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The American Rescue Industry: Toward an Anti-Trafficking Paramilitary

An investigation into US anti-trafficking organizations shows they are focused on intervening in women’s lives without regard to their needs.

The American rescue industry is White male led, and focused on intervening in a predominantly female population (many of whom are women of color) without regard to this population's post-rescue needs. (Image: Lauren Walker / Truthout)

The images are compelling: young, White women, bound and bedraggled, alone and vulnerable. The first-person tales are equally attention-grabbing: rape, emotional abuse, graft, torture. And that sweet moment of redemption: salvation, survival. Release. The predominant storylines of the American rescue industry certainly captivate audiences. Yet what we can definitively state about its accomplishments in freeing individuals from lives of enslavement is surprisingly little – and makes for a much less satisfying narrative.

Half the Sky’s massive popularity created a healthy funding stream of its own for certain kinds of anti-trafficking efforts.

What we do know is that the 50 most prominent anti-trafficking organizations in the United States – part of the surprisingly opaque network of groups united in a mission to fight domestic human trafficking – command over half a billion dollars every year, and focus primarily on sex trafficking, as opposed to the far more pressing global concern of labor trafficking. Fundraising pitches for these groups rest largely on the recitation of widely disputed statistics, many of which have been entirely disproven. Meanwhile, nearly a third of these groups (some in direct violation of disclosure laws for 501(c)(3)-status organizations) fail to make financial records publicly available. A mere nine of these groups together claim to have “saved” a number of individuals from sex trafficking in 2013 – others list “rescue” among services offered, but did not provide tallies of victims “saved” – equal to four times the number of human trafficking cases investigated by law enforcement in the country that year.

The claims are ludicrous. Even if the number of rescues was believable, it represents approximately a quarter of all the cases of sex trafficking worldwide reported to the US Department of State the following year. This would make the United States the global hotbed of sex slavery, and cast strong doubt on its leadership role in identifying, implementing and enforcing trafficking legislation around the world.

However ludicrous, the claims have nothing on the reality of the multibillion-dollar American rescue industry and its largely ineffective (and perhaps occasionally fraudulent) programmatic claims. In our continuing Truthout investigation, we look more closely into where the money to fight domestic trafficking is coming from and what, exactly, is being funded.

Broadening the Field

In an earlier report, Truthout looked at the 50 most prominent anti-trafficking organizations (those mentioned most frequently in a sweeping press overview). Yet as with marketing agencies, anti-trafficking organizations often operate in secret; the best-known names may not yield the most common or effective practices; nor may they command representative budgets. In an effort to diversify our field of study, we folded in several organizations funded by the US Department of State (DOS).

One of the few publicly available lists of government-funded anti-trafficking programs, the most recent available report (dated July 30, 2013) from the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking In Persons (OMCTIP), outlines funds obligated to combat trafficking in fiscal year (FY) 2012. A disclaimer notes that the list does “not represent the full extent of FY 2012 funds to monitor and combat trafficking in persons” from the DOS, although it offers a place to start an inquiry.

DOS committed funds, as listed in this report, totaling nearly $77 million for 202 total grantees around the world. Of the grantees, 64 programs are projects of organizations or agencies based in the United States, which collectively received funds amounting to about $30 million.

OMCTIP publicly trackable money represents only about 1 percent of available government funds.

Somewhat distressingly, there is little overlap between these DOS-funded programs and our previous list of the 50 most prominent organizations. This could mean that there are significantly more anti-trafficking organizations than we may at first have suspected, or it could mean that the most prominent groups do not, for whatever reason, tend to receive government funding. Indeed, only five organizations make both lists, receiving a total of $5,240,995 from the DOS in FY 2012 for 12 different programs. These include: Girls Education and Mentoring Services (GEMS), with four DOS-funded programs; International Rescue Committee (IRC), with three funded programs; Polaris Project, with two funded programs; Justice Resource Institute (the parent organization of My Life My Choice) with two funded programs; and Mosaic Family Services, the fiscal sponsor for the Freedom Network. (For reference, the DOS funding granted to these organizations in total represents less than 1 percent of the $686 million budget shared by the 50 most prominent groups.)

Of the 64 DOS-funded US programs in FY 2012, including those detailed above, 21 are initiatives of cities, counties or law enforcement bureaus; 36 are from organizations whose primary missions lie outside the scope of anti-trafficking work – some of which would seem to have tenuous ties to the issue, like Colorado College and the National Academy of Sciences; and one funded organization is no longer operational. (A second closed down during our investigation, although it is still included in our counts.)

Eliminating groups that reported budgets of less than $1 million in their most recent tax returns or annual reports leaves us with 21 DOS-funded organizations that reported budgets of $1 million or more in 2014. In combination with our previous list of prominent anti-trafficking organizations with annual budgets of at least $1 million, we are left with a total of 36 leading anti-trafficking organizations, spread throughout the United States, with a notable gap in the Western Plains, an area that national press has lately suggested holds dire sex-trafficking problems. Those of us who watch the industry closely, however, realize that this doesn’t necessarily mean human trafficking in the region is on the upswing; it more likely means that new anti-trafficking organizations have opened there with new claims about the need for their services and their effectiveness that should be viewed with suspicion.

Running the Numbers

These 36 leaders of the American rescue industry shared a startlingly massive combined total budget of approximately $1.2 billion in the most recent year for which records are available (2012, in most cases). This is a bit less than two times our calculation of what the 50 most prominent organizations shared, which may indicate that, indeed, the most prominent organizations are not always the best funded. (In fact, the DOS tended to fund organizations that are larger and have been operating for significantly longer than most of the organizations on the previous list, and would not rely on press mentions so heavily to attract new donors.)

However, the 29 organizations in our original most prominent groups tally not recounted here pull in an estimated combined annual budget of $8.5 million (nine of them did not make financial records publicly available, so in those cases, annual budgets were estimated). Additionally, in FY 2012, the OMCTIP funded an additional 37 organizations for anti-trafficking programs, and further acknowledges the existence of other funding for anti-trafficking work in the United States not included in these counts at all, for a potentially equally vast list of organizations not otherwise accounted for. GuideStar, the online charity reporting service, indicates a possible 100,000 of those. This is not even to mention the Western Plains regions noted above, and other new players that enter the field on a regular basis. On top of which, budgets for governmental organizations leading anti-trafficking programs and activities are simply not immediately accessible.

Less than five organizations claim to be survivor-led or retain advisory boards made up of former victims.

The known $1.2 billion 2012 budget of the biggest anti-trafficking organizations in the United States, therefore, represents an unknown percentage of the total annual budget for all anti-trafficking programming across the nation. We do, however, know that the available pool of funds is growing. Presuming the budgets of the five organizations that do not make 990s publicly available have been steady in recent years – unlikely, considering other organizational budget increases, but let’s pretend – the combined annual budgets of the 36 largest organizations grew on average by 7 percent over their previous year’s incomes.

Not to say that a few didn’t suffer impressive fiscal setbacks between 990 filings: Swanee Hunt’s Hunt Alternatives, the group behind Demand Abolition, saw their budget drop from nearly $13 million in 2012 to slightly less than $4.5 million in 2013. Polaris Project, too, lost close to $2 million over that same period, bringing in only $5.6 million in 2013. Some of the loss is likely attributable to the work of the Force Film Foundation’s Half The Sky air dates in 2012, the residual effects of which would have tapered by 2013. The Force Film Foundation itself took in only $253,772 in 2011, then quintupled their budget in 2012, bringing in $2.1 million for Nicholas Kristof’s film alone, which increased their entire earnings that year (the most recent for which records are publicly available) to $2,200,917. Of course, Half the Sky’s massive popularity – fostered by the vast network of organizations available to prop up its message by hosting screenings, readings and talks – also created a healthy funding stream of its own for certain kinds of anti-trafficking efforts.

On the whole, however, budgets grew in total, despite significant individual organizational losses. To clarify, 7 percent of $1.2 billion is $84 million. Assuming these growth rates continued after 2013, this budget increased to nearly $1.3 billion the following year and will be approximately $1.5 billion this year, for these 36 organizations alone; however, a generous uptick to that total amount this year seems likely, given the January and February PBS air dates of the new Force Film Foundation and Nicholas Kristof collaboration, A Path Appears, particularly when we consider its focus (despite that it was a strange diversion from the book) on the problem of domestic sex trafficking.

It would be a mistake to use the same bad math that organizations employ in outlandish statements regarding “freed slaves” and “human trafficking profitability” to estimate the total annual budget of the American rescue industry. Yet given the above, $3 billion seems a conservative estimate for a domestic anti-trafficking budget alone – a bit less than the $3.44 billion price tag Forbes pins on the most valuable sports team today, Spanish football team Real Madrid. ($3 billion is a cost linked to human trafficking elsewhere, too; it’s the amount the UNODC estimates European traffickers pull in annually.)

In fact, from a financial perspective, the American rescue industry may be the third most popular sports franchise in the world.

Funding Sources of the American Rescue Industry

Without the ticket sales, broadcast rights and merchandising of sports franchises, however, one wonders where all the money is coming from. Of the $1.2 billion of our top 36 organizations in 2012, 37 percent came from individuals and private grants; 45 percent came from government agencies; and the remaining 18 percent came from fees, membership dues, sales of goods, fundraising events and other revenue streams dependent on the organization’s mission.

Seven organizations receive no government support yet perform rescues or collaborate with law enforcement.

There are inconsistencies: Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minnesota, funded by the DOS in FY 2012, did not state in its annual report from that year that the organization received any government grants, and is not required (as a faith-based organization) to disclose financial records. (This could, however, be due to the differences between government and organizational fiscal years.) Additionally, tax forms for the Association for the Recovery of Children in California and Hope for Justice in Tennessee have not been made publicly available (nor were they supplied to this reporter upon requests dating from January). Including these three, 12 of our 36 organizations – a third – do not claim to receive funding from federal, state, county or local governments.

In other words, depending on how much we choose to believe self-reported data, between a third and a quarter of the largest anti-trafficking organizations in the United States receive no government financial support whatsoever, meaning private support of anti-trafficking efforts are significant.

Also telling is that the OMCTIP publicly trackable money represents only about 1 percent of the government funds available for anti-trafficking efforts. The lack of transparency is notable: Why avoid full disclosure if you’re tackling, head-on, the “despicable, vile issue of human trafficking,” as Sen. Barbara Mikulksi (D-Maryland) called it recently?

Programming I: Empowering Women

So how, exactly, is this “despicable, vile issue” being tackled? Not by way of women’s empowerment, unfortunately. Even though every single organization claims to focus on either sex trafficking exclusively or both sex and labor trafficking – meaning women are a primary client-base of all organizations, and indeed they are depicted in the vast majority of all anti-trafficking visuals – and mission statements that include phrases like, “client-centered approach” and “empower survivors of trafficking,” (Coalition to Abolish Slavery); “restore survivors with excellence,” (Love146); and “bring justice to vulnerable women [and restore] survivors to lives of purpose, value and choice,” (Shared Hope International); fewer than half of the organizations (42 percent) had women CEOs or board presidents. Nor are many organizations willing to offer former victims of sex trafficking leadership roles; less than five organizations claim to be survivor-led or retain advisory boards made up of former victims. Remarkably few groups have any women of color in leadership positions, despite that mass stings regularly sweep up significant numbers of Black and Brown women.

Only a quarter of our organizations openly claim faith-based missions, including those that are faith-based, but do not exclusively serve members of their own faith, such as Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. (Full disclosure: This agnostic reporter volunteered as a night guard for their men’s homeless shelter for a year in the late 1980s and found the organization to be truthful when it claimed to refrain from any sort of religious discrimination or proselytizing at that time.)

The organizations even considering what best practices may exist are simply too few to be effective.

In terms of services and programming offered, four organizations (11 percent) focus exclusively on providing services to populations in their immediate county, city or town; 32 organizations (89 percent) focus on national clientele, whether by offering direct services to individuals outside their county, city or town, or by way of advocacy on issues of national policy. Twenty-three organizations (64 percent) work with international clients, either through offshore offices or programming for immigrant communities; however, only 12 organizations (33 percent) outright stated they offer, or reasonably could be assumed to offer, T-Visa application assistance, the documents offered to survivors of labor trafficking. (A T-Visa lawyer told Truthout that there are 5,000 of these made available every year, but the number of applications completed every year consistently falls below this number.)

A full 32 organizations (89 percent) claim to be in the training, rescue and recovery game, labeled “protection services” by the OMCTIP, and slightly fewer – 26 organizations, or 72 percent – offer a service the OMCTIP calls “prosecution-law enforcement,” including organizations that openly state affiliations with law enforcement agencies, or based on other services offered, can be presumed to have affiliations with law enforcement agencies, including those offering T-Visa legal services. What this entails for each organization is not always clear; about as many organizations do armed rescues as work with task forces on sting operations as offer assistance in immigration applications. But in at least some cases – such as in organizations that solicit civilians to perform armed rescues – this raises serious legal concerns. Particularly for the seven organizations that receive no government support (Agape International Missions, Association for the Recovery of Children, Exodus Cry, Force Film Foundation, Hope for Justice, Love 146 and Shared Hope International) yet perform rescues or otherwise collaborate with law enforcement.

Leaving aside for a moment the likelihood that organizations working in collaboration with law enforcement will tend not to serve the needs of folks involved in criminalized labor sectors, including the sex and drug trades (although noting for the future that no organizations publicly claim to serve individuals trafficked into the latter), groups that train volunteer civilians in armed conflict without government support are known as paramilitary organizations. The criminality of paramilitary organizations – groups that bear arms and operate on a volunteer basis without government funding – is famously unclear.

Programming II: Flying Blind

The OMCTIP designates certain organizations as offering “research & data collection” and “evaluation,” demarcations expanded for this report. Only four organizations, 11 percent of the total, do research or collect data; only three, or 8 percent, offer evaluation as to the effectiveness of their programming or anti-trafficking efforts in general (although Hunt Alternatives has pledged a new network of organizations across the United States devoted to exactly this in coming months). This may terrify anyone familiar with social services or the doings of nonprofit organizations in general: The number of organizations even considering what best practices may exist regarding the identification of human trafficking victims or the services necessary for their restoration are simply too few to be effective, although this hasn’t been a prohibitive factor in DOS funding. Not to mention that it would seem logical that every single organization would devote some capacity to evaluating their individual impact or the impact of the field as a whole.

Nonetheless, the work (effective or not) presses on, and half the organizations claim to do rescue and/or rehabilitation involving the removal of trafficked persons from trafficking situations. Only 13 provided tallies of the number of victims saved in the most recent year (often 2013; some annual reports date from the previous year, when we have used those numbers). Those reported numbers of persons rescued from trafficking are even larger than the total claimed by the 50 most prominent organizations; the reporting organizations claim to have saved a total of 9,532 victims of trafficking in most recent annual reports. If we average those numbers out to provide estimates for organizations that did not provide saved victim tallies, we get an estimate that the 18 largest anti-trafficking organizations in the United States that do rescue work could claim to have saved approximately 13,198 victims of trafficking in 2013.

End Demand legislation aims to discourage men from purchasing sexual services, and includes public shaming.

Meanwhile, during FY 2012, DOS reports that federal investigations into human trafficking totaled 2,398 cases; during this same time period, the Department of Justice brought charges against 200 defendants and convicted 138 of them as traffickers (a decrease from the previous year’s 151 convictions). No nationwide data is collected on investigations or convictions at the state level, but even if each state had also successfully convicted 138 traffickers, we would have a total of 7,038 rock-solid, proven-in-court instances of human trafficking across the United States. Compare this to nearly twice as many purported victims of human trafficking, estimated based on reports from the organizations that claim to have rescued them.

Also worth noting is that the Freedom Network, a project of Texas-based Mosaic Family Services, is a membership-based organization devoted to ensuring a human-rights approach to trafficking. Its provisions demand an adherence to “evidence-based practices to advocate for policies rooted in supporting the human rights of trafficked persons” and “encourage policies that promote survivor autonomy, avoid bifurcated treatment of trafficked persons, and discourage rogue and vigilante efforts that compromise safety and autonomy in the name of combating human trafficking,” according to the project’s policy agenda. Although 34 organizations and individuals publicly claim membership in this network, only eight of our largest 36 (22 percent) are among them.

Unfortunately, despite the paucity of research, data collection, analysis or evaluation that the leaders of the American rescue industry engage in, 21 organizations (58 percent) do policy advocacy work, whether such efforts are explicitly stated in missions or evidenced on websites. There is a frustrating lack of correlation between organizations that are Freedom Network members and those that do policy advocacy; only four organizations (11 percent), in other words, do policy advocacy work under an evidence-based human rights framework, which on the ground amounts to a willingness to distinguish between sex work and human trafficking.

Programming III: Awareness Raising

By far the most overrepresented service offered, labeled “prevention awareness” by OMCTIP, amounts to media and educational campaigns, or “awareness-raising.” Some may consider these branding projects and still others, propaganda efforts, but no matter the label used, 33 organizations (92 percent) devote significant resources to creating, disseminating or screening films, or hosting workshops and trainings in educational institutions, law enforcement agencies or their own facilities.

While this amounts to grassroots movement building, not unlike the policy advocacy efforts noted above, evidence of such activities stands in direct contrast to the number of organizations that claim on 990s to do political lobbying, whether “to influence public opinion” or “influence a legislative body,” as Schedule C (political campaign and lobbying activities) describes it. Only 10 organizations claimed to lobby in their most recent 990s, and list a cumulative budget for such work of $585,165, or around 0.5 percent of the cumulative $1.2 billion budget for all organizations. (The five organizations that do not make 990s available were presumed not to claim lobbying as an expenditure.) It is certainly possible that between 2012 and now, organizations simply stepped up lobbying efforts, but it seems more likely that some of the 11 organizations that did not disclose lobbying budgets on 990s either did not know such work is lobbying or failed to acknowledge it as such.

From an outside perspective, however, after close study of the organizations in question, it is more plausible that those 33 organizations were each devoting approximately a quarter of their resources to media and education campaigns, which would amount to a cumulative budget for such work of $276 million. That the amount of funds available to lobby with is legally restricted among organizations that receive government funding may be one explanation for the discrepancy, although not one that reflects favorably on the organizations under study.

Damaging policy is being enacted with little to no evaluation done to prove its effectiveness.

Worse by far, the vast majority of the organizations that do not claim to conduct political lobbying on 990s, but do deliberately attempt to sway public opinion, tend to act in support of one particular body of policy, known as End Demand legislation. This set of laws aims to discourage men from purchasing sexual services, and includes john schools, public shaming and auto seizure, to list just a few tactics. Anti-trafficking organizations either discuss such policies explicitly or refer to them by way of code words, including the phrase “ending demand.” The Force Film Foundation’s A Path Appears, for example, grounded its PBS premiere on January 26 with a long segment on Cook County’s National Day of Johns Arrests, and Sheriff Tom Dart’s campaign to end demand. Kristof appears, not only parroting verbatim the logic arising from End Demand legislation that no sex work can be consensual, but also wearing a flak jacket labeled “SHERIFF.”

“It’s like shooting fish in a barrel,” Kristof says of the ease of arresting johns and forcing them into john school. That the fish deserve the death sentence – or that such arrests will put an end to the sex trade – is never questioned, and the line between journalist, film star and law enforcement is erased completely: propaganda so pure it’s hard to find another name for it. Similar ham-fisted messaging weaves through Breaking Free’s May “Demand Change” conference and Hunt Alternative’s Demand Abolition program (which is entirely devoted to fostering grassroots support for End Demand legislation). All three of these organizations said they did not lobby legislators or the grassroots on their most recent tax returns.

Whether or not End Demand legislation has any impact on sex trafficking is not entirely the point, although plenty have argued that it does not. (“You may win a few battles but you’re going to lose the war,” Sex Worker’s Outreach Project-Chicago organizer Serpent Libertine told Truthout in an interview. “You’re not going to be able to end demand for sexual services. No matter how hard you try.”) More relevant is that consensus appears to be building among many anti-trafficking organizations regarding the best legislative response to human trafficking. Extensive resources are being utilized to advocate for this legislation, both at the grassroots and at the legislative levels, despite that there is too little research done in the field to ensure that solutions are evidence-based.

Legal scholars will have to weigh in on the discrepancy between evidence of lobbying activities and lobbying activities as claimed on 990s, but the potential of tax fraud may well be a sideshow to the main event: Damaging policy is being enacted under substantial governmental and private financial support, with little to no evaluation done to prove its effectiveness.

The American Rescue Industry in Sum

Difficult though it may be to refrain from hyperbole, a programmatic overview of self-reported documents from the 36 biggest anti-trafficking organizations in the United States makes clear that the American rescue industry is White male-led, and focused on intervening in a predominantly female population (many of whom are women of color) without regard to this population’s post-rescue needs, the effectiveness of the organization’s efforts or the framing of human trafficking in general. These organizations function largely in cooperation with law enforcement, and are being financially supported in these efforts by government grants, yes, but also by a large swell of private funders. And despite that a vast majority of them disseminate media that advocate for specific policy objectives or general policy-based sentiment, or outright advocate for certain bills, only a slim minority acknowledge these activities as the grassroots lobbying they really are.

Unfortunately, this is not some speculative, crackpot conspiracy theory: White men in the United States really are receiving government and private funds that they’re failing to fully account for to arrest or detain women with little regard to their needs or interests; some are even doing so as extremely well-funded and popularly supported guerilla groups. Indeed, the quasi-governmental tendencies of anti-trafficking organizations lend the American rescue industry in sum the sheen of a paramilitary force, operating under a handshake agreement with elected officials to push through unpalatable legislation.

It’s almost a parody: If it rhymed slightly better we might attribute it to Weird Al. But for supposed rescuees and the alleged pimps and others arrested in June 2014’s 106 Operation Cross Country sweeps (the number of participating cities alone grew by a third over the previous year), it’s probably not funny. Nor would it amuse the estimated 13,000 survivors of human trafficking said to have been saved by the American rescue industry. Assuming they are not fictitious inventions of organizations known elsewhere to exhibit mathematical inconsistencies, the national prosecution rates for human traffickers – pretending for a moment the carceral solution on offer holds any merit whatsoever – mean those survivors will have little hope of the justice offered them.

It’s a justice, however faulty, often offered in lieu of legal services (explicitly provided by only one-third of our largest 36 organizations), medical assistance (provided by four organizations, or 11 percent), counseling (three organizations, or 8 percent) or safe housing. While many organizations make vague claims of housing or housing referrals, only two organizations, or 6 percent, offer dedicated beds for trafficking victims, for a total of less than 500 beds. In other words, housing is guaranteed for less than 4 percent of the victims that organizations claim to have rescued from trafficking situations.

The abortion amendment tacked onto the already flawed Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act in recent weeks caused bipartisan balking that may prove a watershed moment for the unchecked growth of the American rescue industry. Yet a known $1.5 billion is still in play, and proponents are intent on pushing through legislation that does little to support supposed victims and can offer no evidence of its effectiveness in ending human trafficking. Certainly, nonpartisan inquiries into what human trafficking really is, who commits it and what its victims require for full restoration would be a far preferable use for such an enormous budget – which, of course, should also be made public.

Author’s note: Future investigations will look at (and inside) some of the anti-trafficking organizations included in this article, to compare their programmatic offerings and first-hand accounts of accomplishments to the hard numbers.

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