part of the populations they serve. The reasons for this can range from restrictions on funding and limited bed space, to a lack of staff training about human trafficking experiences. Unfortunately, we’re still combatting the sensationalism of the “Taken” narrative, which can cloud the perception of what trafficking actually looks like and who is affected. This can lead to survivors being turned away from shelter because shelter advocates may have an unrealistic idea of the trafficking experience, and miss the similarities to DV.

In other instances, outdated or discretionary policies within the shelter itself can create the barrier. For example, shelters who choose to only house cisgender women on-site must house cisgender men, transgender, and gender non-conforming survivors in hotels (if at all) with limited services. This typically means shorter lengths of stay, no access to support groups, and further isolation for these populations.

Barriers for labor trafficking survivors

One of the largest barriers is that DV shelters may not fully understand the overlap of labor trafficking and DV or their ability to serve this population effectively. For example, DV providers have long used the power and control wheel as a tool to identify DV behaviors. One section of the wheel outlines tactics that use privilege to maintain control and provides the example of treating the victim like a servant. In some cases, this method of power and control can turn into severe forms of forced domestic servitude (i.e. labor trafficking).

Labor trafficking survivors often need the same trauma-informed approach, confidential locations, and therapeutic services that DV shelters provide, but are unfortunately all too often excluded from DV shelter services since their perpetrator was often not an intimate partner.

Therefore, labor trafficking survivors may be referred to general homeless shelters. One survivor of labor trafficking in domestic work from a Polaris focus group explained how staying at a non-confidential homeless shelter eventually put her at risk:

“When I was in the homeless shelter my trafficker [found me] and called [the facility]. I have no idea how she found the number… So I believed her when she said “when you run, I’m going to find you and deport you.”

Adapting DV shelters for the needs of trafficking survivors

When I got out of my trafficking situation I was put immediately by state patrol into a domestic violence shelter. It was the only shelter where I was from. I was their very first trafficking victim. So of course you put me with all these women who [were abused] by their husbands. [I was] a very different variety. Like, I couldn’t sleep with the lights off. Of course I got myself kicked out because I couldn’t function.” – Sex trafficking survivor

Proper staff training on the nuances of human trafficking, coupled with the trauma-informed, culturally relevant, and voluntary services many DV coalitions already encourage, are generally all that is needed to adapt a DV shelter for the needs of a trafficking survivor. In shelters where these approaches have not yet been adopted, it’s possible that some policies, intended for DV survivors, may have adverse effects on any trafficking survivors in their care.

Below are some examples of ways that DV shelters can adapt their policies and practices to better serve trafficking survivors.



Trafficking indicators are missed by staff during screening and intake

Institute comprehensive staff training on the nuances of human trafficking and DV, including screening questions.

Organizational definition of “domestic violence” excludes trafficking survivors

If funding requirements allow, consider expanding the definition of domestic violence to include victims of all forms of interpersonal violence (e.g. by intimate partners, family members, “pimps”, and employers.)

Rejecting survivors with substance use histories

We know that substance use is heavily linked with the trauma of DV and human trafficking. Some abusers and traffickers may even instigate or heavily manage a survivor’s substance use. Instead of disqualifying shelter applicants who have a history of substance use, consider partnering with local substance use disorder treatment programs to equip these residents with additional support.

Gender-specific sheltering

Trafficking survivors include cisgender men, transgender men and women, and gender non-conforming folks. As stated under the Family Violence Prevention Services Act (FVPSA), DV shelters must “provide comparable services to victims regardless of actual or perceived sex, including gender identity” and should do so for trafficking survivors as well. (For more information, see VAWnet’s collection of resources on serving trans and non-binary and male survivors).

Mandatory group counseling

Trafficking survivors may feel isolated or stigmatized by fellow shelter residents since their experience is not always shared and often is misunderstood among DV survivors. Requiring a trafficking survivor to share the details of their experience in a group setting can not only be re-traumatizing, but can further alienate the survivor from the household. Consider opting to a voluntary services model which allows shelter residents to determine the type of support that works best for them.

Required chores

Labor trafficking survivors may feel re-traumatized performing some household work that closely mirrors their trafficking situation. Shelters should consider working with survivors to identify the chores that these residents feel most comfortable performing or incorporating cleaning services in their annual budgets.

“Locked down” facilities

Being restricted from leaving the facility can mirror the isolation and confinement from their trafficker. Shelters should consider redesigning their policies to allow for private and common areas as well as flexible or eliminated curfews.

Legal issues

Trafficking survivors may have complex legal needs that fall outside the scope of DV legal services. Shelters can collaborate with local legal service providers who specialize in trafficking related legal issues. The online National Human Trafficking Referral Directory or the Human Trafficking Legal Center can help identify local services.

Employment requirements for residents

Many trafficking survivors do not have traditional employment histories or they may have criminal histories preventing employment. Foreign national survivors can be without work permits and some survivors of labor trafficking may be re-traumatized returning to work. Shelters should consider alternatives like encouraging school enrollment/GED classes, ESL classes, or providing job readiness training.

DV shelters are in a unique and already prepared position to offer services to trafficking survivors. With additional training and policy review, shelters can easily create the welcoming, supportive atmosphere trafficking survivors so greatly need.

For more information please visit the following recommended resources:

This blog was written in collaboration with Amber Guthrie, Project Director for the Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence (MNADV). Stay informed! If you’d like to help make an impact on the lives of human trafficking victims and survivors join our Grassroots Network.

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Need help? Polaris operates the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline.