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Trauma-Informed Care Builds Resilience for Survivors of Human Trafficking and Violence

Table of Contents

Human trafficking and domestic abuse leave deep scars—physical, emotional and psychological—that can take years to heal. Survivors walk a long and strenuous road to recovery. Those who choose to pursue legal justice against their perpetrators face special challenges, as they must revisit the details of their abuse when they report their experiences to law-enforcement and provide testimony in court.

But through the dedicated support of organizations like International Justice Mission (IJM) and its partners, courageous survivors can rebuild their lives and pursue a future free from exploitation and abuse.

IJM has over 25 years of experience working directly with survivors of abuse and trauma around the world. Due to this extensive work, we know that one of the most critical aspects of ensuring the best outcomes for trafficking and violence survivors is access to trauma-informed care. To that end, we have helped develop processes, resources and facilities that are trauma-informed, and trained an estimated 390,000 professionals (as of April 2024) to ensure the more humane and effective care of those in the process of healing from abuse.

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What is trauma-informed care?

Trauma-informed care is a strengths-based framework grounded in an understanding of trauma and responsiveness to its impact. It emphasizes physical, psychological and emotional safety for providers and survivors and creates opportunities for survivors to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.

Developed in the 1970s to treat veterans returning to the United States from Vietnam, trauma-informed care is a compassionate and empowering approach to health care, psychological healing, community engagement and criminal justice that acknowledges the widespread impact of trauma on its victims. It prioritizes creating safe, supportive environments where survivors feel validated and respected, minimizing re-traumatization and fostering well-being in all aspects of life.

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Why does trauma-informed care matter? By integrating trauma-informed principles into mental health support, healthcare and social services, these interventions are better able to promote healing, resilience and empowerment, helping survivors process their experiences, manage their emotions and develop coping strategies for navigating the challenges of everyday life. It is important to note that anyone can be trauma-informed. It is not a clinical treatment, it’s an approach that all care givers can and should take when engaging with people, regardless of what is known—or not known—of their trauma history.

Trauma-informed care enhances the processing of trauma and is especially important in cases of intimate partner violence, as it provides safe spaces, validates survivors' experiences and empowers them to heal and seek justice.

What are the components of trauma-informed care?

Trauma-informed care is not a “one size fits all” approach, but typically follows these six guiding principles:

Trauma Informed Care

1. Safety

Whether in a therapy context, an educational event, or a law-enforcement or court setting, the physical and emotional safety of the survivor is of primary importance. Many need assurance of protection and the space where they can openly express their emotions. In an effort to provide this support, IJM staff and partners make every effort to familiarize themselves with the venue where an intervention or testimony is taking place to ensure that survivor witnesses and presenters have a private space available for preparation and debriefing.

2. Trust and Transparency

Trust must be earned for a trauma survivor; it is not assumed. Mental health professionals, case workers and others interacting with survivors should work to build rapport by being honest and transparent, clearly stating expectations, keeping confidence and following through on any promises communicated. That’s why IJM trains law enforcement workers and prosecutors to observe survivor-centered best practices such as explaining the purpose of each interview and ensuring the survivor gives informed consent about where and how their story will be shared. (Learn about an example where IJM Romania trained police officers and prosecutors.)

3. Connectedness

It is important to empower and respect each survivor by recognizing that they can provide insights into their recovery and can support other survivors in recovery. For example, IJM Peru and a local partner recently hosted a retreat for child survivors of sexual violence in central Peru, where they shared stories of strength and resilience and learned strategies for finding community-based support to avoid revictimization.

4. Collaboration and Mutuality

Everyone plays a role in trauma recovery. Before engaging directly with the survivor, all members of the support and advocacy team should discuss how to minimize re-traumatization and empower the survivor. For instance, a team might consider how they can document and utilize information from each interview for multiple purposes and create feedback loops to enable the survivor to speak into final resources and statements. Professionals must understand the importance of coordinating together (a working referral mechanism) for the successful progression of the case and the survivor’s recovery.

5. Empowerment, Voice and Choice

Survivors should be given choices, empowered to speak in their own voices and share only when they are ready. Interviewers should actively listen and use open-ended questions to allow the survivor to shape the story. Whenever possible, survivors should be offered choices; for instance, they might be given the option of having their children present for an interview or leaving them with trusted, on-site caregiver. Another strategy for facilitating a sense of control is providing therapy topics or interview topics ahead of time so they have time to prepare emotionally.

6. Respecting Diversity

Survivor experiences are shaped by their cultural contexts, histories and gender-related concerns. We should seek to actively learn and advocate as a partner with survivors. This involves becoming familiar with the survivor’s circumstances and reflecting on our own presuppositions, beliefs and actions to uncover potential biases.

In November 2023, Indigenous women from Intibucá, Honduras participated in a forum organized by IJM and the CDH (Center for Human Development) to discuss the barriers they encounter when pursuing protection and justice.

How can trauma-informed care increase community awareness and criminal justice efforts?

Trauma-informed care profoundly impacts how the community engages with the public justice system. By prioritizing empathy, understanding and empowerment, a trauma-informed approach destigmatizes the sharing of suffering, provides a safety net for victims and enhances the community’s trust in their justice system. As a result, survivors are more likely to engage with law enforcement, prosecutors and support services, leading to increased reporting of crimes, better access to justice and stronger community support for survivors of trauma.

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IJM launched the Global Survivor Network Leadership Council in 2019. Survivor leaders spoke during a panel discussion about the importance of survivor leadership and cast their vision for the GSN.

How does IJM equip public officials to enhance survivor experience of the justice system through trauma-informed care?

Training public justice officials on trauma-informed practices is crucial to ensuring compassionate, effective responses to survivors of trauma within the justice system. By understanding the impact of trauma and adopting supportive approaches, officials can minimize re-traumatization, enhance trust and promote better outcomes for survivors seeking justice and healing.

IJM trains public officials on trauma-informed care and techniques, from training and equipping police on how to conduct trauma-sensitive interviews to educating judges and prosecutors on their role in facilitating a safe, empowering process for survivors.

In addition to protecting survivors, this reduces the probability of vicarious trauma for public officials whose everyday work involves handling traumatized survivors.

Trauma-informed care transforms victims' interactions with police, social workers and trial advocates by fostering trust, empathy and empowerment. Survivors feel supported, validated and more willing to engage with the justice system, leading to improved reporting, better access to support services and increased likelihood of successful legal outcomes.

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The Plurinational Victim Assistance Service (SEPDAVI), inaugurated its first Gesell Chamber in Bolivia in March 2023 with the support of IJM and the UNODC in the framework of the Access to Justice and System Reform Project, financed by the European Union.

*The child in this photo is not a victim of violence.

A tangible example of what training and equipping might look like would be introducing the use of Gessel Chamber* testimony and witness protection boxes. In Uganda, IJM partnered with the national police force to create a model interview space to be used with women and children survivors of violence. The facility is designed to help clients feel safe and comfortable, enhanced by carpeting, restful furnishings and soft lighting. It also contains audio-video equipment, which makes possible effective and trauma-informed gathering of court-worthy evidence from child and adult survivors of sexual assault and other crimes.

Solutions like these help prevent re-traumatization of victims by providing a safe environment in which to share their experiences. This approach ensures survivors' voices are heard while minimizing distress, enhancing their ability to participate effectively in legal proceedings.

Guatemala Judge training

In May 2023, IJM trained 43 judges from the Specialized Court in Femicides and staff of the Comprehensive Care Model for Women Victims of Violence of the Guatemalan Public Ministry on trauma-informed care.

How does IJM implement trauma-informed care?

IJM is a global leader in the release and rehabilitation of abused and trafficked individuals and integrates trauma-informed care into every aspect of its work to empower survivors, transform criminal justice systems and ultimately reduce the incidence of trafficking. Through a holistic approach that prioritizes safety, dignity and empowerment, IJM provides comprehensive services tailored to survivors' unique needs.

One example is the establishment of child-friendly spaces in India's trains. Before this initiative, survivors lacked appropriate support, often facing re-traumatization during rescue operations and legal proceedings. However, after the implementation of trauma-informed practices, survivors now have access to safe environments staffed with trained professionals who offer emotional support, counseling and resources to aid in their recovery journey.

In April 2022, the RPF’s Anti-Human Trafficking Unit (AHTU) inaugurated India’s first-ever child-friendly spaces to protect vulnerable kids at two prominent Bangalore train stations.

Furthermore, IJM collaborates with communities to prevent trafficking and provide long-term support to survivors.

Throughout Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America, IJM partners with local authorities and non-governmental organizations to address vulnerabilities that put individuals at risk of trafficking, while also offering comprehensive aftercare services to survivors.

Trauma-informed care is a hallmark of effective survivor engagement, placing each one on the path to healing and restoration. Building upon more than two decades of working with survivors of human trafficking and violence, IJM serves as a worldwide leader in transforming the entire survivor care and criminal justice systems to better care for and serve victims of violence.

Click here to learn more about IJM’s efforts to end human slavery and trafficking. Together, we can help survivors rise from the ashes and rebuild their lives. Together, we can create a world where every individual is free to live with dignity, freedom and hope.


*A Gesell chamber, named after psychologist Arnold Gesell, is a controlled environment for observing behavior, often used in working with abuse survivors in the criminal justice system. It usually consists of a one-way mirror or hidden room where law-enforcement personnel and advocates can observe witnesses without their awareness, providing a less threatening setting for sharing. It can also be utilized for the identification of perpetrators (“line-ups”) to provide protection and a sense of safety for witnesses.

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