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Human Trafficking and Person’s with Disabilities

Posted in: Global Survivor Collaborative Blog, Research

Slide with photo of Liz Kimbel and the Global Survivor Collaborative logo

There’s a side of human trafficking that we have not been paying close attention to, and I think it’s time we talk about it: survivors and victims of human trafficking with pre-determined disabilities. In the United States, human sex trafficking is defined as being a sex act traded for anything of value (money, drugs, a safe place to sleep, etc) by means of coercion, force, or fraud. However, if the person being trafficked is under the age of 18, it simply has to be defined as any sex act in exchange for anything of value. This law has opened the door for so many victims to be recognized, and for the victims to have a plethora of programming available to them. But there’s a hidden caveat, in that victims have to be able to vocalize their trauma in order to be eligible for help after their trauma, and there’s an entire group of victims who may be falling through the cracks.

There’s an entire population in this country that is so extremely vulnerable to exploitation, and one I’ve personally had the opportunity to work alongside. I’ve met a handful of survivors who had disabilities before they were exploited, and every one of them stated that their disabilities are what made them vulnerable to traffickers, and it’s bolstered my deep desire to bring light to this topic.

“Children with disabilities, in particular, have a higher risk of being abused or neglected. According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services, 11 percent of all child abuse victims in 2009 had a physical, cognitive, and/or behavioral disability, and children with disabilities are almost two times more likely to be physically or sexually abuse or neglected than children without disabilities.” Risk and Prevention of Maltreatment of Children with Disabilities, http://www.childwelfare.gov

When we take into consideration the rate at which children with disabilities are being abused, and financially exploited, we can’t help but wonder what the silent numbers are that show the rate at which children, and adults with disabilities, are being trafficked or sexually exploited. People with disabilities are often isolated into communities with other people with disabilities, and without strong advocates, they’re at high risk of being taken advantage of. Traffickers will often look to find the most vulnerable, and who better than some of the most invisible members of our society? Many people, not just evil people, often see people with disabilities as less than human, and undeserving of protection and rights. Individuals with disabilities are still fighting every single day for the same rights and protections those of us without disabilities have known our whole lives, from our very own government. Traffickers will look for those who they can most easily exploit, and with little consequence. People with disabilities are more likely to be sexually assaulted, and far less likely to report the abuse, most likely due to lack of access and support.

I once worked alongside a survivor, who among many disabilities and illnesses, utilized a wheelchair. The survivor had been with their trafficker for a very long time, and not only was he exploiting the survivor sexually, he was also stealing their disability benefits, which he’d muscled the survivor’s parents into signing over to him. After escaping the trafficker, we couldn’t figure out why and how he kept finding them, despite our diligence to relocate them over and over, even going as far as moving them to multiple different states. After weeks of desperate maneuvers, one person working alongside them discovered a tracking device attached to the wheelchair that this survivor needed. The trafficker was so invested in keeping this person in their grips, that he’d secured a device to keep them from leaving him.

Almost all survivors leave their bondage with mental disabilities, and the hurdle they face in tackling their trauma is exponential. Each survivor faces a lifetime of therapy and healing, and that only happens with the right support networks and resources. Imagine facing that journey with an existing disability! The survivors are looking at not only healing, but doing so because they were able to self-identify, or as a survivor of sexual exploitation. If they’re capable of communicating their trauma, and they’re able to receive assistance, there’s still an impossible task of finding the right providers, those who have been properly trained in trafficking trauma, and working alongside their other disabilities. They’re looking at a lifetime of work, and they have to consent to the entire process, which is difficult enough for neurotypical and able-bodied individuals. It’s heartbreaking to consider.

When we think of the most vulnerable amongst us, we often default to children, and we’re absolutely correct, they are some of our most vulnerable. But I urge you to also consider individuals with disabilities, because they have been forgotten for far too long, and as long as we continue to ignore them, traffickers will continue to default to exploiting them because no one is paying attention. We can come together and make this a bigger issue than we give our attention to and only then can we expect to see change.

Written by: Liz Kimbel
Survivor Leader
Co-Founder of Karana Rising

To learn more about why persons with disabilities are targeted, and how being trafficked may lead to disabilities in survivors about check out the Global Center on Human Trafficking’s social media, and follow us if you’d like to see more informative content on human trafficking.