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New Technology is Helping Identify Human-trafficking Victims

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Allies Against Slavery developed Lighthouse to improve the identification process of victims.

By Shelley Seale, Allies Against Slavery photo courtesy of Allies Against Slavery

It’s one thing to discover slavery exists in the 21st century; it’s another thing to discover it exists where you live.

It’s estimated more than 300,000 people are trafficked in Texas alone, and about one-fourth of them are minors. According to The Global Slavery Index, more than 40 million people are victims of these heinous crimes throughout the world and, according to Allies Against Slavery, less than 1 percent of minors and youth who are trafficked are ever identified or helped

Local nonprofit group Allies Against Slavery is on a mission to change these grim statistics with a software initiative called Lighthouse. The technology helps frontline service professionals who work with vulnerable youth and adults overcome one of the key challenges to eradicating trafficking: identifying victims of human trafficking.

“One of the most significant challenges to solving the crisis of human trafficking is victim identification,” says Torey McDaniel Tipton, director of strategic partnerships for the group. “Professionals don’t have adequate methods or tools for identifying victims or collecting data about victim identification. Data suggests that fewer than 2 percent of victims are identified, even though 88 percent of victims report interacting with a professional while they were being trafficked.”

This breakdown in identification creates a negative feedback loop, preventing victims from exiting their exploitative situations or moving into recovery.

“Without exaggeration, accurate identification can have life-or-death consequences for victims,” Tipton says. “We each have a role to play in combating trafficking by being aware of our surroundings. Simply put, if you see something, say something.”

While nonprofits and government entities have been fighting against human trafficking as the Central Texas Coalition Against Human Slavery for close to a decade, they were not able to tap the capacity, strength and skills of the broader Austin community. In 2010, Laurie Cook Heffron, an assistant professor at St. Edward’s University, and other Austinites proposed a more holistic effort, which became Allies Against Slavery.

When Allies Against Slavery officially became a registered nonprofit, there wasn’t much data available about human trafficking in Texas. In 2016, Allies worked with the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault at the University of Texas to co-publish a comprehensive report called Human Trafficking by the Numbers.

Allies’ programs and services are designed to connect, train and equip networks of individuals and organizations so they can effectively eradicate the system of slavery and care for survivors as a community. In step with this mindset, the organization turned to the community to develop Lighthouse.

“We lead 65 frontline partner agencies in the Central Texas Coalition Against Human Trafficking, helping build a roadmap of comprehensive, survivor-informed solutions for our community,” Tipton says. “About two years ago, we began a conversation with the agencies about what the biggest roadblocks were in their work to serve victims of human trafficking. Almost unanimously, the answer was identification. They knew victims were walking in and out of their doors for services but were being missed.”

Allies was determined to address that gaping hole in the system. Representatives met with coalition organizations and survivor leaders to build a screening tool that would address it.

“From the beginning, the goal was that it be simple and survivor-informed, avoiding obtuse questions like, ‘Do you trade sex for money?’ ” Tipton says. “Initially, the tool was distributed in a Word document for organizations to fill out however they choose.”

But the team saw a bigger opportunity. By involving social workers, nurses, case managers, therapists, probation officers and other professionals, they could use the tool to allow these professionals to identify and respond to victims of human trafficking. Lighthouse emerged from that initial pen-and-paper screening tool and now includes advanced analytic capabilities and cross-organizational collaboration.

“By building a national network of Lighthouse partners, we aim to find and protect the 98 percent of victims who are currently not identified and helped,” Tipton says. “As shared use of our cloud-based platform grows, so will the quality of data and depth of insights partners can gain from the platform. We project this program will continue to move our organization toward sustainability with revenue generated by Lighthouse software subscriptions.”

In the 18 months since the minimally viable version of Lighthouse went live, Tipton says it has been successfully implemented by five partners throughout Texas, has screened 1,780 vulnerable youth and helped 175 victims find freedom. Bell County Juvenile Services discovered nearly one in five females it screened was a victim of sex trafficking and more than doubled the number of victims it was able to identify per month, compared with its previous screening method. Using this technology, the county was able to partner with law enforcement to successfully arrest and prosecute a trafficker.

“A cycle of continuous learning and improved strategies will lead to the increased protection of basic human rights for trafficking victims and survivors,” Tipton says.

Allies Against Slavery Staff

The Signs of Human Trafficking: How to Help

“Human trafficking is modern-day slavery and it occurs when one person uses manipulation, threats and/or violence to control another person in order to take advantage of them for economic gain,” says Laurie Cook Heffron, an originator of Allies Against Slavery.

Trafficking can take the form of labor exploitation, with victims being forced to work without pay, or sex trafficking, with vulnerable individuals forced to participate in commercial sex acts through force, fraud or coercion.

Some warning signs include:

  • chronic lack of health care
  • signs of continued, extreme deference to another person
  • bruising or other signs of abuse
  • carrying large amounts of unexplained cash
  • multiple cell phones
  • not appearing to be in control of identification documents or money
  • hyper vigilance
  • heavy substance use
  • an atypical relationship with someone who is not a known family member or friend

If you see someone you suspect may be a victim of trafficking, report it to the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888.373.7888. Allies Against Slavery also offers regular webinars that provide training for smart, simple ways to protect targets of sex trafficking in your organization and community.

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