Data Collection with Victims of Human Trafficking

I’ve been doing evaluation projects with organizations that provide services to victims of human trafficking since 2012. These projects are tremendously rewarding, and tremendously tricky. In my first consulting engagement with an organization that provided case management services, I quickly got the sense that this wasn’t going to be like any other project – especially in terms of the data collection approach. Data collection with trafficking survivors needs to be mindful of how people process trauma and what that means for recollection, attention, and making meaning out of experience.  

Some thoughts on collecting data with this population:

All interactions should “walk the talk”. There are power dynamics inherent in the position of external evaluator taking something (information) from the population receiving services. For trafficking survivors, this power imbalance has the potential to be yet one more instance of being exploited. Data collection should model a relationship free of exploitation. 

Prioritize the least invasive approach. Case notes and other administrative information can get you pretty far in answering key evaluation questions. Exhaust the indirect sources first. A person that just went through extraction in an FBI raid may not be able to focus on your survey.

Strict adherence to objectives. Learning about someone’s pain is a privilege, but it may not be necessary for a successful evaluation. Inquiries should be honed specifically to get at evaluation questions, and should not allow for straying into “tell me your story” territory. 

The voice of survivors should be valued and validated. Include survivor input in the conceptualization of program success. Spend time with service recipients discussing why you’re collecting information, how it will be used, and then report back to them with findings. Bonus points all around if survivor recommendations can be quickly implemented as program improvements.

Institute a “trigger review” for every data collection protocol. Someone internal to the work can give a heads-up if any aspect of data collection may touch on common trauma triggers. Rework the protocols until they pass the trigger review.