Cross Sectoral Partnerships Can Fight Human Trafficking

By Rochelle Keyhan, CEO, Collective Liberty

Rochelle Keyhan is the Chief Executive Officer of Collective Liberty and the 2018 Thomson Reuters Foundation Stop Slavery Hero. Rochelle’s focus on shifting systems to address root causes has led to the arrest of over 1,000 human traffickers, training of over 3,000 investigators, and shift in approach toward human trafficking in over 100 agencies and institution. This work is informed by her decade of experience in government and nonprofit organizations as an advocate for vulnerable populations, leveraging in-depth experience in gender-based violence issues, including domestic violence, sexual violence, and human trafficking.

Feb 22, 2021 | Society, Technology | 0 comments


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We’re using the Yellow Pages and glue sticks while traffickers are highly organized and use sophisticated encryption techniques.

Human trafficking is a problem that exists across many distinct industries, agencies, and actors all operating in their own siloes. There is a lack of connection, and of knowledge and data sharing among those trying to fight this crime. These gaps mean millions of dollars earned every year on the pain and exploitation of hundreds of thousands across the country. Breaking down silos and creating communities that can regularly, and safely, share rapidly evolving knowledge and data has the ability to bring justice and prevent future trauma.

Currently, organizations doing this work remain in their own bubbles, while activists, advocates, and even business professionals, wanting to help don’t know where to go or what to do. General suggestions are offered by various organizations but there is no digital or virtual platform to unite different voices to create meaningful change. And the proposed actions are not concrete or tied explicitly to measurable goals or sustained impact. 

The Problem

When I was a prosecutor in Philadelphia, I worked on the city’s very first human trafficking cases. Becoming a prosecutor the same year human trafficking became a criminal offense in the state meant that I had to figure it out as I went along, and it wasn’t easy. One of the more complicated cases I handled made me realize that the system could be better. In that case, a trafficker preyed upon a 12-year-old girl who had run away from foster care.

The trafficker solicited her in summer, and she refused, not liking what he had to offer. He waited patiently until the cold Philadelphia winter, knowing she had nowhere else to go. When she called him out of desperation, he started trafficking her in exchange for a warm place to sleep. When the case came across my desk, it looked like the girl was the only witness, but based on other cases I had seen, I knew there had to be more. I started doing research and found that the same guy had four prior arrests for similar trafficking related activity.

Her case was incredibly stressful to prosecute in part because three of her four arrests happened outside of Philadelphia, which meant they were handled by different police departments, different prisons, and different civil service agencies. Law enforcement is siloed by definition; each department responsible for their discrete geographical jurisdictions, and further siloed by unit and investigative focus. I had no contacts at these outside agencies, and ended up getting transferred back and forth between departments, playing phone tag for weeks, sometimes months, before getting connected to the people I needed to talk to.

I often found myself at my desk at eight o’clock on a Friday night, eating snacks (from the dedicated snack drawer in my filing cabinet) for dinner and thinking there has to be a better way. In the end, I was able to build a strong case against the trafficker, sending him to prison for at least 48 years, and feeling like all my hard work had paid off for at least one victim. At the same time, I couldn’t help but think of all those cases that hadn’t come across my desk yet and wondered how many others needed a better way too.

The Solution

When I was sitting in my office in Philadelphia struggling to put together that case, I was not the only person fighting this kind of battle. Since leaving prosecution to focus on solutions to these systemic gaps, I’ve trained and supported over 7,000 investigators and prosecutors across over 300 jurisdictions, all expressing similar obstacles and concerns. Even contacts in Europe and Southeast Asia express that collaboration and silos are a major impediment to combating organized crime, which is highly networked and anything but siloed. It is like we are still using the Yellow Pages to find people and places, while the traffickers blaze ahead of us, heavily organized, interconnected, and technologically savvy.

Dedicated anti-trafficking actors across the nation are trying to build better systems in big jurisdictions like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and in smaller but scrappy jurisdictions like Waco, Texas and Boaz, Alabama. They all share the same need, for stronger interconnectedness as an anti-trafficking field, and more collaboration.

Imagine what we could do if we could really scale this kind of collaboration. What we could do if, instead of digging through contacts late into the night and calling dozens of people before we found the right ones, we could build a nationwide system easily connecting the right people to one another quickly, seamlessly, and securely?

That is how our secure digital platform, the Forging Freedom Portal, was born. Rather than being lucky if two different NYPD units are able to connect a case happening in the same city, instead one NYPD officer can put out a request for support and be connected along the entire trafficking route from New York, down the East Coast, and into Texas. All of this taking a matter of days to find where traffickers were operating in nearly a dozen jurisdictions, rather than the weeks or months it would have taken to find everyone, if they were ever found.

The Forging Freedom Portal is a one-stop shop where a police officer planning a victim-centered operation can connect with their law enforcement counterparts, and the right service providers ahead of time, collaborating to make sure they’re planning for the language skills, social services, and legal support that victims may need. The portal is a place where the people who care most about ending human trafficking, who are doing the hard work every day on the ground, can learn from each other and share best practices to raise the collective standard of this work.

A Collaborative Team From the Communities it Serves

In order to avoid the replication of silos we are trying to bust, our team is formerly from inside the systems we work to improve, including criminal justice, grassroots, policy, and social service agencies. This allows us to operate as insiders within the systems we help change. Our approach is unique from other anti-human trafficking organizations in that we use original data and research combined with high-tech tools and software to provide actionable analysis reports to law enforcement. This allows law enforcement to save valuable time and resources, immediately building their cases with little startup cost. They don’t have to waste time doing baseline research or sorting through massive amounts of data. Instead, we offer a highly structured and organized intel report.

What also makes us unique is our focus on collaboration and creating sustaining partnerships across the United States, from the local jurisdiction to the state level. Combatting human trafficking requires a village across different industries, agencies, and actors; not just within one siloed sphere. For instance, we work with law enforcement, service providers, government agencies, technology firms, and industries across myriad fields like aviation, hotel, and transportation. These partnerships are at the heart of our organization and each segment contributes to disrupting human trafficking networks. This means that frontline business workers, like flight attendants or hotel front desk clerks, can spot and report potential trafficking situations, rather than just thinking “that’s weird” and not knowing who to go to.

Law enforcement can then work with technology firms to match the technological savvy and interconnectedness of traffickers to find all exploiters profiting off of victims. After finding the entire network, law enforcement can find the right service providers, rather than the most convenient one, to connect victims to people who can best serve their language, cultural, and demographic (e.g. age, gender expression) needs. Once a specific network has been shut down, government and industry partners work together to implement laws to stop future trafficking scenarios, whether that’s permanently closing a business front or ensuring hotel staff are more aware of what’s happening in a particular hotel.

Collaboration is really important across issues, too. Some of our greatest successes have been in collaboration with people working on issues adjacent to human trafficking. Our passion for silo-busting extends to our own work as well. Collaborating with others who are working to move society toward their ideal vision of support for social structures and our fellow humans makes us all stronger. This is true because innovation and social progress is inspiring across issues, and also because human trafficking intersects with most social issues. This can come in the form of equipping and empowering professionals who didn’t realize they were on the frontlines of identifying human trafficking, like zoning officials, and medical and hospitality professionals.

Task forces like the Heart of Texas Human Trafficking Coalition model this level of collaboration everyday. They gather partners across sectors and industries to break down silos and work across the aisles to ensure human trafficking survivors have the support they need from multiple systems. The coalition’s work ensures that the burden of coordination across these support systems and services rests on the systems, instead of the survivors.

The next level of collaboration is to collaborate across issues. Climate change, conflict, homelessness, and economic instability are all drivers of vulnerability that human traffickers prey upon. Racism, prejudice, and bias all impact our empathy towards, and support for, victims. To that end, our team members join intersectional fellows and coalitions like Independent Sector, Roddenberry Foundation Fellows, and the Billions Institute fellows. Collaborating across systemic social justice causes fosters innovation, challenges us to think bigger and bolder, and also ensures that as our issue intersects across other issues, we are aware and informed about how our work affects more than just our own mission.

The list of intersections is endless. For that reason, direct and open collaboration, sharing of best practices, and scaling of ideas across issue areas and sectors is vital for progress across all of our movements. Progress in all social movements is vital to ending human trafficking, which means that social progress is essential to our mission, and the field’s openness to new approaches is essential to that progress.

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