Public Health Approach

In the past, human trafficking was typically viewed through a criminal justice point of view, which influenced our response to it. A criminal justice response to trafficking provides identified victims with services that are often of short duration and focused on services victims need to be able to become witnesses against their traffickers. While this perspective is important, we now realize that trafficking is also a public health issue that affects individuals, families, and communities across generations. A public health approach complements a criminal justice approach to preventing and ending human trafficking.


What is a public health approach to human trafficking? • Uphold Legal Framework • Victims • More Defined Timeframe • Justice Orientation • Government Based • Punish Traffickers/Recover Victims • Advance Individual/Population Health • Patients/Clients • Long-Term Process • Individual, Family, and Community Orientation • Community Based • Prevent/Treat HarmsAdapted from Chang, K. & Hang, R. (2017). Public health approach to preventing human trafficking…Criminal Justice FrameworkPublic Health & Prevention Framework


By applying a public health approach, NHTTAC aims to:

  • Increase victim identification and help-seeking behavior to connect individuals who have experienced trafficking to trauma-informed services
  • Prevent victimization and re-victimization by targeting assistance to individuals at higher risk of trafficking and strengthening short- and long-term health and well-being needs of survivors
  • Address the root causes that make individuals, families, and communities at risk of trafficking



Essential Services of Public Health

Trafficking is a public health issue that requires a public health approach to prevention and response. Each of the essential public health services as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention intersect with the prevention of, and community response to, human trafficking and other forms of violence prevention. See the list of services below for specific examples:

  • Monitor health status to identify and solve community health problems: An analyst may identify how human trafficking is impacting a specific geographic area, community, or industry with a high concentration of risk factors.
  • Diagnose and investigate health problems and health hazards in the community: A public health clinic may diagnose an STI in a patient experiencing sex trafficking.
  • Inform, educate, and empower people about health issues: A community health worker may promote audience-specific social marketing messages to reduce risk for recruitment into trafficking, increase understanding of the health impact of exploitation, and promote help-seeking behavior.
  • Mobilize community partnerships and action to identify and solve health problems: The health department may convene a group of government agencies, legal services agencies, and community-based organizations to improve a state’s response to labor trafficking.
  • Develop policies and plans that support individual and community health efforts: Maternal health workers may meet with the city council to propose the expansion of housing services for low-income pregnant women.
  • Enforce laws and regulations that protect health and ensure safety: An environmental health inspector assessing food safety practices may observe evidence of workers living in the back of a restaurant.
  • Link people to needed personal health services and assure the provision of health care when otherwise unavailable: A home visiting nurse may connect a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation with mental health services.
  • Assure competent public and personal health care workforce: An emergency preparedness office may receive training on labor and sex trafficking in the context of disaster response. 
  • Evaluate effectiveness, accessibility, and quality of personal and population-based health services: A youth services manager may regularly assess how often case managers are documenting clients’ experiences of co-occurring issues such as interpersonal violence or substance use.
  • Research for new insights and innovative solutions to health problems: A university-based researcher may test and validate a screening tool for human trafficking for use in a child welfare setting.
Public Health Approach Essential Services


Three Levels of Prevention

Public health services intersect with the prevention of trafficking and other forms of violence prevention. Comprehensive efforts to prevent human trafficking include all levels of prevention — primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention.


Primary prevention stops violence before it occurs. Primary prevention strategies include strengthening and creating healthy relationships, reducing risks within the individual’s environment, and increasing buffers to violence.


Secondary prevention provides an immediate response to violence as it occurs. These services include first responses, such as basic services and emergency and medical care that address short-term consequences.


Tertiary prevention activities are long-term responses that occur in the aftermath of violence, such as rehabilitative services (e.g., long-term housing, job training, therapeutic counseling, and other supportive services) that seek to prevent revictimization.

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