When I was 18, I took my mom’s car out for a joyride. She called the police. In addition to being furious, she was trying to set me straight and keep me safer in the long run. Instead, I met a woman while I was in jail who pretended to be my friend, groomed and manipulated me, then sold me for sex and controlled my every waking minute for 10 years.
I share this cautionary tale of human trafficking and unintended consequences because two Tampa Bay members of Congress may be headed toward making a similarly well-meaning mistake in the name of law and order that will backfire in devastating ways.
Specifically, Reps. Laurel Lee, R-Brandon, and Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, have introduced legislation in Congress that would require the National Human Trafficking Hotline to share any and all so-called “tips” and other information with law enforcement upon request. On its face, this may sound like a good idea — a no-brainer, even. It’s not. I can tell you this from personal experience.
Since I got away from my trafficker, I have been helping other people get out of prostitution and trafficking situations. Often I do so with assistance from the Trafficking Hotline.
Since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Hotline has helped thousands and thousands of trafficking victims and survivors find freedom and heal from trauma. The Trafficking Hotline is a unique service in that it is partially funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but it is not a “government” hotline per se. That means victims and survivors can trust the Trafficking Hotline to keep their stories confidential.
At the time I was being trafficked, my experience with the police was entirely negative. After all, I had been arrested 23 times and not once did anyone suggest that I might be a victim rather than a criminal. I certainly did not see myself that way and I had the criminal record to back it up.
If I called the hotline and was told that we may have to report your information to the police, I would have dropped the call. I would not have gotten help. I don’t know what would have happened next.
Since then I have met and worked with many caring law enforcement professionals, but I fear that stories like mine are still the rule, not the exception, for trafficking victims during the time they are being forced into prostitution. That is why the Trafficking Hotline has always operated on the premise that hotline staff will not share information about potential situations of human trafficking with law enforcement unless the victim themselves want to do so.
This has not changed across the Bush, Obama, Trump and now Biden administrations. It is also not a radical concept. Indeed, it is exactly how we treat victims of other crimes. We do not force domestic violence victims to press charges against their abusers, for example. We do not do it because it would not work. It would not keep anyone safer. It would only keep more victims from seeking help.
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When I finally got out, an officer from the sheriff’s department actually listened to me and cared about my story. I even flew back to Florida to be a part of the deposition. I made the choice, and I was able to tell my story on my terms. If it reaches just one person — one Aubree — and helps them avoid a similar situation, that will be enough. But if I had to tell it before I was ready, I never would have said a word.
Aubree Alles is the founder and director of #SheCounts, where she advocates for and supports victims and survivors of human trafficking and exploitation.