In honor of Trafficking Awareness Month, Legal Services of New Jersey’s PROTECT unit partnered with Rutgers School of Social Work (SSW) and its Graduate Student Association (SSWGSA) to host two events to spread awareness about this serious social issue and honor survivors of human trafficking.

We spoke to Assistant Professor of Teaching & Coordinator for the VAWC Certificate Program Rupa Khetarpal and MSW student Jamie Pytlik who shared more about the event and the ways they hoped it would make an impact.

Why did the SSW/SSWGSA choose to host events on the topic of human trafficking?
Rupa Khetarpal: January was Human Trafficking Month. This month has been dedicated to raise awareness about human trafficking and to educate the public about this issue. During this month, we also celebrate the efforts of service providers and activists who are raising awareness of this issue. Therefore, in the true spirit of community engagement, Rutgers SSW collaborated with Legal Services of NJ to discuss the interprofessional work that is being done to serve survivors of trafficking in NJ. These events were hosted to honor survivors and applaud the work that is being done in the field. Our faculty, staff, and students were able to participate in these learning opportunities, and we are very grateful to Legal Services of NJ for bringing this information to us.

Jamie Pytlik: My field supervisor, Monica Kristen, and I approached Rupa about how we could include Rutgers in the conversation about human trafficking. We were thrilled to partner with the SSW and SSWGSA to coordinate these events. 

What did you hope the audience would gain from attending the events?
Rupa Khetarpal: We hoped that the audience would learn about the legal and social service contexts of human trafficking, identify and understand the risk factors of being victimized, and become aware the long-term impact of experiencing complex trauma and trauma responses. We also hoped that the audience would learn about civil legal remedies and the immigration relief available to survivors of human trafficking. Finally, the aim was to begin a dialogue about this issue and discuss the survivor-focused response being offered through Legal Services of New Jersey’s PROTECT Project for survivors. 

Jamie Pytlik: We hoped the audience would gain increased knowledge and interest in the anti-trafficking movement and how they can identify and support human trafficking survivors. The first event provided great insight from Monica and PROTECT's supervising attorney, Anisa Rahim, on recognizing sex and labor trafficking, the impact of these traumas on survivors, and the civil legal remedies available for human trafficking survivors. This training also highlighted how social workers provide services to survivors in a multi-disciplinary environment. The second event, the virtual panel, provided various perspectives from experts in service delivery for survivors of human trafficking. We hope the experiences and viewpoints from law enforcement, mental health, and legal professionals shed light on the various systems survivors often interact in, and how the pandemic impacted these systems and their service delivery to survivors.

What is the role of a social worker in serving populations impacted by human trafficking?
Rupa Khetarpal: The social worker plays a critical role in serving this vulnerable population. The social worker can be involved from the identification and crisis response phase to working with the survivor providing critical case-management and mental health services long term. Social workers can advocate for legislation and policy change, prevent and change laws that criminalize survivors, educate community members and organizations about this issue, and work collaboratively with service providers and law enforcement to offer trauma informed and culturally appropriate services to survivors. Social workers can also be involved in research efforts and help build knowledge in this field. Social workers can make a significant difference in prevention efforts as well as provide direct services through interprofessional and multidisciplinary collaborations. 

Jamie Pytlik: Social workers serve human trafficking survivors in various different capacities and at all areas of engagement with this population. At PROTECT, Monica (the unit's senior social worker) acts as a case manager who assesses and connects clients to necessary services, such as food and clothing resources and mental health services. Clinical social workers work with this population to address the trauma they endured and help them recover emotionally. Additionally, social workers can be involved at the crisis level, as well as connecting clients to stabilization services. They can be found in legislative spaces, advocating for systemic change as well as in the community building capacity and awareness to fight the issue of human trafficking.

How has the pandemic impacted service delivery to populations impacted by human trafficking?
Rupa Khetarpal: The pandemic has impacted service delivery to survivors of human trafficking in multiple ways. COVID-19 has created widespread unemployment and homelessness, heightening the risk of exploitation for youth, and an increase in interpersonal violence including domestic violence and child maltreatment. With the shelter in place orders and social distancing, survivors faced challenges in seeking help without access to technology or devices needed to connect with service providers combined with the lack of privacy and confidentiality. Many social service agencies were completely virtual causing difficulties for survivors to access in-person trauma informed services. COVID-19 further constrained access to safe housing and shelters due to fears of contracting the virus, and reduced access to health care services and informal community supports. Language and cultural barriers created further challenges.

Jamie Pytlik: One main takeaway that we gathered was that barriers to service existed for this population long before the pandemic. However, the onset of the pandemic added another layer to service provision that further marginalized this population. As discussed in the virtual panel, some service providers, such as law enforcement, continued to work through the pandemic and faced the impact of limited available resources due to pandemic. Other services, such as increased public resources, became more readily available, but survivors may have faced challenges in accessing these resources due to immigration status, fear, and triggered trauma responses due to the expectations and restrictions related to these services. In the mental health field, providers and survivors alike had to adjust to different methods of providing and receiving services, such as through telehealth. Additionally, survivors experienced different impacts – some were affected more significantly than others depending on their personal circumstances. We are so glad that our panelists could provide different perspectives on how service delivery was impacted in various related fields.

Were there any next steps or takeaways from the event?
Rupa Khetarpal: We hope that the attendees learned about the wide prevalence and impact of the issue of human trafficking. The next steps would be to continue building our knowledge and awareness regarding this issue whether it is within our organizations or the communities we belong to. We hope that with this information, participants would explore ways to be involved in advocacy, prevention efforts and direct services, as well as in research and education.

Jamie Pytlik: We hope to continue to work with Rutgers in the future to increase awareness of human trafficking and educate the next generation of professionals on this important social issue. Additionally, PROTECT is always available as a resource to sex and labor trafficking survivors across the state of New Jersey, regardless of their age or immigration status. PROTECT can be reached at our hotline: 1-844-576-5776.