LAWRENCE — University of Kansas researchers have received a $30,000 grant to study how frontline workers in the Midwest identify and assist those vulnerable to human trafficking.
"Human trafficking is so complicated that survivors' identities might be read in different ways by different people," said Corinne Schwarz, a KU doctoral candidate in women, gender and sexuality studies and a co-principal investigator for the project. "Someone might be a survivor of sex or labor trafficking, but if they go to the police, their first frame or identity might be as someone with an undocumented status or perhaps even a criminal."
The KU Institute for Policy & Social Research assisted with the development of the National Science Foundation grant proposal and will manage the award. IPSR is KU's designated social science research center.
Hannah Britton, associate professor of women, gender and sexuality studies and political science, is the study's principal investigator. Britton also directs the Center for the Study of Injustice at KU's Institute for Policy & Social Research in which she coordinates KU's Anti-Slavery and Human Trafficking Initiative, or ASHTI. ASHTI is a working group of faculty and students engaged in teaching and research about slavery and trafficking.
Schwarz, who is also an ASHTI graduate research assistant, said as anti-trafficking efforts in the United States have increased in recent years, communities and states have adopted legislation, and service providers — such as law enforcement, the medical community and social service sectors — have faced a growing client base.
Research has shown that human trafficking is frequently mobilized in binaries, such as victims or criminals, survivors or perpetrators, and moral or immoral. The researchers will work with service providers in urban and rural communities to study how they navigate their workloads and interact with clients who might have experienced human trafficking.
"It's really just trying to gauge the perceptions of how people actually do this work," Schwarz said.
Britton said Schwarz’s work is important to the field because she is working to understand how frontline workers are balancing larger and larger caseloads.
"Frontline workers are often working with people who have not necessarily been identified as survivors of trafficking – and the survivors may not even realize they are victims protected by the law," Britton said. "They have often been threatened by their traffickers or employers with arrest and deportation, so they are scared to come forward. Service providers have to navigate very complicated situations with their clients, and Schwarz is working to understand how they manage these cases and work with these survivors."
The researchers are seeking to use both surveys and semi-structured interviews as part of the research. One of the main goals will be to uncover best practices in communities that could be shared effectively in other places, especially in the hopes of preventing sex and labor trafficking.
"Understanding the ways that people on the ground encounter and deal with trafficking might us give us insights into what prevention could look like and what future goals we could make to start that process," Schwarz said. "Especially we want to think about how to stop types of exploitation before they even happen."
At right: Corinne Schwarz, a KU doctoral candidate in women, gender and sexuality studies and a co-principal investigator for the NSF-funded project. Photo by Amy Hart