For survivors of human trafficking, breaking free from the exploiter is often just the beginning of a long, hard journey. Most need longer-term support to truly heal from the physical, emotional, and mental traumas they have experienced, long after their exploitation has ended.
Sadly, few can find it.
Data from the inaugural National Survivor Study (NSS), the largest and most comprehensive survey of survivors of human trafficking in the United States to date, suggests that long-term healing and recovery options for survivors are few and far between.
Survivors’ Long-Term Health Needs
Several of the top reported needs by survivors were health related, including access to trauma-informed behavioral and mental health services. Even long after exiting, nearly 40% of survivors had not been able to find appropriate behavioral and mental health help. Another top need was managing chronic or long-lasting health issues, reported by 30% of survivors.
“It takes years and years to reassemble a life”
Health issues resulting from trafficking often lead to financial challenges. One survivor shared, “I had to spend my entire retirement and more and go into debt to get proper treatment. Getting treatment buried me alive.” Medical debt can be completely outside of survivor control, as one survivor shared, “I have over $40,000 in medical debt from being IVC’d [involuntarily committed].” A choice between receiving necessary health care and keeping food on the table is a choice no one, especially a trafficking survivor, should ever have to make.
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Medical Debt is Just the Beginning
Traffickers abuse the financial system both for financial gain and to assert control over the people they exploit. This often results in large sums of debt and poor credit for survivors. Support in repaying debt as a result of abuse is one of survivors’ most persistent long-term needs, with 34% reporting a need for this assistance at the time of the study. As one participant put it, “Because of fraud from trafficker [I] am in debt that they created so [I] could not leave.”
“My exploiter put me in a lot of debt, totaled cars attached to loans/insurance. I wasn’t able to pay off payday loans that he forced me to take out in my ‘good credit standing name’ for almost 6 years after I left”
Survivors’ credit scores are also deeply affected by financial abuse. At the time of the survey, 31% of survivors still needed credit repair. While the passage of the Debt Bondage Repair Act (DBRA) has made credit repair for trafficking survivors possible for the first time, early comments from survivors indicate the process is time-consuming and very complex. As a result, the credit repair process for survivors of trafficking has yet to be widely utilized.
Pivoting Towards the Future
Survivors have told us that the way recovery support in the US is provided is not working. We must listen to survivors, and respond by changing how and what services are delivered. The NSS showed us that affordable or free mental and behavioral health services are critical not only for achieving good physical and mental health after trafficking, but also financial health. Debt and bad credit is keeping survivors trapped in insecurity, and the existing relief services are not effective. As one survivor shared, “this financial hole which continues to drag me into a mental and emotional black hole.”
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