Victims are essential to prosecuting a human trafficking case. Only a victim can answer the question “why” to explain what the trafficking scheme was and how the trafficker exerted control over them. It is important to acknowledge here that coercion is a subjective element—it exploits the individual circumstances of the victim, including her/his cultural beliefs, practices, personal history, religious beliefs, financial situation, and personality. Actions that seem innocuous to one person will be debilitating to another. Only the victim can explain how the actions of the trafficker affected her or him. Unfortunately, when victims come into contact with law enforcement, they are often fearful. The trafficker may continue to have a significant control advantage over the victim, even when the victim is now in a place of safety. Victims were dependent on traffickers, and they may have a familial, personal, or romantic relationship. This is a difficult bond to break. Interviewing trafficking victims is hard, but be patient when working with the victim. It is expected that victims will provide information that is not complete or is inaccurate about their experience, particularly in the first interviews. It is important to recognize this dynamic and the ways it may impact a victim when law enforcement prepares for an interview.
Victim interviews should be thoughtfully and strategically planned. The physical location where a victim interview is conducted and who will be present are both important. All of the people at the interview should introduce themselves and explain their roles in the investigation. Investigators and prosecutors should not overpromise any results, especially access to benefits. Any needs that the victim identifies during an interview should be referred to the service provider or attorney to address.
Selecting a location that makes the victims feel most comfortable and safe is important because this environment is more likely to result in a productive interview. In general, this consideration precludes the use of immigration agent offices or police stations, whenever possible. Fewer participants at an interview are preferable because a smaller group is more conducive to making a victim feel comfortable and not overwhelmed. If more than one case investigator or local officer is present, only one investigator should take the official notes and write the report on the interview. All investigator notes are turned over to the defense counsel if the case is charged. If more than one investigator writes notes on the interview and the investigators record facts differently, the defense attorney will use the contradictory facts to cross-examine and possibly impeach the victim. Impeachment occurs when, on cross-examination, the testimony of a witness is called into question by a previous inconsistent statement. Forensic interviewing addresses potential inconsistencies due to trauma and strengthens the information obtained from the victim
Key Concepts: Social service providers may not have the same privilege as attorneys or mental health professionals, and relevant regulations vary by state. Consider whether the involvement of a victim service provider in an interview may entail confidentiality issues.
Federal victims’ rights laws and most state victims’ rights laws, as well as Constitutional rights allow for victims to be represented by an attorney. Many victims will have civil or immigration attorneys who will ask to be present at the victim interviews. Victims’ attorneys and law enforcement should work together so that information can be gathered from the victim in an appropriate way. Investigators and prosecutors should know the respective state and federal rules on victims rights. When actions are subsequently filed in other parallel criminal, civil, immigration, family law, and other legal proceedings, this information can be consistent and will not impeach the victim’s credibility nor impact the integrity of the criminal case.
Potential Barriers to Cooperation
Victim fear of law enforcement is common because many foreign national and U.S. citizen victims may have had negative experiences with law enforcement and consequently are afraid to trust and cooperate with them. Moreover, traffickers often use the fear of law enforcement to control victims, setting up law enforcement as the adversary. For additional information on building rapport, see Section 5.3, Building Rapport With the Victim as Your Witness.
Safety and Awareness
At the outset of a victim interview, the interviewer should check with the victim about concerns for personal safety and the safety of loved ones. Even after a victim is removed from the trafficking situation, safety concerns can evolve over the course of the investigation and can increase significantly as a case approaches trial. Victims also need an explanation of the criminal justice process and the next steps in that process. In initial interviews, a victim often may not be ready to discuss certain topics. The interviewer should encourage victims to say whether they are comfortable sharing information at that time. Showing understanding and patience and offering time will build trust, avoid untruthful answers, and pay off in consistent statements.
For additional information and tools, visit the Resource page for 5.3 Victim Interview & Preparation.