Even when Marie Martinez Israelite ’00 was studying sociology at Bucknell, she knew she wanted to work on social-justice issues. Now, as the director of victim services at the Human Trafficking Institute, she strives to ensure that survivors of human trafficking are treated with dignity and respect within the criminal-justice system, where victims’ needs have often been secondary to investigation and prosecution. We spoke with Israelite about the value of transforming complex structures like the criminal-justice system to better support victims.

Q: What does your organization do to address the issue of trafficking, and what’s your role?

We focus on helping criminal-justice systems in the developing world build stronger, more effective responses to trafficking. In 2016, there were fewer than 15,000 prosecutions of traffickers worldwide. That’s incredibly low. So we work in specific countries — right now, Belize and Uganda — to build their capacity to recognize and prioritize trafficking, effectively investigate and prosecute cases and ultimately hold traffickers accountable. I help them develop partnerships with service providers and use trauma-informed approaches so we can be more responsive to survivors in all stages of their journey.

Q: How common is human trafficking in the U.S. and abroad?

The problem of human trafficking is enormous. The International Labor Organization estimates that traffickers are exploiting 24.9 million people worldwide, including commercial sexual exploitation and all forms of forced labor. Much of the media focus is on sex trafficking, but the ILO estimates that the majority are trafficked for labor purposes — such as agricultural work, domestic servitude, factory work, construction and work within the hospitality industry. It’s a huge business — the third most profitable illicit business after arms and drug trafficking. And it’s everywhere, including in the United States. The people who are being trafficked here are both U.S. citizens and immigrant victims, and it affects all of our communities — urban, suburban and rural. Those who come from already marginalized populations, people who have experienced childhood trauma or other complex trauma, are particularly vulnerable.

Q: What made you decide to become involved in anti-trafficking work?

I always wanted to do something related to social justice. But it wasn’t until I went to graduate school for a master’s degree in social work, that I had a field practicum working for an agency that serves refugees and political asylees and realized that I wanted to work with immigrant victims of crime. I was lucky enough to take a job with the Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime, where I helped to build the government’s first program to provide services for foreign-born victims of human trafficking in the U.S.

Q: Why is it important to focus specifically on trafficking victims within the criminal-justice system?

Our work is part of a broader effort to transform how the criminal-justice system treats human trafficking victims and improve their experiences when they participate as witnesses. Victims’ testimony is often critical for the successful prosecution of traffickers. But for a long time, criminal-justice agencies didn’t focus on victims’ long-term well-being or ensure victims weren’t being retraumatized during the investigative process. Now there’s been a recognition that they do have that responsibility and that integrating responses to victims doesn’t just improve the outcomes for individual survivors — it also improves the ultimate success of the case.

Q: What does a better response to victims look like?

It’s about recognizing that it takes support and time to work effectively with victims. Victims have a lot of reasons to mistrust and fear law enforcement, and it’s our job to build trust by being reliable, consistent and trauma informed. It’s about moving slowly, if that’s what they need, and asking questions like, “Have you eaten? Have you slept? Would you like to continue this interview at another time?” Giving opportunities for choice and voice are critical because trafficking survivors come from a long-term situation of exploitation and powerlessness. We need to take every opportunity to treat them as partners in the justice process.