Survivors say state, federal bills could put them in danger if passed
By Kelsey Turner / InvestigateWest
Sabra Boyd didn’t want to tell the police she was a victim of human trafficking. Her first trafficker was her father in the 1980s, she says, and he threatened to kill her if she ever told.
“If things were handled by police officers who didn’t fully understand the whole situation, they were putting me in danger and I might end up being killed,” said Boyd, who now advocates for survivor-led anti-trafficking policies in Washington. “I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s the reality.”
That’s why advocates like Boyd believe survivors should be able to decide for themselves whether or not to involve law enforcement. While reporting the crime to law enforcement is the best avenue for some trying to escape their abusers, advocates say it can put others at risk of retaliation.
Proposed state and federal legislation could take that choice out of a trafficking victim’s hands. Today, at the start of Washington’s legislative session, a bill will be introduced that would make it the third state to mandate certain health care providers report suspected adult human trafficking victims to law enforcement. House Bill 1937 would apply only to adult victims, as health care professionals are already legally obligated to report suspected child abuse.
Meanwhile, a bill introduced in Congress last year would require tips received through the National Human Trafficking Hotline — a 24/7 phone line that assists trafficking victims in crisis — to be shared with law enforcement. The federal bill, which has bipartisan support, passed out of the House Judiciary Committee in November.
The legislation has stirred controversy around when suspected trafficking should be reported to law enforcement. Proponents of more mandatory reporting requirements argue it would hold abusers accountable and get victims out of dangerous situations earlier on. Yet both bills faced immediate backlash from trafficking survivor networks.
“Law enforcement doesn’t always make survivors safer,” said Audrey Baedke, co-founder of Real Escape from the Sex Trade, a nonprofit organization that serves trafficking survivors in King County. “A lot of times it actually brings far more difficulty and harm to the survivors rather than help, particularly if that person is not seeking it out themselves.”
The sponsor of HB 1937, Rep. Clyde Shavers, D-Oak Harbor, said that before pre-filing the bill, he spoke to physicians about their concerns regarding clients who are being trafficked. Human trafficking survivors weren’t included in those conversations.
“It’s hard for them to be vocal about it,” Shavers said. “This bill is about giving them a voice.”
Boyd said survivors already have a voice — their voices just aren’t always listened to by legislators.
“Laws that revoke the right to autonomy for trafficking survivors, in a lot of ways, replicate the same kinds of control dynamics as traffickers,” Boyd said. “It feels like a lot of legislators and policymakers don’t really understand that.”
Trafficking survivors and legislators agree that something needs to be done to support victims of human trafficking.
Systems meant to help survivors, including the criminal justice system, have “failed and failed miserably,” says a 2023 report by Polaris, an anti-trafficking organization that operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Over 16,700 victims were identified through the hotline in 2021. Service providers identify hundreds of victims every year across Washington state alone, yet convictions of alleged traffickers haven’t kept pace with the rising number of reported victims, InvestigateWest found last year.
Police involvement can be very beneficial for some of these victims, said Hao Nguyen, who works primarily with foreign-born trafficking survivors at the Seattle-based organization API Chaya. Police can put abusers behind bars. They can also strengthen survivors’ applications for T-Visas, which allow noncitizen victims of severe forms of human trafficking to live in the United States temporarily.
But Nguyen understands that calling the police isn’t right for everyone. Many of her clients are undocumented and fear deportation, she said.
“I find that the team of police officers that I’ve been working with is very trauma-informed and they’re doing their best for the survivor,” Nguyen said. “But they also have a different mission. Justice means so many different things. Let the survivor make that decision.”
Medical professionals are in a unique position to assist trafficking victims. Studies show that 68% to 88% of victims interact with a health care provider while being trafficked.
“There is a place for intervention there,” Baedke said. But this intervention should focus on giving survivors options, like referrals to local shelters, social workers or attorneys, she added. “The intervention isn’t for law enforcement to come in and save or rescue them.”
Only two states, Louisiana and Rhode Island, currently require health care professionals to report suspected adult human trafficking victims, according to a 2023 research paper by health care professionals at the Baylor College of Medicine and University of California Davis. Little research has been conducted looking at the impact these laws have had on exploited patients, the paper says.
The effectiveness of mandatory reporting laws remains controversial. A 2019 systematic literature review of research on mandatory reporting of intimate partner violence found the benefits and harms of these laws were mixed and inconclusive from both survivors’ and physicians’ perspectives. Very few professionals had actually reported under the laws, the review found.
Domestic violence experts in favor of mandatory medical reporting argue that it increases accountability for abusers and provides early interventions before serious injury occurs, especially in cases where victims are too scared to make a report.
But Rachel Robitz, a family medicine physician and psychiatrist in Sacramento who co-authored the 2023 paper, doesn’t buy that argument. She opposes mandatory reporting laws in suspected adult trafficking and domestic violence cases, arguing that they limit providers’ ability to connect victims to services.
“If someone is concerned about involving law enforcement, then they are probably going to be much less likely to disclose what is happening,” Robitz said. “And when they don’t disclose, then I as a health care provider lose that opportunity to link them to resources that could be really useful.”
To more effectively involve Washington’s health care professionals in efforts to combat human trafficking, survivors say increased training on what trafficking looks like is crucial. In addition to mandating certain providers to report suspected victims, HB 1937 would require health care systems to provide training to better recognize trafficking victims, an intervention that service providers generally support.
Shavers expects the bill to be improved upon as it moves through the Legislature. Since pre-filing the bill on Dec. 13, he has spoken with survivors and advocacy groups about how to make the bill more inclusive and minimize harm to victims, he said.
“We haven’t made any concrete changes so far. But we are considering different agencies and different ways of helping those who may be victims and survivors,” Shavers said. “This is the beginning of a discussion.”
In Shavers’ opinion, it’s “worse to do nothing.” But Boyd worries that if changes to the bill aren’t made, its harms may outweigh its benefits.
“The main thing is just listening to survivors more,” Boyd said. “Lots of horrible things have been done in the name of good intentions.”
FEATURED IMAGE: While reporting trafficking to law enforcement is the best avenue for some trying to escape their abusers, advocates say it can put others at risk of retaliation. (Moriah Ratner/InvestigateWest)
InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. Kelsey Turner can be reached at email@example.com.