A Voice for the Voiceless

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On a quest to help survivors of human trafficking be heard.

The stories form a chilling tableau of terror: sexual assault, beatings, physical restraint, and psychological manipulation.

According to the Switzerland-based International Labour Organization (ILO), human traffickers enslave more than 25 million victims worldwide in forced labor and sexual exploitation. And those who muster the courage to tell their stories are often blamed for circumstances over which they had no control.

Marie Martinez Israelite SW’02 is working for change. As director of victim services for the nonprofit Human Trafficking Institute, Israelite is reaching across international borders to promote new protocols she hopes will ensure that victims won’t have to suffer the further trauma of seeing their experiences casually disregarded. “Getting a victim-centered, trauma-informed approach is about changing hearts and minds,” Israelite says. “Succeeding gradually is the key.”

Based in Fairfax, Virginia, the institute’s mission is “to decimate modern slavery at its source by empowering police and prosecutors to stop traffickers.”

Human trafficking is most common in the developing world. But it exists everywhere, including all 50 US states, as people are forced into working in childcare, domestic service, farming, construction, food, hospitality, and more.

Israelite has worked at the institute since 2018, after stints at the US Department of Homeland Security, where she helped the agency establish its first forensic interviewing program—structured interviews in which detailed information is sought to aid in a criminal investigation. More recently, she did similar work for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

These days, the Human Trafficking Institute is sponsoring—and Israelite is shepherding—projects in Uganda and Belize to help their criminal justice systems better investigate and prosecute trafficking cases. It’s done by connecting law enforcement with nongovernmental organizations which “are often the first [to] come into contact with crime victims.”

Most victims do not report their crimes to police, she’s learned. “The success of cases relies upon really close, effective collaboration among governmental and nongovernmental organizations,” Israelite says. “There’s often reluctance to share information and work closely together. We see that everywhere. Part of my role is to help them scale and improve these relationships.”

In the United States and beyond, “siloed approaches,” in which victim services and the legal community operate in their own spheres, are criticized for inhibiting investigations and prosecutions.

Israelite decided to advocate on behalf of trafficking victims as a student at Penn, at which time she served a practicum with HIAS (founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), an organization that provides legal assistance and psychological counseling to refugees. “I saw the frequency with which immigrants can become victims of a crime, and all of the complexity of the barriers they face in accessing not only immigration relief but services and support that are critical for their recovery from victimization,” she says.

It was 2000 then, and trafficking was only beginning to enter the parlance in the social services sphere, she recalls.

“There was a growing awareness that the systems of help that we had in place in those days weren’t really specialized enough or robust enough to fully meet the needs of survivors of trafficking,” Israelite says. “There was a groundswell of movement in those days, a coalescing of advocates in a lot of different fields—domestic violence, sexual assault, immigrants and refugees, and child protection.”

Israelite also worked as a senior program manager for Fairfax-based ICF, a management consulting company that, in part, considers the role of trafficking in the global economy. There she collaborated with Jessica Kendall C’98, an ICF senior technical specialist who has researched victimization and trauma experienced by children.

“Marie is a leader in the field when it comes to law enforcement and community-based organizations working and partnering with survivors, not only in developing their own plans toward healing and recovery, but also infusing a survivor-informed lens in the development of programs themselves,” Kendall says. “She’s really focused on empowering survivors to find ways to ensure that their voices are heard.”

In court, trafficking victims are regularly asked to recount intimate details of what happened to them, to review physical evidence, and even to revisit the scene of the crime. According to Israelite, research has shown that trauma, by overloading the brain’s limbic function—where memories are stored—can limit and warp a victim’s ability to recount traumatic experiences.

“There are a lot of attempts by defense attorneys to exploit that,” Israelite says. “But neurobiology has contributed to our understanding of trauma and its impact on the brain. We know that trauma affects memory functioning and how memories are contextualized—which is why trauma makes it harder for victims to concentrate, manage their fear responses, and access their sounder judgment. That can be mystifying to the outside world.”

For many trafficking victims, involuntary servitude isn’t their first taste of trauma. The majority, Israelite says, have experienced violence in their childhood and in their countries of origin.

That’s where Israelite wields her influence.

“A skilled investigative team will compile copious, corroborative evidence that doesn’t rely on victim testimony solely,” she says. “A skilled prosecutor will build an understanding of trauma for the jury, and do everything possible to prevent the victim himself or herself to be put on trial, so to speak. Keeping it top of mind is a challenge.”

While the scale of human trafficking can be difficult to reckon with—ILO reports that it is a $32 billion per year global industry—Israelite needs only to look at the faces of those she’s helped to keep up the fight.

“Having the opportunity to learn from and engage with and collaborate with survivors is an inspiration,” she says. “When you connect them with the right support and the right tools that allow them to tap into their strengths, you can really see them thrive and access their inner sources of resilience.”

Andrew Faught

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