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The National Survivor Study: Harnessing the Power of Survivors to Shed Light on Trafficking

Knowledge is power: Power to prevent tragedy; Power to promote healing; Power to make a change. That was the thinking behind Polaris’s efforts to build the largest known database on human trafficking in North America more than a decade ago. Today, it is the driving force behind the National Survivor Study, an innovative and scientifically rigorous new project that flips the traditional dynamics of social science research on its head and, in doing so, will bring to the surface significant new insights into how human trafficking really works – not just how we think it works. This is the kind of insight the anti trafficking movement truly needs to create, support and implement effective strategies to prevent the crime and support survivors.

Traditional social science research studies are done on communities as opposed to with communities. In other words, the researcher, not the community, makes all the relevant decisions. The National Survivor Study will be designed from start to finish in close collaboration with survivors, who are, after all the experts in their own experiences.

That means survivors and allies will be engaged in conversation to help determine what the ultimate focus of the study will be – in other words, what overarching questions it will answer for the anti trafficking field. Survivor consultants will then help spread the word to others for participation in the study, assess the accessibility of the specific instrument(s) of the study – such as how a question may be understood – and help in the final process of analyzing and making sense of the data obtained. Finally, survivors and allies will be engaged in determining how those insights can most effectively be leveraged to reduce and prevent sex and labor trafficking.

Involving and compensating survivors is not just the “right” thing to do. It is crucial to reducing the biases and misconceptions that can grow out of data collected from more passive methods. For example, Polaris’s data set gleaned from more than a dozen years operating the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline is a vital source of information about trafficking trends and overarching patterns of the crime. But the mission of the Trafficking Hotline is first and foremost to provide support for victims and survivors of human trafficking. Data collection is secondary. As a result, we don’t have answers to all the questions that would be helpful for better understanding who gets trafficked, and what could have been done to prevent it – for example. Additionally, the Trafficking Hotline only has access to information from victims and survivors who both know enough to contact us and choose to do so. That too builds a certain kind of bias into the data.

All the processes built into the NSS are designed to mitigate some of these biases. The first public step – launched just this month – was inviting partners in the anti trafficking community to respond to two short surveys to help us to understand what kind of information would be most helpful in advancing their work. This is being done through a Delphi method, which is designed to simulate a dynamic group conversation that allows for all voices to be heard.

In the coming months, we will continue to create opportunities for survivors and other partners to participate in shaping the study and sharing with others who they believe may be able to contribute.

For more information, please click here.


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