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Trauma-Informed Victim Interviewing

Building rapport is the first step in interviewing victims in a trauma-informed way. It is critical to keep in mind that a victim’s reality is your reality when preparing for and conducting investigative interviews with potential trafficking victims.

Remember, do not be surprised if a victim…

  • Denies they are a victim
  • Is fearful of what will happen to them
  • Is fearful of you and what you will do to her/him
  • Is distracted, angry, reluctant, or concerned about her/his own needs
  • Has fears around safety and privacy, particularly if  the interview is in front of others
  • Has unmet medical needs, including nutrition or lack of sleep
  • Be information on how to consider the victim’s reality in advance of an interview.

Interviewing Victims of Human Trafficking

Any approach to the victim should be a gradual and nonthreatening process. Be sure the victim has some control in the situation (breaks, water, seating placement). Avoid interrogation methods and refrain from physical contact with victims. The screening interview should take place in a comfortable environment and be conducted by someone who was not directly involved with the victim in the raids or arrest. Due to fear and possible trauma on the part of victims, it is best to use a conversational approach rather than a rapid series of questions in order to obtain preliminary information. Remember that open-ended questions may elicit more information from victims than yes or no questions.

Additional Resources: The following documents provide information on the victim perspective:
The Mindset of a Human Trafficking Victim, HHS
Human Trafficking Power & Control Wheel

Read the World Health Organization (WHO) Ethical and Safety Considerations for Interviewing Trafficked Women. Intended mainly for researchers, media persons, and service providers unfamiliar with the situation of trafficked women, this document aims to build a sound understanding of the risks, ethical considerations, and practical realities related to trafficking of women.

Project REACH has also developed a useful chart with tips on how to understand victim behavior, case scenarios, and how to utilize trauma-informed approaches.

Do not expect victims to go into detail about their trafficking experiences during the first interview. In fact, it might take many interviews to get the victims comfortable enough to share details of their trafficking. It will take time and trust to develop the facts of a case. Victims need to feel safe at all times. Interviewers should introduce themselves and explain their role at the beginning of every interview.

Effects of Trauma on Victims’ Behavior

The effects of trauma can influence behavior of a victim during an interview. Memory loss, lack of focus, emotional reactivity, and multiple versions of a story can all be signs of trauma exhibited during interviews. Interviewers should be familiar with the signs of trauma and not assume the victim is evading the truth. For example, lack of linear memory is often a sign of trauma, so it may be helpful during initial interviews to ask “What else happened?” instead of “What happened next?” This will allow law enforcement to focus on the elements of the crime while the victim is able to recover from the trauma of the trafficking. The timeline can be the focus of later interviews.

Example: Utilizing the lens of trauma-informed care, one service provider took a new approach after speaking with a victim over several months. The victim was referred from a farm worker outreach agency, and despite having escaped from the trafficker, feared speaking to law enforcement about their victimization. As the victim gained trust in the service provider, he disclosed his fear of being jailed and deported, something his trafficker had insisted would be the result of his speaking out. The service provider contacted a fellow task force member from Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) who agreed to meet with the victim to review his role as an agent and his commitment to the investigation, without asking the victim’s name. The victim was able to build rapport with the agent and eventually cooperated fully in the investigation.

Cultural and language needs must be ascertained and reasonably accommodated to avoid shutdown due to culturally offensive or inappropriate approaches. Be aware of cultural considerations of gender, subject matter, and narrative style. Some cultures reveal a story in a circular rather than linear manner, and law enforcement must exercise patience and understanding. It may be helpful to meet with an immigrant-specific service provider who can review cultural considerations of the potential victim prior to an interview.

For trafficking survivors with disabilities, an investigation or legal case may include questioning whether the survivor’s disability played a factor in how they were trafficked, and the survivor’s mental capacity to be trafficked. These questions can all create hostile interviewing environments for trafficking survivors with disabilities, and investigators must take the time to explain the reasons for the questioning.

Forensic interviewers

A forensic interview is a non-leading, victim sensitive, neutral, and developmentally appropriate investigative interview that helps law enforcement determine whether a crime occurred and what happened. The goals of a forensic interview are to minimize any potential trauma to the victim, maximize information obtained from victims and witnesses, reduce contamination of the victim’s memory of the alleged event(s), and maintain the integrity of the investigative process.

Additional Resources: Both the FBI and HSI have forensic interviewers who will travel throughout the United States and internationally to conduct forensic interviews with individuals identified through an investigation by their agency. They are also available for consultation and training.

In many cases, a forensic interview is appropriate for an adult victim of human trafficking, particularly when the victim endured severe trauma, when the victimization occurred when the individual was a minor, or the victim may have cognitive or developmental disabilities.

In addition to federal forensic interviewers, child advocacy centers train many of their forensic interviewers to work with human trafficking victims. It is important to note that there may be some distinct differences between interviewing a potential human trafficking victim and a potential victim of child or sex abuse that is not related to human trafficking.

 


For additional information and tools, visit the Resource page for 5.3 Victim Interview & Preparation.