Since the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) passed in 2000, awareness of human trafficking in the United States has grown exponentially. The TVPA provided the federal government with a framework for understanding and addressing this public health crisis head-on, spurring the NGO response to trafficking into action. While governmental involvement is crucial to the success of the anti-trafficking movement, much of the progress since 2000 has been achieved through the work of nonprofit organizations, particularly those offering direct services to survivors of human trafficking.
As the crisis of domestic human trafficking has grown in the spotlight in the last few decades, so have the number and variety of organizations seeking to help. However, that growth has historically left programs and organizations without the necessary level of accountability, resources, and quality control to serve survivors with excellence. Many programs are isolated in their own communities from other anti-trafficking organizations, industry resources, and the expertise of survivor leaders. The need for these connections has become increasingly clear in the last ten years, with far too many vulnerable trafficking survivors reporting harmful, damaging, or retraumatizing experiences with anti-trafficking organizations. These organizations are often trying to help and have the best intentions, but without guidance and accountability, it is all too easy to bring harm to the very people they are trying to serve.
Many limitations and barriers exist for an exited survivor in navigating the process of placement in a safe house program in the first place. While restorative care programs exist across the United States, it can be difficult to identify all of the potential programs, evaluate whether their programming will support the survivor’s unique needs, and ensure that the program is trauma-informed, effective, and safe. For survivors with disabilities, complex medical needs, or severe mental health conditions, finding a program that will accept them can be nearly impossible without industry support. Programs may also not be knowledgeable about the cultural needs of survivors, which can add more unfamiliarity, stress, or discomfort to a survivor’s experience in a program.
Safe house programs are vital partners in the anti-trafficking movement and crucial to the healing and long-term freedom of survivors. As powerful as safe house programs can be in combating revictimization and supporting survivors, they can be equally damaging to survivors’ mental, physical, and emotional health. The anti-trafficking industry is at a critical growth point and ensuring that safe house programs are safe, effective, and supportive environments for survivors is key to the overall health and sustainability of the movement.
Therefore, a distinct need exists in the anti-trafficking movement for established standards of care, best practices, and mentorship informed by survivor leaders and experienced industry experts among safe house programs. This kind of oversight, accountability, and support leads to improved outcomes for survivors and more stable, effective safe house programs. The ultimate goal for aftercare in the United States is to prevent re-exploitation and ensure survivors have access to the restorative treatment they need to live healthy, functional lives — but this goal cannot be achieved without sustainable, connected, and trauma-informed safe house programs.
SAFE HOUSE CERTIFICATION
Safe House Project recognized this need and developed Safe House Certification (SHC), an independent evaluation and certification process intended to build relationships with safe house programs, provide them with mentorship and guidance, and evaluate their programming elements against established standards of care to improve survivor outcomes. The ultimate goal of this certification program is to ensure that safe homes for survivors of human trafficking are safe, secure, and supportive environments equipped to meet the unique needs of survivors.
SHC utilizes a comprehensive approach to evaluating programs based on five categories, including organization structure, residential programming and services, governance and executive leadership, financial management, and specialized services. High performance in each of these categories ensures that programs have all the necessary policies, procedures, and programming to operate effectively long-term, incorporate research-based practices for survivor care, ensure all programmatic elements are trauma-informed and survivor-informed, and maintain financial and governance policies that support long-term growth and improvement.
Programs that provide excellent, trauma-informed, and survivor-informed care and maintain sustainable business practices can qualify for one of three certification levels through Safe House Project. The Safe House Certification Board, an independent review board composed of lived experience experts, mental health and medical professionals, financial managers, and direct care experts, reviews the practices and programming of safe house programs and determines their eligibility for certification.
BENEFITS OF CERTIFICATION
Safe House Certification offers benefits to trafficking survivors, safe house programs, and the anti-trafficking movement as a whole. The combination of these benefits strengthens the industry’s response to trafficking and promotes the protection of survivors as they exit exploitation and begin their healing journey.
Benefits for Survivors
For survivors, certification is an invaluable tool for building trust and protecting themselves from further exploitation or abuse. Certified programs come with the recommendations of other survivors and industry experts, which help survivors trust they will be safe, cared for, and supported while in the program. Many survivors find it incredibly challenging to trust other people, especially authority figures, after a trafficking experience, and voluntarily entering into an unknown program with unfamiliar people and practices can be stressful and intimidating. With certified programs, survivors are able to rest easier in the knowledge that other survivors have vetted the program and vouch for its effectiveness and safety.
Safe House Certification also helps facilitate the placement process of survivors into safe house programs. The placement process can be complex depending on the survivor’s age, gender, location, dependents, disabilities, mental health diagnoses, and more. Each of these factors can disqualify a survivor from placement in a specific program, which makes efficient and accurate matches of programs to survivors very difficult. However, the certification process collects information about safe house programs across the country, including their accepted resident demographics, specialized services, and the medical needs they are equipped to care for. When the Safe House Project team receives a call from a survivor seeking services, they are able to search the list of certified programs for the best possible match for that individual survivor. Both survivors and placement team members find Safe House Certification to be a powerful tool in helping survivors find a safe house program that is equipped and ready to help them heal.
One of the focus areas of Safe House Certification is ensuring that programs are prepared to support the physical, mental, emotional, and interpersonal healing of survivors of trafficking. This is a tall order, but without the appropriate training and resources, survivors are much more likely to decide to leave a safe house program prematurely. Survivors who are unable to find placement in a safe home or who leave early are far more likely to be targeted again by traffickers and re-exploited. Because of this, it is critically important for safe house programs to make sure they are able to care for a survivor’s comprehensive needs. Safe House Certification helps programs evaluate where their programming may be lacking in this area and develop high-quality policies and practices. Through the certification process, programs are connected with lived experience experts, experienced direct care providers, social workers, and other industry experts who want to walk alongside them to provide the best possible care to survivors. Programs that complete Safe House Certification are less likely to inadvertently place survivors in triggering situations or retraumatize them and are more likely to see a greater percentage of survivors remain free from exploitation in the future.
Benefits for Safe House Programs
Mentorship and industry resources are among the most beneficial offerings for safe house programs through Safe House Certification. While a significant number of safe houses are founded by survivors, many others are started by well-meaning individuals who learned about the crisis of trafficking in the United States and decided to help. The effects of the trauma that survivors experience can be difficult to navigate for people without experience working with trafficking survivors and it can be very easy to unintentionally hurt or impede a survivor’s healing process. Through mentorship, these individuals can benefit from the expertise of survivor leaders and other industry experts to help them develop and grow as a survivor- and trauma-informed program that serves the complex needs of survivors with excellence. For programs without much experience in the anti-trafficking movement, certification and mentorship can guide them toward practices that are safer, more effective, and more holistic for survivors.
Safe House Certification is valuable for established safe house programs as well as new ones. Mentorship and networking continue to be important practices for established programs, particularly for programs looking to expand their services. Additionally, the process of certification requires programs to have written methods, strategies, and policies, which can help protect them from lawsuits or complaints. Whether a program ever faces a lawsuit or not, having written policies and methods can help programs articulate their strategies and plans for expansion, growth, or development. Experienced programs also benefit from the perspective and accountability provided through Safe House Certification, as the anti-trafficking movement is continually researching and developing best practices and incorporating new, innovative therapeutic methods.
Certified organizations have the added benefit of networking opportunities among other anti-trafficking organizations and donors. Many large funders of safe house programs use certification as a measurement of how effectively a specific program will use its dollars to serve survivors. Safe House Certification often acts as an assurance for donors that a program is recognized by other industry experts as capable, safe, and sustainable. Many programs that complete the certification process are able to build stronger relationships with donors and increase their budgets, enabling them to grow and develop new services for survivors.
Benefits for the Anti-Trafficking Industry
Safe House Certification also brings valuable accountability and relationship-building to the anti-trafficking industry as a whole. Establishing national standards of care and holding direct care programs to those standards builds trust and credibility between anti-trafficking organizations and partners in other industries, such as law enforcement, attorney generals’ offices, non-trafficking-specific service providers, and other governmental organizations.
One unanticipated effect of Safe House Certification for programs is the overall increase in survivors’ willingness to testify against their perpetrators. This increase can be explained by the improvement seen in the relationships between law enforcement officers and trafficking survivors. Survivors who are placed in a certified safe house program are more likely to stabilize quickly, build trust, and begin healing than those in a non-certified program. In triggering or unhealthy programs, survivors are often still living in survival mode and are not capable or ready to add the stress of helping in an investigation to their mental load. Survivors who feel safe, supported, and stable are much more likely to feel willing and able to testify against their trafficker or buyer in court. This is not a small step, since many survivors have traumatic memories involving law enforcement or other authorities.
Additionally, programs that have completed Safe House Certification are more likely to have pre-existing relationships with local law enforcement agencies. These relationships are central to building trust and credibility with local authorities, which often leads to deeper community involvement and partnerships with other local organizations. Safe house programs that are deeply involved in their local communities often have a far greater impact on trafficking prevention and training initiatives. As the anti-trafficking industry works to raise identification rates of survivors and lower revictimization rates, the grassroots work safe house programs accomplish in their communities is invaluable.
Safe House Certification also connects individual safe house programs to hundreds of others across the country, contributing to a growing network of survivor-serving organizations with various core competencies. The healing journey from a trafficking experience is highly individual — a program or curriculum that is effective for one survivor may not work at all for another. With this network of safe house programs, survivors have the opportunity to find a program that is able to meet their needs fully and give them their best aftercare experience. Our network also supports the health of non-trafficking organizations like domestic violence shelters that are not equipped to support trafficking survivors.
Currently, many survivors who are unable to find a safe house program able to meet their needs end up staying indefinitely in other shelters, where they remain highly vulnerable to abuse and revictimization. By building a network of safe house programs in every state, Safe House Certification provides survivors with a far better chance of finding a safe house program that matches them well and reduces their risk of revictimization.
Safe House Certification is a vital component of the anti-trafficking industry’s fight against exploitation and fills a distinct gap in the current national landscape. Establishing standards of care and supporting the growth of the movement is of critical importance to ensuring that survivors of trafficking receive only the best services designed for their complex and individual needs. Safe House Certification provides a clear method for celebrating organizations that are serving survivors with excellence and inspiring others to strive for that same standard, thereby reducing revictimization and protecting survivors nationwide.