2011-Competition Winner

Victims No Longer: Trafficked Children into the United States

by Elzbieta M. Gozdziak (Institute for the Study of International Migration, Georgetown University)


Human trafficking continues to capture the imagination of the global public. Particularly gut wrenching are narratives about trafficked children sold into domestic servitude or kept as sexual slaves. The imagined vulnerability of child victims, related to bio-physiological, social, behavioral, and cognitive phases of the maturity process, often results in portrayals of hopeless and hapless victims with not an ounce of resiliency or agency. Both the narratives about human trafficking as well as the efforts to address this phenomenon have centered on extreme images and stories of children’s sexual exploitation and slavery-like circumstances, eliciting emotional responses and measures that tend to focus on victim rescue and support, and punishment for offenders. The discourse about trafficked children is dominated by discussions of trauma, pathology, and vulnerability. The prominence of the discourse of ‘trauma’ as a major articulator of trafficked children’s suffering is based on the premise that just like ethnic cleansing, war, and ethnic strife, human trafficking constitutes mental health emergency and results in ‘post-traumatic stress.’ Trafficked children are therefore always victims and hardly ever survivors.

The system of care for trafficked children has been developed within a framework based on the Western conceptualization of childhood. This framework views universal concern for children as transcending political and social divides; assumes a universally applicable model of childhood; presupposes a consensus on what policies should be in place to realize the best interest of the child; assumes that child victims have universal needs, such as a need for rehabilitation; and promotes a therapeutic model of service provision. Using ethnographic data from a study of more than one hundred survivors of child trafficking, I juxtapose the survivors’ perceptions of their trafficking experiences with the programmatic responses of the federally funded network of programs aimed at assisting them in attaining economic and social self-sufficiency and integrate into the fabric of the American society. This book narrates the tensions between the local, culturally diverse, conceptualizations of childhoods, including children’s responsibilities vis-à-vis their families and livelihoods, and the legal and child welfare frameworks proscribing particular policy and programmatic responses towards survivors of child trafficking. Throughout the book I not only narrate the status quo but also set forth recommendations aimed at reconciling the gap between the survivors’ perceptions of their experiences and needs and the programmatic response of policy makers and service providers.

Overview of the Chapters

Chapter 1: The Cast of Characters: An Overview of Child Trafficking into the United States
In this chapter I will provide the reader with the lay of the land of child trafficking in the United States or more precisely trafficking of children across international frontiers into the United States. I will introduce the reader to the cast of characters—policy makers, law enforcement representatives, child advocates, social workers, therapists, and foster parents–involved in protecting and providing assistance to trafficked children as well as a dozen or so child survivors of trafficking, whose stories will be used in subsequent chapters to address particular issues, including assessment of the scope of child trafficking to the U.S.; the challenges of identifying and rescuing child victims from the hands of their abusers; and the apparent inability to reconcile the children’s vulnerability with their incredible resiliency in designing programs aimed at facilitating their integration into a broader society.

Chapter 2. Empirical Vacuum
Despite the increased interest in human trafficking, little systematic research has been done on this issue. There are a lot of writings about human trafficking, mainly for sexual exploitation, but there is significantly less literature based on empirical research. The dominant anti-trafficking discourse is not evidence-based but grounded in the construction of particular mythology of trafficking. The body of research on trafficked children is particularly limited. Child victims are often subsumed under the women and children heading without allowing for analysis of their special needs. It is interesting that women and children are lumped together in anti-trafficking legislations and the dominant trafficking paradigm when in all other instances, including labor laws, great care is being taken to separate child labor from adult labor. Many writers use the word ‘children’ but focus on young women and research on trafficked boys is non-existent. Notably absent are works written by trafficked persons themselves; Jean-Robert Cadet’s testimonial about his harrowing youth as a restavec in Haiti is a noteworthy exception. This chapter will not be the inevitable literature review that is part and parcel of most academic books. Instead, I will discuss some of the reasons why empirical research on trafficked children is so scarce, particularly in North America and Europe, and how this limited knowledge not only impedes identification of trafficked children, obstructs provision of culturally appropriate and effective services, and limits prevention of repeat victimization, but also contributes to a cookie-cutter image of trafficked children and a rhetoric rooted in moral panic.

Chapter 3. Challenges, Dilemmas and Opportunities in Studying Trafficked Children
In this chapter I will try to answer the question why research on trafficked children is so scarce and what are some of the challenges of conducting empirical research on child trafficking. The main obstacle is related to gaining access to trafficked children. For obvious reasons, to study them while they are still in the hands of traffickers is impossible and dangerous. But is it easier to engage trafficked children in research once they have been rescued? In this chapter, I use the case of my own research team and narrate our challenges in getting our project approved by the powers that be; our methodological dilemmas in designing the project in collaboration with service providers; as well as the opportunities that this collaboration provided. This chapter will provide the glimpse into what it takes to pull of a systematic analysis of an issue widely debated in the media and the popular discourse.

Chapter 4. Closing the Gaps: The Need to Improve Identification of Child Victims
Some 200 trafficked children have been identified in the United States since 2000 despite claims that perhaps as many as 15,000 are trafficked to the United States across international borders every year. In this chapter I tell the story of Analis to illustrate the cracks, gaps, and crevices in the system established in the United States to care for child victims of human trafficking. Analis is an example of a child who could have been identified as a victim of human trafficking much earlier in the course of her journey from a small coastal town in Honduras to a large metropolis on the West Coast in the United States if the authorities she came into contact with were properly equipped to identify child victims. Unfortunately, the fact that Analis traveled to the U.S. on fraudulent papers in the company of a woman who was neither her mother nor her legal guardian did not cause any suspicion on the part of immigration officials at the U.S.-Mexico border. Later on, representatives of local police also did not seem to be overly concerned that a 12-year old child did not attend school nor did they inquire who her legal guardians were. They simply ordered Carmen, Analis’ stepsister, to enroll her in school and thought the matter resolved. When Analis stopped attending school, officials apparently did not follow up. Still later, authorities at a checkpoint on the road leading from California to a neighboring state also failed to identify Analis as a victim of trafficking. Again, a minor traveling alone without any documentation was thought of as a child violating immigration laws, not as a possible victim of trafficking. Analis also spent time in the custody of state Child Protective Services without being identified as a victim and was released to a stranger. Analis could also have been identified as a child victim of human trafficking during the eight months she spent in a detention facility. Social service personnel must have interviewed her about her family and migration experiences. The staff seemed to have been ill equipped to ask appropriate questions that could have led to proper identification of her trafficking circumstances. The detention center’s personnel not only had more time, but also more responsibility than the Border Patrol to assess her situation. It appears from this case study that they missed the problem entirely. No wonder that only about 200 children have been identified since the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) of 2000!

Chapter 5: International Mafia or Mom and Pop Operations?
Trafficking in persons is often portrayed as the world’s fastest growing criminal enterprise, with profits that rival the illegal drugs and arms trade. Reports repeatedly quote the number of seven billion dollars in profit to indicate the magnitude of the phenomenon. Reports also talk about networks of international organized crime which are attracted to the trade in human beings because of low risk and because the criminal penalties for human trafficking are light in most countries. Reports produced by the US State Department reiterate these assertions, describing how traffickers enjoy virtually no risk of prosecution by using sophisticated modes of transportation and communication; avoid punishment by operating in places where there is little rule of law, lack of anti-trafficking laws, poor enforcement of such laws, and widespread corruption. In this chapter I discuss the involvement of family members—parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles—and close family friends or neighbors in child trafficking. I argue that family involvement in child trafficking should not be underestimated. These small operations based on kinship or friendship ties may, of course, be part of larger criminal networks, but the children the traffickers are simply mom and pop, grandma and grandpa, who smuggled them into the United States to provide better economic and educational opportunities.

Chapter 6: Best Interests and the Rights of the Trafficked Child: A Necessary Tension?
The best interest standard is a widely used ethical, legal and social basis for policy and decision making involving children. The origins of the “child’s best interests” principle go back to the 19th century when the European public became aware of the plight of exploited, abused, and neglected children through popular novels such as those penned by Charles Dickens. Despite criticisms, the best interest principle remains the dominant legal standard in actions concerning children, including trafficked children. The best interest principle sometimes seems to contradict the right of the child to participate in determining her best interests. The principles of participation and best interests are often said to represent two different perspectives: a rights-based and a protectionist approach. The cases discussed in this chapter try to answer the questions of who determines the best interests of the trafficked child and how?; how does the determination of the child’s best interests correspond with the child’s right to express her wishes? There is consensus in the literature that Western policy-makers and caretakers tend to conflate the children’s best interests with their right to express their wishes and feelings. This chapter includes narratives presenting examples of service providers deciding on the child’s best interest rather than advocating for her wishes and feelings.

Chapter 7: From a Trafficked Child to Anti-Trafficking Advocate
In this chapter I tell the story of Eva who was brought to the United States from Africa by her parents to live with her uncle and aunt. This journey was to fulfill her childhood dream of attending an American school. If there ever was a poster child for a trafficked minor, Eva is it! She had been terribly maltreated by her aunt for years: made to work hard for many hours a day doing household chores and caring for her younger cousins; if her cleaning was not up to par, Eva was beaten with an extension cord or locked up in the basement without food; her cousins peed on her to humiliate her… And yet despite the abuse, Eva persevered. Now as a young woman in her early 20s she wants to become an anti-trafficking advocate. Eva’s story is also a story of her attorney who provided legal assistance, but first and foremost tapped into Eva’s resiliency and empowered her to be the voice for those who have not found their voices yet.

In the final chapter, I narrate my return visits to a few of the children—now young adults, some with children of their own—to check on their progress in adjusting to life after trafficking and integrating into mainstream America. In this chapter I also recount my recent conversations with social workers and therapists who worked with the survivors of child trafficking featured in this book to see if they continue to assist trafficked children and to ask whether they changed their approach to child survivors of human trafficking.