A Trafficking Hotline Could Be Forced to Report to Police. Victims May Stop Calling, Advocates Say.

Photo for The Washington Post by Thomas Simonetti
A care bag Alles made.

The first few times she made the call, Aubree Alles hung up without saying a word.

She learned the number for the National Human Trafficking Hotline sometime in the decade she calls “hell” – the years she was sold for sex by a woman who had promised her friendship and a place to stay. From pay phones along the streets of Orlando, Alles punched in the 10 digits posted in airports and rest stops: 888-373-7888.

But when someone answered, she would put the phone back on the receiver, too afraid to speak. It took time to build the trust that eventually kept her on the line, connecting her with shelter, counseling and other support as she escaped and helped prosecute her trafficker.

If what she shared had been passed on to police before she was ready, said Alles, now 43, a mother and an anti-trafficking advocate, “I would not have called at all.”

A bill in the U.S. House may force the federally funded hotline to do just that: provide to law enforcement the information communicated during calls on request. The move would represent a departure from the hotline’s long-standing approach of gaining victims’ consent to contact police, except in cases involving the suspected abuse of a minor or the possibility of imminent danger.

Supporters of the National Human Trafficking Hotline Enhancement Act said the goal is to stop traffickers and help victims by getting more tips to law enforcement.

Reps. Laurel M. Lee (R-Fla.) and Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) sponsored the legislation. In a statement, Lee said that as a former federal prosecutor and judge who handled cases involving human trafficking, she believes all information shared with the hotline must be handed to law enforcement “to help ensure we are working together to fight for victims and stop their abusers.”

“A tip line should refer all information to law enforcement that will help them do their jobs – this is exactly how the National Human Trafficking Hotline is intended to work, as authorized by Congress,” she said.

Representatives for Castor and Lee did not respond to interview requests. Emailed questions also went unanswered.

Washington Post photo by Ricky Carioti
Rep. Laurel M. Lee (R-Fla.) leads the Pledge of Allegiance before a House Judiciary Committee meeting in May.

The change the congresswomen are advocating appears to differ from the victim-centered model mandated by the federal agency that funds the hotline, the Department of Health and Human Services. In grant application materials from 2020, the department stressed that the hotline “must defer to the individual seeking assistance on if, and when, to report their case to law enforcement, unless required to do otherwise by state-mandated child welfare reporting requirements.”

HHS did not respond to a request for comment sent in late June.

The potential change has sent shock waves through the community of survivors, advocates and experts working to stop trafficking. The National Survivor Network decried the concept as “detrimental to the very survivors” it is meant to help. And leaders at Polaris, the D.C.-based nonprofit that operates the hotline, described the bill as an existential threat. CEO Catherine Chen said that while she understands that those behind the effort share her organization’s goal of fighting trafficking, the outcome would be chilling.

“We believe law enforcement has to be part of the solution,” she said. “But this idea that you can mandate that the hotline report every single bit of information whenever it is that law enforcement wants it fundamentally reverses the trust that we’re trying to build with victims and survivors. And they will absolutely stop calling us.”

The 24/7 hotline has its roots in a landmark 2000 federal law recognizing human trafficking as a crime. Its mission is twofold: to connect people being forced into commercial sex or labor with services, and to notify police of tips about potential trafficking “as requested or required by law” within 24 hours, according to grant application materials.

Polaris has run the service since 2007 and receives $3.5 million per year from the federal government.

HHS describes the hotline as “a critical part of the nationwide anti-trafficking response.” Federal law ensures that the 10-digit phone number is shared widely across the United States, requiring it be posted in all federal buildings, at every port of entry, and inside the restrooms of airports, bus stations and train stations.

One such poster shows a person sitting with their arms wrapped around their legs, their head down. In English and Spanish, it asks: “Are you safe? Need freedom?” Survivors hand the number to potential victims they encounter and include it in presentations they give.

Criticism of the hotline sprang up in February, when the National Association of Attorneys General sent congressional leaders a letter expressing concerns over its reporting policies. The letter, signed by a bipartisan coalition of the top law enforcement officers in 36 states, urged Congress to require that Polaris change its policies and forward more tips to law enforcement. It described hotline information as “crucial to catching criminals, to recovering victims, to uncovering evidence of broader trafficking operations, and more.”

The signatories noted that some states had reported receiving tips a month after they came into the hotline – a lag that they said could hinder law enforcement efforts to help.

The office of Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch (R), who led the letter-writing campaign alongside Delaware Attorney General Kathleen Jennings (D), told The Washington Post that a case from late 2021 drew attention to the issue. A man called the hotline after hearing from an out-of-state friend who needed help; the hotline said it couldn’t do anything, a Fitch staffer said.

Fitch’s office was alarmed to learn that many third-party tips about adult trafficking are not referred to police. In testimony before a congressional committee, the attorney general said, “Law enforcement should have the exclusive right to determine whether a tip is legitimate, reliable and actionable.”

A representative from her office said that right does not include calls from victims who don’t want police involvement, and that while Fitch’s office appreciates the interest of members of Congress, it would have written the bill differently. Mat Marshall, a spokesman for Jennings, said that “our consistent position” is that calls from victims themselves should only be passed to law enforcement with the victim’s consent.

Polaris officials worry that is exactly what would happen.

In interviews with The Post, they acknowledged delays in sharing information from emails and webchats, which are meant for nonurgent communications, during a three-month period of staffing shortages in 2022. But they pushed back on other criticism.

They described the hotline’s policy of obtaining a victim’s consent to involve law enforcement as being consistent with the person-centered approach embraced by the federal government in trafficking cases. The idea is to focus on a victim’s well-being and minimize the retraumatization that can come with being involved in the criminal justice system. It calls for empowering victims, recognizing their autonomy as crucial after a trafficker has denied them control of their lives.

The National Sexual Assault Hotline operates similarly, keeping calls from adult victims confidential and letting them decide whether to involve police.

“Just about every adult knows that 911 exists, so if they make the choice not to take that route, you have to respect their decision,” said Scott Berkowitz, founder and president of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, which runs the hotline.

In a letter urging congressional leaders to oppose the bill, he wrote that other national hotlines could be affected by the change, damaging the trust they have built.

Lara Powers, who answered phones for the National Human Trafficking Hotline for about a year, remembered many calls starting the same way: “The first thing the person asks is, ‘Are you law enforcement? Are you connected to law enforcement?'”

Sometimes a caller would spend an entire conversation “feeling out if they can trust you or not,” she said.

“That process of trust-building – it’s essential for the entire response to work, because survivors often don’t trust these systems that are built to serve them,” said Powers, who went on to become a director of the hotline and now works on anti-trafficking initiatives at the nonprofit Humanity United.

Fear of law enforcement runs high among human-trafficking victims. Many have been conditioned by their traffickers to distrust police or believe that they will face arrest themselves. Others are undocumented. Some have had negative experiences with the justice system.

That was true for Alles. She met her trafficker at 18, while jailed for taking a joyride in her mother’s car. The woman befriended her and gave her a place to live, she said, eventually coercing her into performing sex acts. While being trafficked from 2002 to 2012, she was arrested repeatedly and convicted 23 times of prostitution and petty crimes committed while she was being exploited. Her experience with the police, she said, “was nothing positive back then.”

She ultimately mustered up enough trust that she agreed to testify against her trafficker. “I just decided it was going to save other Aubrees from having to live what I lived,” Alles said.

But it took more than one call to get there. On average, hotline officials said, someone trying to get out of a trafficking situation will contact the hotline between three and six times.

“If we were required to hand over everything,” Chen said, “calls two through six would never happen.”

The hotline received more than 50,000 calls, text messages, emails and online chats in 2021, according to Polaris data, and it identified 10,360 unique cases of potential human trafficking. It referred about a third of those to police, Chen said.

Hotline staff members are trained to determine whether a third-party tip is reportable. The key: context and proximity.

“You have to be kind of close to the situation and you have to know a little bit about what you’re seeing for us to really be able to be helpful,” said Caren Benjamin, who was a spokeswoman for Polaris when reached by The Post in mid-May. “We get a lot of other situations in which those things don’t exist.”

In 2020, when social media users connected $9,999 pillows with outdated missing-children posters and falsely said the furniture company Wayfair was selling children, the hotline was flooded with calls. There was no truth to the accusation, yet the hotline was so overwhelmed that real victims struggled to get through. That was typical whenever a claim went viral, Powers said. People are trying to help, she said, but they’re “looking for the wrong thing.”

In the United States, most human trafficking cases don’t involve kidnapping. Victims usually know their traffickers, who exploit their vulnerabilities to coerce them into commercial sex or labor; they may not even realize they’re being trafficked. A typical situation: A stranger offers a runaway teen a home and a “different” way of pitching in. A seemingly perfect boyfriend tells his girlfriend to be “nice” to his friends just this once, then demands it again and again.

The National Survivor Network argued that because of confusion about what trafficking is, involving law enforcement in every third-party report would be problematic, potentially leading to law enforcement involvement where none is needed.

“It benefits actual survivors when the hotline does not report fraudulent or sensationalized calls, and benefits law enforcement when valuable anti-trafficking resources are not wasted,” the group said in its letter to congressional leaders.

The bill has picked up five more co-sponsors, all Republicans, since its introduction in April. It was referred to the House Judiciary Committee and has not advanced since. Separately, Fitch and Jennings testified before a Senate committee, calling for changes to Polaris’s reporting policies and applauding the bill.

The efforts have created anxiety in anti-trafficking circles. Survivors questioned whether the attorneys general or congressional supporters had consulted with anyone who has experienced trafficking.

Kristin Vaughn, a survivor and advocate in Virginia, has called the hotline several times for victims. If the bill goes through, she won’t call or share the number again. She’s furious about what the change would mean for victims and has been advocating against it to anyone who will listen.

“When we were trafficked, our choice, our voice, our hopes and our dreams and our desires were all taken away,” said Vaughn, 42. “Once we get services, once we get better, we get it back. And guess what the AGs just did? They took it all away again. Or they’re trying to.”

Alles, who still lives in the Orlando area, regularly drives the streets where she was once trafficked, looking for people who may be trapped in similar situations. She hands out paper bags filled with water, snacks and phone numbers. Handwritten on the bags are the words “You matter.”

Her heart dropped when she first heard about the legislation. When she was being trafficked years ago, she couldn’t have imagined her life now.

Where would she be if she had been too scared to call?

“I would like to think that at some point I would have found another way to heal or another way out,” she said. “But I don’t know.”