Choice in Anti-Trafficking Work and Service Provision

May 10, 2019 | by Amanda Blowers Zarobsky

The idea of choice comes up often when discussing issues surrounding human trafficking. No one “chooses” to be trafficked. However, there are many societal reasons that leave individuals with limited choice when it comes to whether or not they enter, stay in, exit, or go back to a trafficking situation. There might not be viable options available for individuals exiting, or the options that do exist might feel worse to a person than the trafficking situation.

Choice comes up throughout trafficking situations. A false sense of empowerment/choice is often a tool used by a trafficker to make vulnerable people believe they have options.

I was able to choose the art surrounding my branding. I was able to pick how many dates I went on in a given evening. I was able to call my family back in my home country one night a week of my choosing.

If things were all bad all the time, people would not stay. This false sense of choice tends to keep people adhering to the expectations of their traffickers. It might also lead to people feeling like staying with a trafficker is the “better choice”.

Where will I live if I leave? How will my children be cared for? How will I eat? How will my needs be met?

Even though things are bad in the trafficking situation, the fear of the unknown and no plan after leaving often keeps people in these situations. Is it really a choice if the options are homelessness/loved ones being hurt/deportation or exploitation?

Disempowerment, or lack of choice, is a constant theme in trafficking situations. It is a crime of power and control. Traffickers want to make sure that people will not leave and they do this by disempowering individuals and controlling their lives. It breaks people down to the point where they no longer believe they are able to make choices. Many traffickers set forth their expectations at the time of recruitment. These expectations can include a variety of things, from the amount of sleep someone can have, to the amount of provisions they are allotted, to when and where they work, to if/when they can see their children.

If one can’t make a decision about how much food they are allowed to eat, how can one make a decision to leave?

Part of a trauma-informed framework when working with survivors of trauma is giving choice back to the individuals served. Prioritizing choice leads to a setting that fosters dignity, respect, and worth. STOP-IT believes choice is the crux of this work. In case management, this means respecting a client’s right to self-determination (whatever that might look like, and whether or not we would make the same decisions). Not only is this a key component of trauma-informed care, but it is also a key component in the code of ethics for social work as a field.

What does this look like in practice?

The STOP-IT program meets client where they are (physically and mentally). STOP-IT does not work with clients who are mandated by the court to engage in services. It must be a person’s decision about whether or not they would like to engage in social services. If a person chooses to participate in services, they also have the right to terminate engagement with the program at any time.

We want individuals to be able to easily access services, which means case workers spend quite a bit of time in libraries, hospitals, McDonald’s, public aid offices, etc. Clients have the choice of where they are most comfortable meeting a worker. In addition, clients choose what clothing they would like from our donations or from secondary stores. They are able to choose what food they eat at meetings and where they would like to sit in a restaurant. Giving choice back to a person can start with small and easy steps.

While a case is open, clients have a choice in service provision. This means clients not only get to choose the meeting location, but they also get to choose which goals they would like to set for themselves and how they would like to work towards those goals. Sometimes clients find this difficult to do, as they might not have had this opportunity before or are not sure if they are making the “right” choice. Part of a caseworker’s job is to foster independence and to encourage individuals to look within themselves for the strength to make choices for themselves.

Even when individuals make choices we would not necessarily make ourselves, a client’s right to self-determination is of upmost importance. The STOP-IT Program respects that right and hopes to reinstate some of the choice that might have been previously taken away due to a trafficking situation.

Learn more about trauma-informed care and the importance of choice here.

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