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Working with survivors

This section is up to date as of 13 February 2024, we cannot guarantee the information in this section is correct after 13 February 2024, always ensure that you check the up to date law and policy

Trafficking is primarily about the complete control over one individual by another. Our role should be to give back control and do ‘no further harm’ to victims.

Some guiding principles:
  • Use a victim centred practice: be guided by the victim’s rights, expertise in their own lives and wishes. Foster an environment of empowerment to reverse experiences of control and manipulation.
  • Build a relationship of trust. Speaking of traumatic events outside a relationship of trust and safety can lead to a deterioration in mental health and an increase in trauma-related symptoms.
  • Practice non-judgment: victims should be treated with respect and recognition. Start from the standpoint of belief and avoid making assumptions.
  • Be aware of the impact of trauma on memory, recall and behaviour.
  • Be clear and accountable on what help is available: explain how you can help and when things will be done. Do not promise what you cannot provide. Maintain strong professional boundaries to ensure there is a relationship of dependency is not created, which can do harm to the victim later once you are no longer involved if they rely on you too much. Be responsible and follow up on what you have promised to look into.
  • Equal opportunities: try to keep the service accessible for all languages and ethnic/cultural backgrounds.
  • Anti-discriminatory practice: actively challenge oppression and discrimination.
  • Privacy and confidentiality are important: explain this to the victim.
Practical points for talking to a victim:
  • Give regular breaks or collect information over a number sessions as you build your relationship. It is often difficult to get a “full story” in one session, especially if this is the beginning of a relationship.
  • Find a private space.
  • Be aware of anyone accompanying the individual and how they could be involved with the exploitation. Victims should also have the choice of speaking to you alone without a support worker just because they don’t want to share everything about their history with people they see in a support context. This may not be something they feel confident to express straightaway.
  • Ask if the victim has a gender preference – be sensitive to the fact that some may find it hard to open up because of your gender.
  • Find good interpreters who are professionally qualified if possible. This can be difficult if the language is unusual, in which case expertise in the language is important to assess, alongside their communication skills and sensitivity to vulnerable clients. Interpreters should also be of a gender that the person feels comfortable talking in front of. Try to keep the same interpreters when working with one client if possible. Be aware that clients can find it difficult to open up to interpreters from their own cultural background for fear of judgment on religious or cultural grounds, or that their story will be relayed to members of their community – be ready to explain an interpreter’s professional duties of confidentiality to reassure the client.
  • Be aware victims often don’t like repeating their story in front of new people – try to keep the same caseworkers and interpreters if possible.
  • Be aware of nonverbal communication cues.
  • Use affirming statements: we are here to help you; what happened to you is not your fault; you are not alone now; we want to keep you safe.
  • Believe the victim – accept what you are told as true unless evidence is given to suggest otherwise.
  • Let them speak in their own time – tell your client that they can talk whenever they are ready, and only what they feel comfortable saying. You can explain limitations to the disclosure given to you if necessary in your representations or seek medical or support worker evidence to explain this.
  • Explain the process and who they might meet throughout the process (e.g. the police) and that they have no obligation to cooperate
  • Be ready to use another word that is not ‘trafficking’ when talking about what has happened to the client as they do not always understand this or like the word.

Use the active listening FOCUS model:

  • Focus discussion on specific information needed
  • Open-ended questions to expand discussion
  • Closed questions to get specific information
  • Use active listening skills to understand what is being said
  • Summarise and close the discussion.
Other things to bear in mind

Victims often:

  • Feel ashamed and don’t want to talk about their experiences
  • Do not speak English and are unfamiliar with UK culture
  • Fear and distrust police, government and even new third parties because of previous negative experiences they have had
  • Are not aware that they are a victim of crime
  • Do not consider themselves victims
  • Do not understand the word ‘trafficking’ or ‘slavery’ or think it applies to them
  • Blame themselves for their situations
  • May have developed positive feelings toward trafficker to cope with their situation
  • May try to protect the person who exploited them from the authorities
  • Do not know where they are, because traffickers or slave masters move them frequently to escape detection
  • Fear for safety of family in home country and are highly motivated to focus on that and how they can keep helping their family.
Warning signs of trauma

Trauma can also manifest in the current presentation of your client, whether in an appointment or in reports to you of their recent feelings and experience:

  • Nightmares or flashbacks about the past
  • Selective amnesia
  • Anxiety (easily startled), social withdrawal, dissociation
  • Difficulty assimilating and understanding information
  • Signs of self-harm or addictive behaviours.

For good practice advice, it is a good idea to read:

The Slavery and Trafficking Survivor Care Standards 2018 by the Human Trafficking Foundation.

The Trauma-Informed Code of Conduct for All Professionals Working With Survivors of Trafficking and Slavery by Rachel Witkin and Dr. Katy Robjant, Helen Bamber Foundation (2018):

This is an extract from the Slavery and Trafficking Survivor Care Standards, which pulls out core advice from the Trauma-Informed Code of Conduct for professionals working with survivors:

Applying Basic Therapeutic Principles to Contact Work with Survivors of Trafficking
Psychological problems can affect mood and behaviour in a variety of ways and at different times. This means that the presentation of clients can vary distinctly from session to session, and in-between. Frequency of contact with the same professional person is helpful in building and establishing trust, which can help clients to feel secure and calm. Any changes in mood should be observed carefully. It is good to maintain awareness throughout contact work that symptoms (including, for example, flashbacks, dissociation, intrusive thoughts, or neurological symptoms resulting from head injuries) can cause the person to be distracted, lose their focus, or to become completely disconnected from their current surroundings.

‘Symptoms may not be immediately obvious, so it is important to keep an open mind and not make assumptions about what any client may be experiencing. For example, apparent detachment or even hostility should
not be assumed to mean that the person is disengaged or reluctant to converse. Likewise, outward confidence, eye contact and engagement may be masking problems that emerge later on.

‘It is essential that all professionals working with survivors of trafficking are able to initiate early referral for appropriate medical services and therapeutic care. However, it is also useful for them to know that they can apply simple therapeutic principles to their work which can help to manage psychological symptoms and minimise distress. These are straightforward and can be maintained consistently in the course of any task. Training for non-clinicians in applying basic therapeutic principles to contact work is strongly recommended. It should be initiated in consultation with treating clinicians to promote consistency of approach and high standards of care.

‘People who have suffered inter-personal violence in any form need to feel they are in a place of safety, kindness and professionalism. All professionals who work with victims of trafficking should be aware that they are communicating with them at all times; not only through speech but also movement, gesture, eye contact and expression, so these should be calmly paced and positive. A non-judgmental attitude, together with respect for cultural, religious and gender issues as well as the person’s integrity and privacy, are integral to this.

‘A Safe, Calm, Consistent Environment and Approach
Any working environment should feel safe and confidential for the survivor. All actions which take place within it should be calm and predictable, helping the survivor to feel secure, and therefore more confident. It is good to maximise light and space in the room, both in terms of the room’s physical arrangements and also in the movements and choices that the survivor is able to make. This can be particularly helpful to those who have been held in confined spaces by traffickers or have been previously detained or imprisoned. It is best to avoid a ‘formal interview’ setting in which a professional faces a survivor across a desk as this can be experienced as intimidating and distancing. It suggests that the professional is an authority figure. Sitting as equals in the room creates a feeling of safety and openness which assists communication.

‘This approach is possible even in a tiny room and is helped by the presence of plants or other comforting, natural objects. In terms of being able to make choices, clients should be offered a drink and given the opportunity to make small choices such as where to sit, and whether to have the window open or the heating on. Demonstrating attentiveness to individual needs is especially reassuring for people who have been subjugated, and for some it can be a small step towards their recovery of agency and autonomy.

‘If this calm and consistent environment and approach remains the same at each point of contact, survivors’ confidence and trust should gradually increase over time and enable them to speak more openly.

‘Survivors should know who is working with them
People who have been trafficked may be easily confused about who is working with them. There are many reasons for this, but it is good to bear in mind that they may have had multiple interviews or exchanges with a wide range of professionals, including those who work for the authorities. Some will have come directly out of their trafficking situation or other disorienting experience, such as detention or prison. It is important to explain who each person in the room is at the outset their professional role, why they are there and their professional obligations, including the strict maintenance of client confidentiality.

‘It is important to check that survivors understand that they can ask questions about any aspect of the work or professionals’ roles at any time.

‘Demonstrating interest in survivors’ immediate safety, health and practical needs
Care for survivors can be demonstrated immediately through concern for their physical comfort, acknowledgement of any pain or discomfort they may be experiencing and an interest in helping them to solve their immediate practical needs. It is important to establish trust, with mutually agreed, realisable objectives. Avoid making any promises or guarantees to survivors which may not be possible to keep.

‘Survivors should know that they have time to be heard: the ‘Illusion of Time’
It is important not to make assumptions about a person’s initial presentation which may have little bearing on how they are actually feeling. A clear and demonstrated willingness to listen and lend time builds trust. For those professionals who work in a busy or ‘crisis’ environment, this consistent approach can actually be a time-saver because it enables people to explain their needs and their background more easily.

‘Professionals can increase trust and confidence of survivors by communicating in a way that creates the ‘illusion of time’. This means that no matter how restricted their time is, or how busy they are in the course of their daily work, they ensure that the pressure of time does not feel like a problem or concern for the person they are working with. There is no need to share the frantic nature of a work schedule with them, halt a discussion abruptly or walk quickly past them on the way to other parts of the building. This can set back the relationship of trust and inhibit survivors from feeling confident enough to speak freely. It is far more effective to listen carefully to each person, maintain conversation at a normal, moderate pace, then simply agree a time for a further appointment in order to hear more.

‘Hurried, swift movements, lack of eye contact or any form of action which suggests that professionals are in a hurry or have authority over a person has the opposite effect, and can exacerbate any anxiety they may be feeling. The appearance of having time to listen to each person is calming and increases their confidence.

‘Maintaining focus on the ‘Here and Now’
Survivors often find discussion of their traumatic history, or uncertain future distressing and overwhelming, and this can exacerbate existing psychological problems and symptoms. Although such discussions may be necessary in the course of professional work, it is important to be aware that immediate ‘debriefing’ or in-depth questioning of a survivor (which involves discussion of their traumatic history is not recommended and can even be harmful. This engagement needs to be managed at a pace that survivors can cope with, so that they do not become overwhelmed.

‘Consistent return to practical issues and the discussion or planning of small actions that belong in the current moment or ‘here and now’ can be very effective in helping clients to feel safe. It can be helpful to tell an anxious person that they are safe right now, and everything is fine here.

‘Sometimes dissociation is experienced as a response to severe trauma. This is the perceived detachment of the mind from the emotional state and the body and it is frequently observed across the clinical spectrum of cases in which interpersonal violence has occurred. Survivors might talk about feeling numb psychologically or in certain areas of their body. They may appear transiently confused and unaware of where they are. Movement is helpful in managing this, so the client can be encouraged to take a break and walk around. Ensure that clients have breaks wherever needed but do not leave them on their own if they are very distressed or appear emotionally ‘cut off’ or ‘numb’.

‘All people have to establish a relationship of trust before they can be expected to discuss issues of rape and other forms of assault, shame, stigma or intricate family details. There is a lot to be said for a few simple words or expressions of positivity, kindness and recognition of the experiences a person has been through. For professionals whose work involves obtaining detailed information from survivors it is important to remember that any outward expression of disbelief or indifference, no matter how minor, can be detrimental to building a trusting relationship.’

With additional thanks to Rachel Mullan-Feroze of Ashiana Sheffield for learning which has gone into this section.

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