How To Recognize Human Trafficking – And What To Do About It

The first thing to know about human trafficking is that its victims don’t fit any one stereotype; in other words, they aren’t always poor women and men from a foreign country or children with a difficult home life – although they could be. The second thing to know is that we can all do more about this terrible crime against humanity than we might think.


Elizabeth Donovan, Director of Legal Clinics and Associate Professor of Law at Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Fla., says all of us can do more to combat the crime of Human Trafficking than we think.

These are the observations of Elizabeth Donovan, Director of Legal Clinics and an Associate Clinical Professor of Law at Ave Maria School of Law, who was a guest on the Jan. 17 episode of  “EWTN Live” ( Donovan, who conducts training sessions and speaks to individuals and groups about how to recognize and combat human trafficking, says she did not begin her legal career intending to become an expert on the subject. In fact, her first job was in the employment and labor group of a large law firm in Detroit.

While there, she began to interact with immigrants as part of her pro bono work. Later, she was hired by the newly formed Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Michigan as their first Director of Career Services and Externship Programs. Today, her focus is on teaching a Human Trafficking Law Clinic, where students represent undocumented survivors of sex & labor trafficking and other forms of violence, cooperate with government and non-government organizations, and engage in community outreach and training.

 How Do You Spot A Victim?

Donovan and Law Students in Detroit

Elizabeth Donovan (third from left) stands outside a government building with students from Ave Maria School of Law. Donovan not only teaches students legal theory but, as the Director of Legal Clinics, she gives students an opportunity to work with real clients, who might not have the resources to hire an attorney.

As Donovan’s work with human trafficking survivors expanded, she began to see that not only did they not fit any one profile, they can be found in all walks of life. For privacy reasons, Donovan can’t discuss her own clients, but she mentions a well-publicized case involving Theresa Flores, a high school student from a religious family living in an affluent suburb, who became a victim of sex trafficking.

Incredibly, it was a boy from Theresa’s own high school who trafficked her. One day, this boy offered to drive Theresa home from school. Instead, they stopped by his house where she was drugged and raped. The rape was photographed. These photographs were used to blackmail her, and the traffickers threatened to kill her family. Teresa was so ashamed and frightened that she told no one for two years. Fortunately, police rescued her from a motel one night and her family discovered what was happening – or who knows where she would be?

“Sometimes it’s about shame,” Donovan said. The trafficker says: “If you don’t want me to reveal these photos, this video, you will do what I say or else. Other times, a young person or a child is coerced by the relationship itself.”

Runaways are frequent targets of psychological coercion. These children are the ones we most often picture as victims. Donovan outlines a typical scenario: A man approaches a girl standing by herself in a bus station. He may say something like: “You’re so beautiful. Are you new in town? I’m on my way to lunch. Can I buy you lunch?”

After lunch, the girl thinks, “This guy really seems to like me. He’s giving me so much attention.” The man asks the young girl if she has a place to stay. If not, he says, she can stay on his couch. She does. He’s “happy to help.”

Donovan students by clinics sign

Ave Maria School of Law students stand outside the building housing the Law School’s clinical programs, which give students hands-on experience. As Director of Legal Clinics, Elizabeth Donovan (not pictured) teaches both a Human Trafficking Clinic and a Mediation Clinic.

Donovan says perhaps they “fall in love” or, at least, the young girl believes she is in love. One day, the man says: “We’re a little tight on cash. If you could just have sex with my friend that might help us out.” The girl may protest, but the man she loves says: “You know, I’ve spent a lot of money on you. It’s just this one time. If you really love me, you will do this.” She does. And then, she is asked to repeat the act again and again. At a certain point, she may say, “Enough!” But at that point, the man may start physically abusing her and threatening her or her family.

“This may involve drugs,” Donovan said. “Perhaps by then she is dependent or addicted to drugs or alcohol. No one has locked her in a room or tied her up. This [kind of psychological abuse] is incredibly powerful with children.”

In fact, it’s so powerful, Donovan says victims often don’t even recognize themselves as such. When confronted about the man’s behavior, they’ll say, “Well, he made a mistake, but he loves me.”

Imagine the impact this story would have if shared with students at a high school assembly.

Donovan says she has seen statistics that put the number of women, men, and children who are victims of human trafficking somewhere between 20 million and 40 million worldwide. She emphasizes the need for better data on labor trafficking, sex trafficking, on all the many forms of trafficking. She shakes her head. “I always say: Let’s take the 20 million. Let’s half it to 10 million; let’s quarter it, or even eighth it. If there is even one person who’s being enslaved either for labor or sex trafficking, that’s enough!”

Poverty, a lack of access to education, and scarce or non-existent employment opportunities are frequently contributing factors, says Donovan, but not always, as the case of Theresa Flores demonstrates.

What You Can Do

Donovan AVMLS Trafficking

An example of the type of outreach anyone can do to help educate a community about the horrors of human trafficking — and what they can do to help!

Although the issue of human trafficking has received increased attention in recent years, in part thanks to Pope Francis’ statements on the subject, the Catholic Church has been focused on this problem for years. Two examples: Members of Talitha Kum, an organization sponsored by the women’s and men’s international unions of superiors general, and consisting of 2,000 consecrated women and men and laity in 77 countries (17 in the U.S.), literally open their doors to victims, Closer to home, Fr. Jeff Bayi of St. John’s Catholic Church in Baton Rouge, LA, founded to help victims in his state. These types of organizations need our support.

In the U.S., President Donald Trump signed legislation last year known as FOSTA SESTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act),, and the U.S. government is making diplomatic efforts to work with other countries on this issue. The U.S. government also has an eye-opening “look beneath the surface” campaign,, in which victims explain the different types of trafficking. But there is more all of us can do.

A friend told Donovan that, at one time, her family stopped at a hotel for the night while en route to a vacation destination. Said the friend: “I saw a man off to the side of the reception desk with a very young girl, who was dressed inappropriately. They weren’t talking. She seemed frightened. Was that trafficking?’”

Donovan Law Students Prayer Cards and Bracelets

As part of “Human Trafficking Awareness Days” at Ave Maria School of Law, students in the Human Trafficking Legal Clinic created the bracelets and prayer cards above. The Law School community was asked to pray and to wear these bracelets to show solidarity with victims and to increase education and awareness of this egregious human rights violation.

While Donovan can’t know for sure, she says this: “When I talk to groups, I say: ‘If you saw someone running down the street with a bag of cash, you would think something was wrong. What you wouldn’t do is say, ‘That’s really odd, but I’m sure there’s a perfectly reasonable explanation so there’s no need to call the police!’ Report it. Then, your job is done.

“Someone may say, ‘I’m just an average person, not law enforcement,’” she continues. “But all you need to do is place a call to local law enforcement or 911 or a national hotline. Law enforcement wants you to call them. You don’t need to do more.” [Note: To access the National Human Trafficking Hotline, call 1-888-373-7888 or text something as simple as “Help!” to 233733. For more information, go to]

Think about it. If the police start getting calls about strange occurrences at a particular hotel, it raises a red flag. An officer could stop by and have a conversation. You will never know the good that call could do.

“Looking beneath the surface” might also mean that you walk by the kitchen door in a restaurant and you see a bunch of sleeping bags on the floor. There could be a reasonable explanation – but it can’t hurt to report it. As Father Mitch Pacwa noted in his “EWTN Live” show with Donovan, it’s important to look for the anomalies. “What’s wrong with this picture?”

In recent years, Donovan said those trying to combat human trafficking now offer training to groups who may encounter victims of labor trafficking and sex trafficking, such as health care professionals, teachers and counselors in school systems, law enforcement, the airlines, and the community groups. Flights attendants and doctors have all told Donovan that they began to look at things differently after being trained.

In addition to helping people “look beneath the surface,” those working to combat human trafficking are increasingly focusing not only on the traffickers who sell women, men, and children for sex, but on those who purchase their “services.” If there were no market, there would be no sex trafficking.

As Donovan says: “All of us need to ask ourselves how we would react if a neighbor said to us: ‘My son just turned 21 and all of his buddies took him to a strip club.’ Do you want to normalize that? Why is it we live in a culture that allows people to be bought and sold, used and discarded. Culture isn’t something that just happens to us!”

Donovan Outreach 3

Ave Maria Associate Clinical Professor of Law Elizabeth Donovan helps students distribute books to children of adult family members who attended “A Day Without Slavery” in Florida’s Immokalee Community Park.

There is actually a lot the average person can do. Donovan rattles off a few ideas: pray not only for victims and survivors, but for the traffickers and the purchasers; mentor at risk youth and young adults; provide translation services at a battered women’s shelter; commit to sharing the information you’ve just been given with three to 25 people; set up a table about trafficking awareness at large public events, such as a marathon, an art fair, or a Christmas market; pay attention to who is making items and who is harvesting produce; purchase fair trade goods; support a charity that works to combat human trafficking; and talk to others about a commercial, television show or movie where people are treated like objects because that creates the culture that makes human trafficking possible.

It’s also important to find out about pending legislation and to advocate for changes in laws and for enforcement of current laws by writing to your representatives. For example, Donovan says “a woman might have a criminal conviction for prostitution, which will burden her as she tries to move forward. Laws that allow those records to be expunged are consistent with the idea of treating the women as victims and not perpetrators.”

Bottom Line? “This is a global problem, but it’s very important to remember that every case begins in a community and every case ends in a community. That’s important because it reminds us that we can make a difference.”

As a wife, mother, and a law school professor, Donovan has a busy life, but she makes time to speak with others about human trafficking. When asked why she does this, Donovan simply says: “Because I know.” She shrugs. “Sometimes, I wish I didn’t. But I do. I know.”

Now, you know too.


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3 Responses to How To Recognize Human Trafficking – And What To Do About It

  1. Carol Goff says:

    God bless you, I have two granddaughters, sophomores in college and I tell their parents to express their concern to the girls about trusting the wrong person. I will pray for this and get bracelets.


  2. Pingback: How To Recognize Human Trafficking – And What To Do About It — Inside EWTN – The Rose Project

  3. heatherjo86 says:

    Thank you for this timely information. It sickens me that this problem is so prevalent all over the world. I have hope that God’s Kingdom will rid this world of the evil people that keep this going (Psalms 36:10,11). With so much greed and disregard for the safety and protection of women I truly believe divine intervention is the only true solution. Thank you for educating me on this issue.

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