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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

Human Trafficking: What CILs Should Know

An Update from the NCIL Task Force on Violence and Abuse

When you hear the term “human trafficking”, what is the first thing that comes into your mind? Prostitution? Domestic servitude? Child pornography? Your first mental picture likely does not involve people with disabilities, yet according to the 2012 Trafficking in Persons Report by the Department of State, “persons with disabilities remain one of the groups most at risk of being trafficked”.

So what is human trafficking? It is the illegal trading of human beings for commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor. It is modern day slavery, where people profit from the control and exploitation of others. Human trafficking is an abuse of human rights.

In 2009, 21 men with disabilities were emancipated from an old school house in Atalissa, Iowa where they lived and worked nearby at a turkey processing plant for $2.00 a day.

In 2011, four individuals with disabilities were found locked in a Tacony, Pennsylvania basement.

In 2013, a woman with a disability and her child were found after being held in Ashland, Ohio for two years.

Also in 2013, a Columbus, Georgia senior home is shutdown after an FBI investigation found the residents (elders and people with disabilities) were victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation at the hands of the owner and staff.

While these stories made national news, there are many more that never do. Due to the very nature of human trafficking activities, it is very difficult to come up with accurate statistics on trafficking.

The US Department of State estimates that 800,000 women, children and men are internationally trafficked every year. Over 14,000 victims are trafficked into the United States annually, and according to the United States Department of Justice, more than half are children. An estimated 200,000 American children are potentially trafficked each year into the sex trade.

The stigma and marginalization of persons with disabilities makes them particularly vulnerable to human trafficking.

What Can Centers for Independent Living Do?

According to the Department of State, while the victims may sometimes be kept behind locked doors, they are often hidden right in front of us. For example, construction sites, restaurants, elder care centers; nail salons, agricultural fields, and hotels. The traffickers’ use of coercion is so powerful that even if you reach out to victims, they may be too fearful to accept your help. Knowing indicators of human trafficking and some follow up questions will help you act on your gut feeling that something is wrong and report it.

Some of these indicators include:

  • Individuals who have no contact with friends or family and no access to identification documents, bank accounts, or cash;
  • Workplaces where psychological manipulation and control are used;
  • Homes or apartments with inhumane living conditions;
  • People whose communications and movements are always monitored or who have moved or rotated through multiple locations in a short amount of time;
  • Places where locks and fences are positioned to confine occupants; and
  • Workers who have excessively long and unusual hours, are unpaid or paid very little, are unable take breaks or days off and have unusual work restrictions, and/or have unexplained work injuries or signs of untreated illness or disease;
  • People who are living with their employer;
  • People who are living in poor conditions or where multiple people are living in a cramped space;
  • Individuals who you are unable to speak to alone, or whose answers appear to be scripted and rehearsed; and
  • Individuals, who display signs of physical abuse, are submissive or fearful 

If you have the opportunity to speak with the potential victim alone you can follow up with questions such as:

  • Can you leave your job if you want to?
  • Can you come and go as you please?
  • Have you been hurt or threatened if you tried to leave?
  • Has your family been threatened?
  • Do you live with your employer?
  • Where do you sleep and eat?
  • Are you in debt to your employer?
  • Do you have your passport/identification? Who has it?

More Suggestions for CILs:

  • Hold staff trainings on human trafficking awareness.
  • Incorporate human trafficking into you outreach materials.
  • Distribute awareness materials.
  • Provide training and internships to individuals who are trafficking survivors.
  • Provide support and services to victims of trafficking.
  • Collaborate with those people locally who are also working on human trafficking issues. Find out who is doing work in your area.

For more information:

To get help:

  • National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline: 1-888-373-7888 or text BeFree (233733)
  • Department of Homeland Security: 1-866-347-2423 (24/7), or submit a tip online at
  • U.S. Department of Justice: 1-888-428-7581

For more information or to get involved in issues surrounding human trafficking or abuse of people with disabilities please contact the NCIL Task Force on Violence and Abuse Co-Chairs Roberta Sick ( and Jan Derry (

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