Vanessa Bouché, assistant professor of political science, is bridging the gap between academics and law enforcement to stem human trafficking.
By Robyn Ross
The past decade has seen a flurry of activity to fight human trafficking: laws passed, grants awarded, curricula developed and public service announcements made. But do these efforts to combat modern-day slavery actually work?
Vanessa Bouché, assistant professor of political science, is finding out.
When Bouché began researching trafficking in the final years of her doctoral program, she was startled to discover that the academic community had produced very little empirical research on the subject. State laws have criminalized trafficking only in the past 10 years, and social scientists are just beginning to study their effects. Bouché is working to bridge the gap between the academy and the practitioners and ensure that activities to combat trafficking are based on sound science.
“There are lots of assumptions that haven’t actually been empirically proven,” she says. “I think that government agencies are taking a step back and saying, ‘OK, let’s assess how well we’ve been doing these things. We’ve been doing a lot and throwing a lot of money at it, but are we being effective?’”
Bouché is part of three federally funded research projects designed to provide answers. The first is a National Institute of Justice grant comparing state efforts against trafficking and measuring public opinion on the issue. Bouché and colleagues from Northeastern University and Colorado College are interrogating the assumption that a comprehensive law is more effective at combating trafficking. States with “comprehensive” laws have taken steps beyond criminalizing trafficking (as every state but Wyoming has done) like forming task forces on trafficking and requiring that law enforcement officers receive training.
“We’re assuming that the more [states] legislate, the better — without really paying attention to how effective these statutes are,” Bouché explains. “Are prosecutors actually using them? Is law enforcement even aware of them?”
The team is also collecting case records for successful prosecutions of trafficking in all 50 states and examining the types of evidence used in these cases. Trafficking victims generally don’t testify against their traffickers — sometimes because they’ve been threatened, sometimes because their trafficker is also their romantic partner — and Bouché says prosecutors assume that without this testimony, they can’t successfully prosecute. If the data show that successful prosecutions actually don’t require victim testimony, both prosecutors and law enforcement can shift their focus to other types of evidence with a proven track record.
For the third part of the grant, Bouché and her colleagues designed the first detailed survey of American public opinion about human trafficking. Many people confuse trafficking, which is the control of one person by another for economic gain, with human smuggling or illegal immigration. Bouché’s survey evaluates the public’s level of knowledge and concern about human trafficking, and it also includes built-in experiments to assess how framing the issue in different ways influences people’s level of concern.
That aspect of the project led to the team’s second big grant: a USAID-funded public opinion survey about human trafficking in Moldova and Ukraine. In summer 2014, they’ll travel to both countries to oversee the administration of the survey.
In addition, Bouché is also beginning work on a third NIJ-funded project with Michael Bachmann, assistant professor of criminal justice at TCU, and Brittany Bachmann, lecturer in criminal justice. This study examines the presumed link between organized crime and human trafficking.
“Once again, what you find when you look at the literature is that there’s a strong assumption that there is a strong connection, but it’s actually never been empirically examined,” Bouché explains.
Her interest in human trafficking began her junior year at Columbia University when she read a book by Gary Haugen, the founder and president of anti-trafficking agency International Justice Mission. But she didn’t pursue the topic professionally until she had almost completed her PhD and after working as a legislative aide to a Texas state representative and as a threat analyst for the CIA.
Now Bouché has come full circle and introduces TCU students to trafficking through the service-learning course “Human Trafficking in the United States: Public Policy and Political Discourse.” In addition to reading and watching documentaries about trafficking, her students have done site visits and accompanying research on different aspects of anti-trafficking work.
They learned that 80 percent of trafficking is for the purposes of commercial sex — and accompanied undercover Fort Worth police officers on patrol. Students also visited a prostitution probation court in Fort Worth and surveyed women in the program, finding that their average age of entry into prostitution was 16 and that 87 percent had been abused in some way by their parents.
To help prevent future trafficking, Bouché’s students taught an anti-trafficking curriculum to students at a high-risk high school in Fort Worth. Their pre- and post-test results showed significant positive changes in the high-schoolers’ levels of knowledge and concern about trafficking.
And Bouché’s students have had their eyes opened, too. In last fall’s discussion of labor trafficking, supply chains and corporate responsibility, one class member was asking particularly tough questions. The next week, he approached Bouché after class; turns out, he’s a budding entrepreneur whose first product was being manufactured in China. He had started asking his Chinese factory some questions and realized there were “definitely some sketchy practices going on.” He had decided to look more closely at his supply chain and had scheduled a phone meeting with his investor to talk about it.
“You hear people say this all the time, this cliché — ‘these are the next generation of leaders’ — but it’s true,” Bouché says. “He’s an entrepreneur, and he’s now aware of the ways in which he has to be scrutinizing of the labor practices that he’s using. That was extraordinarily gratifying.”
It’s moments like that and meetings with survivors that sustain Bouché through years of research into the worst dimensions of human nature. She’s become close friends with a trafficking survivor who lives in the DFW area and whose story makes Bouché hopeful.
“She’s one of these people for whom there’s no logical reason for her to be who she is today, given her past. When you see the tenacity of the human spirit exhibited in someone like that, you’re just amazed. Other people deserve that, and it’s possible for other people, too.”