Amanda Finger | The Colorado Nonprofit Aimed at Ending Human Trafficking

“My hope is that people turn their sense of urgency into action, because we have a short time on this planet. What is the mark we’re going to make?”

 
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It’s hard to believe that slavery still exists, especially in the “land of the free”. But human trafficking remains a dominant problem in the United States and occurs right under our noses, in our own communities. Through labor and/or sexual exploitation, the $150 billion industry robs individuals of their rights, their dignity, and their humanity.

Amanda Finger took an ardent interest in the issue of human trafficking in college, and began crafting a career around preventing trafficking and providing assistance to victims. She is currently the Executive Director at Colorado’s Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking (LCHT), a Denver-based organization aimed at ending human trafficking. LCHT manages Colorado’s 24/7 Human Trafficking Hotline and has trained over 30,000 first responders and professionals who work with populations vulnerable to human trafficking.

She is tackling an issue riddled with ambiguities and ever-evolving policy, yet Amanda’s resolve to move the needle and her dedication to this work is unparalleled. Below is a sobering but incredibly inspiring Q&A with her.


You’ve called your work in human trafficking an “accidental career.” How did you get involved with this issue?

As an undergraduate student, I really resonated with the early narratives that were published by women who had survived various forms of human trafficking, predominantly sex trafficking, coming out of World War II. Women were testifying before the U.S. Congress about their experiences during the war – specifically regarding the Japanese military forcing women into “comfort women” scenarios. As a student traveling the world, I was in my own space of trying to figure out who I was and how I was going to volunteer and stay updated on related policy changes. I was living in Washington, D.C. when these conversations were happening, so I started volunteering. I then moved to Colorado, where I found myself also wanting to volunteer and that led to a series of choices, which led to my career. But at that point in time, I really thought that it was just an issue that I wanted to learn more about, and about what my generation could do to help, and I set out to be a volunteer without intending to spend my professional life doing this type of work.

Where did volunteering ultimately lead you?

My skills and values landed me at a national organization called Polaris Project. When I moved to Colorado, they asked if I would open a volunteer chapter. It happened to be a serendipitous time in Colorado, when many national efforts were taking root. There were federally funded task forces set up around the country to develop a response to trafficking, and Denver was one of those primary locations. My volunteer work kept looking more and more like a job, so we officially became the Colorado office after a year or so of volunteering. We did a lot of training and education, and then started to do needs-assessments and early research around the issue. We wanted to expand on that research, so in 2010 we separated from Polaris to start our own 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking. We’ve added research as one of our main programs in addition to training and education, as well as a leadership development program and a statewide hotline.

I often assume that human trafficking is a far away, remote problem or that it’s as sensationalized as the movie “Taken”. It seems that there’s a widespread, inaccurate view of the issue, so can you define human trafficking?

When Hollywood brings awareness to an issue, it’s the most sensationalized version of what that issue could look like. We’re constantly up against that. Human trafficking could look like the movie Taken, where someone is kidnapped and drugs are used to control the person’s behavior and they are forced do something against their will. Those are true things.

But broadly, human trafficking is an umbrella term for both sex and labor trafficking. The key words are force, fraud or coercion. That’s what raises the bar to a severe form of exploitation that’s distinctively different from other related crimes like domestic violence, sexual assault, or wage labor violations. You’ve got to be able to prove the force, fraud or coercion component for an individual who was forced into the commercial sex industry against their will (unless they’re a minor). The labor trafficking side is a bit harder to prove, but it is a severe form of exploitation for labor or services, like domestic servitude. It comes down to honing in on whether or not an individual is in control of their own rights and liberties, if they can access those rights, and if they feel they cannot leave a situation or they’re not earning their wages for the work that they’re doing. And we’ve seen that play out in this country, particularly in Colorado.

If trafficking is based on a certain level of manipulation, do individuals know when they’re a victim?

Much of the human trafficking that we know takes place in this country looks very different person to person. There’s not one single profile that rises to the top. In my experience, some individuals know that something isn’t right, but they may not know their legal rights or who they can trust to talk to about their situation. I think people are very aware of their safety, they’re very aware of relational dynamics — and people will do what they can to protect their lives and protect their families. If their families or loved ones or friends are in danger, and a trafficker is using that as a way to control someone, then they’re going to do what the trafficker says because they don’t want their loved ones hurt. So some people certainly are aware of the level of power being imposed.

I think there are also nuances where a relationship may have started, gotten complicated, and then ended as a trafficking relationship. I’ve learned a lot over the years from individuals who talk about how complicated these situations can be. For example, if someone has a baby with their trafficker, that adds a totally different dynamic. I don’t think it’s as black and white as movies portray it to be and I think those are often some misconceptions in the anti-trafficking movement in trying to understand what trafficking looks like.

I’ve heard that trafficking happens because a certain location has a lot of interstates or is a high-volume transportation area. What are other misunderstandings about where trafficking occurs?

I think a lot of misconceptions about human trafficking exist because people still seek concrete proof that it’s happening in their communities. They gravitate to the idea of highways or airports because those are ways in which we facilitate transportation, and those are ways in which trafficking could occur if someone is being transported or flying into the state. But it’s not the reason why trafficking occurs. It’s not the root cause.

Many people automatically associate human trafficking with other crimes like drugs or arms dealing or illegal migration. For example, we often see people confuse trafficking with smuggling. It might still be exploitative, but the difference is that smuggling is a crime against the country’s border because someone didn’t go through the proper paperwork channels or process. Trafficking is more about individual human rights and control over that person’s ability to access their rights. It’s a crime against a unique person. Where smuggling turns into trafficking is if a smuggler decides to charge an exorbitant fee and make someone work off a debt in a certain way. That’s where a person might feel they can’t leave, or their life is in danger if they didn’t do what that person is requiring of them.

There’s also a misconception that there’s always a country border involved, but we know that someone may never have to leave their home or neighborhood to experience a severe form of exploitation. Someone in Denver might think they’re in a healthy relationship, but maybe their partner starts talking about them needing to contribute to the relationship, needing to earn money — and that eventually leads to forced commercial sex work. The individual thinks they’re doing it for love and can’t get out of it — and that’s here in Colorado. It didn’t involve crossing any borders, but that person feels like they can’t leave that situation. And physical violence may be used to keep them there. These examples challenge what we thought human trafficking and severe exploitation to be.

What does LCHT do to help stop trafficking?

First, we have our direct tip and referral hotline which directly connects individuals to resources and takes tips on trafficking. Maybe an individual wants to get out of a situation but doesn’t know where to go, or an individual has fled a situation and needs emergency housing or basic support. Or, perhaps a professional or a counselor is sitting on the other end of that phone with concern for a client. Individuals can call the hotline 24/7 and get resources they need. And, if someone witnesses something suspicious and doesn’t want to directly intervene for their own safety, we encourage them to call. We don’t report all tips to law enforcement and we honor what the caller wants to do with their information. But our goal is to connect people with resources. Last year we had 608 calls, and a third of them were from survivors.

We also have supported over 150 interns — we think it’s extremely important to raise up human rights leaders who will think critically and engage in this work, or take this knowledge into whatever career they choose. We also do a lot of trainings and education, partnering with other groups to deliver healthcare trainings or to the child welfare sector as they build their response to human trafficking in the state. We also have a research program. Many don’t associate that with helping to stop human trafficking, but we look at research from a community-based perspective. We want to see the bigger picture and understand how to take a deeper dive into our challenges so that we can be more efficient and effective in the ways we address trafficking. There are only so many resources and only so much funding, so the goal is to be efficient with those resources.

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What is Colorado Project 2.0 and what were some of your findings?

Colorado Project 2.0 was the second iteration of a research project that looked statewide at our strengths and gaps to comprehensively address human trafficking. We looked at prevention, protection, prosecution, and partnership arenas to understand what groups were doing to address trafficking. Those “4 Ps” are what international frameworks and the federal government say we should include in our response to trafficking. In Colorado, we wanted to think about best or promising practices in prevention of human trafficking, and get a sense for the landscape of efforts here in our state.

Five or six years ago, we took a baseline assessment of efforts towards those 4 Ps. From there, we used one particular survey in focus groups for our first Colorado Project, and then we used that same survey for Colorado Project 2.0 along with more robust focus groups and interviews. We had 183 surveys, 29 focus groups, and 69 interviews. In traveling around our state, we saw that other communities see the problem differently than they do in Denver or Fort Collins. There are differences in thought as to how and why a crime or issue manifests and what resources can address it.

What we found in Colorado Project 2.0 was that there are a lot of great partnerships in the state. There’s a robust response to organizing both citizen-led partnerships, as well as law enforcement and professional task forces and coalitions. We have the Colorado Governor’s Human Trafficking Council, but we also have smaller, grass-roots task forces where people want more awareness of this crime, they want safer communities, they want people to be aware, and they want to help address it. So partnerships is a strength.

One of the gaps we saw was membership. As groups stand up their task forces, one of our recommendations is to develop shared goals and to recruit for diverse membership. I think many groups want to partner with survivors so they can be more informed, but they have a hard time going about doing that. Or there are survivors who participate in task forces but don’t speak up publicly because they’re testing whether or not they want to be a survivor leader, which is a very heavy burden. Some of our other findings were that medical providers need to be more engaged and trained. We know that a lot of individual victims have come through the healthcare system, so that is one need that our respondents really call for in addition to housing.

We also developed an action plan out of Colorado Project 2.0, with 14 individuals who represent different perspectives in the anti-trafficking field, and we’ll be promoting that heavily over the next few years.

One of the things I appreciate about LCHT is that you don’t just present the research, you also provide recommendations for action. What can the average citizen do to help prevent human trafficking?

I think it’s incredibly important to self-reflect and understand your purchasing power. If you think about how many times you go to the grocery store or farmer’s market — you want to find the best deal. We all want our dollars to go as far as they can because they’re hard-earned. Often we’re thinking what we can buy with a dollar, what’s organic, and we’re not thinking about the labor. We’re not thinking about what was ethically produced. If we can bring more awareness to who is farming our fields and growing our food, that’s one way we can start acting.

It’s also important to know what to do if you see something suspicious. If there’s a behavior that’s really concerning, a dynamic that is off and your gut is telling you something is wrong, you should know what to do with that feeling. You should know who to call, whether it’s our hotline or another resource. We ask people to program hotlines into their phones for convenience for that very reason.

Citizens should also be thinking about how we engage with individuals. There’s so much that’s personal about this — how can you donate money or clothing or services or volunteer your time? It’s important to think about how we stand up our societies, how we teach people about healthy relationships, how we build trust with young people, how we try to create less of a fear-based idea of our communities.

What metrics do you look at to judge progress, and how do you know if LCHT is directly impacting those metrics?

There are a lot of internal metrics that we use to think about how many people we’re reaching with our trainings. Our goal with those trainings is awareness to an extent, but really it’s about what happens next. We’re especially interested, for instance, in healthcare trainings; we’ve trained over 1,100 people in the past year. Our goal is not just to infuse more knowledge into the healthcare system for nurses and social workers and physicians, but also to promote protocols. How do hospitals or clinics add to screenings or assessments? If someone sees a red flag in a patient, who do they contact? There have been numerous examples of human trafficking survivors who are identified in a healthcare setting and one of the hardest things to do is to institute protocols in a huge system. So one of our goals is to push some of the metrics related to changing those systems.

We’re also interested in getting our hotline and text line numbers published in public spaces. There’s a public awareness campaign that the Governor’s Human Trafficking Council is developing and we’re hoping to see that roll out in the next year or two, so that more Coloradans have those resources. On our end, we’re trying to track the greatest needs that are coming through the hotline, what tips callers report, where the gaps are in resources. We’ve had calls from two-thirds of the counties in the Colorado and some of those counties are limited with their resources, so trying to track and understand what the closest resources are to give to individuals, and where we might be able to infuse trainings into more rural areas — those are the things we’re interested in tracking.

You mentioned to me that “it’s important to understand what you don’t turn away from.” What does that mean to you and your work?

When I was reading the narratives of women who survived what we now call trafficking, people who published their memoirs and want others to know their experience in the hopes that it doesn’t happen again — I realized that it was very meaningful and I kept thinking about why I continued to focus on those issues and why they resonated so deeply with me.

Many of my peers at the time thought trafficking was too heavy a topic and they didn’t want to talk about it. I came to realize that it’s important to check yourself as to why you’re not turning away. I’m not saying this with any sense of vigilantism; it’s out of a deep, compassionate place. It’s important to know what resonates with your heart and your brain. For me, it’s about how you spend your time on this planet — volunteering or working or doing something to feed your soul or make a difference in your community or combat something or speak up. If you’re consistently turning towards something, and it’s drawing you in — what are you going to do with that sense of urgency? My hope is that people turn their sense of urgency into action, because we have a short time on this planet. What is that mark we’re going to make?

How would you say that you move the needle?

We’re bringing hope to communities and we’re celebrating the hard efforts that people are pouring into addressing human trafficking. But we’re also introducing new, critical ways of thinking about how we can spend our energy in a smarter way and how we might be able to see a bigger picture that is data-driven so we’re not spinning our wheels or making assumptions. If we’re coordinated, we can stay ahead of this crime. So for LCHT, we’re ultimately pushing for a comprehensive and coordinated response to end human trafficking, and we’re celebrate the efforts along the way. That’s how I hope we’re moving the needle.


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ABOUT AMANDA FINGER

Amanda is the Executive Director and co-founder of the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking (LCHT) in Denver, which has focused on anti-trafficking efforts since 2005. She was appointed in 2014 to the Governor’s Colorado Human Trafficking Council and currently chairs the Data & Research Task Force. Her professional background includes teaching human trafficking and women’s health courses at Metropolitan State University of Denver, health advocacy in Washington, DC, Congressional campaign organizing, serving as a Legislative Aide for the Colorado General Assembly, and field research on human trafficking and forced migration in Johannesburg, South Africa. Ms. Finger holds a Master of Arts degree in International Human Rights from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.