In recent months, the National Human Trafficking Hotline (NHTH) has come under scrutiny after claims from 36 State Attorneys General that the hotline is failing to report tips to law enforcement. These claims put human trafficking survivors in unsafe situations and are misdirected because the hotline is not legally required to report cases of trafficking to law enforcement. The NHTH was established in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act to connect survivors of trafficking to necessary services, and it should be used only for that purpose.
Legislation has been proposed this year to legally require the hotline to report tips to law enforcement. The National Human Trafficking Hotline Enhancement Act would make the hotline permanently ineffective and lose the trust of survivors and providers around the country. We oppose this bill and any other efforts to encourage the NHTH to operate with this dual purpose.
Requiring the NHTH to both connect survivors with services and serve as a law enforcement tipline is inherently a conflict of interest and unethical. Most hotlines only serve the purpose of providing services and support for callers. The National Domestic Violence Hotline, RAINN’s Sexual Assault Helpline, and the National Runaway Safeline, for example, are effective because they do not provide tips to law enforcement about domestic violence, sexual assault, or runaway youth. Their resources are dedicated solely to meeting the needs of survivors. They are not advertised as law enforcement tiplines and, in turn, are not overburdened with calls from members of the general public like the NHTH.
It should never be assumed that survivors want to report their cases to law enforcement. Many survivors work to avoid law enforcement due to previous harmful interactions, traffickers that threaten retaliation, or the vulnerable immigration status of the survivor or family member. Reporting to law enforcement without explicit consent from the survivor erodes trust and may push them away from the very services they need to leave a trafficking situation. Survivors who have reported that they were unexpectedly contacted by law enforcement after contacting the NHTH have lost trust in the systems that should be meeting their needs. Survivors are speaking out about their experiences, sharing that they would not have called the hotline if they knew that the police would be contacted.
Without a guarantee of confidentiality, survivors will not trust the NHTH, leading to delays in finding the services and support they need. Delays in access to services like housing, healthcare and mental health care, safety planning, and legal services can put survivors in unsafe situations for longer periods. Survivors will be forced to remain in trafficking situations while searching for services. Some will give up and believe that help is not available.
The NHTH is not required by law to operate as a tipline, but has served this dual purpose for most of its existence. The NHTH has received significant numbers of calls from the general public that do not report real cases of human trafficking. These calls overburden the hotline and prevent survivors from speaking to a hotline advocate. The general public knows how to call the police and can do so using the local non-emergency number, 911, FBI, or DHS tiplines, leaving the NHTH open for the survivors it is intended to serve.
The NHTH should act only as a resource for survivors seeking safety. Survivors must be empowered with the tools to recover and make their own decisions to involve law enforcement when and if they feel comfortable doing so.