August 17, 2023

A trafficked victim narrowly escapes her pimp and begins her desperate search for help. She is alone – she has no friends to turn to, no family to call, and is too frightened to contact local law enforcement. There is no time to pause, and each passing minute is essential to her survival. If she does not act quickly, there is a high chance that someone would recognize her and bring her back to her pimp, who would certainly punish her severely for her escape.

What can she do? Who can she call? Where can she go for immediate help?

The number “1-888-373-7888” is a widely recognized hotline also known as  the National Human Trafficking Hotline, serving as beacon of hope for victims and survivors. This hotline, which is operated by Polaris Project, was laminated to provide assistance, hope, and resources to those directly affected by human trafficking. Polaris established its presence through its close collaboration with government agencies and marketing of its hotline  in settings  such as bathroom stalls at the airport  or local salons through a single message: If in distress, call this number.

Today, one would think that Polaris would be a reliable organization for immediate rescue and resources. However, recent real-life cases that were brought to Counter Trafficking Alliance’s (CTA) attention forced the organization to reevaluate Polaris’ intentions. These testimonies range from actual victims or families of victims who interfaced with the hotline, local organizations who attempted to collaborate with Polaris and reviews from previously employed staff members.  As a result, this report was conceived.

The contents within this report were framed around a single question regarding Polaris Project’s resource and money allocation and how it directly served — or failed to serve — victims and survivors. Counter Trafficking Alliance’s mission is to eradicate all variances of human trafficking, and one of the methods to fulfill that mission is through investigative audits of similar organizations within the industry intended to meet the needs of trafficking victims, and to inform that grade to the public.

With so many other subjects at higher priority by the media, often trafficking survivor voices are muffled and silenced, without being given a platform to collectively speak on. Slight clues have intrigued us at Counter Trafficking Alliance, by being offered some traces of insight that the National Human Trafficking Hotline may not be so helpful as it advertises.

A spokesperson for Pathfinder Shelter, local to South Dakota, commented to news group, Kelo Land, an intriguing detail whilst explaining why they keep their doors open to any victim in need: “…So that if anyone is being trafficked, there’s a local number that you can call, not the national human trafficking hotline because for some survivors that just wasn’t enough for them. Survivors need something local right away that they can get to…”

What exactly could cause an erosion of confidence in a nationally promoted hotline?


Polaris Project was started in 2002 by Derek Ellerman and Katherine Chon shortly before graduating college at Brown University. Upon learning about modern day slavery, it was beckoned upon them to do something about it. They incorporated themselves as Polaris Project, entered an entrepreneurship contest at their college and won second prize at $12,500. Soon after, they packed up a U-Haul and moved to Washington, D.C. to set up shop.

First, we must understand the core of Polaris’ organization: the trafficking hotline. It is the lifeline which Polaris uses to establish its existence. Therefore, it is imperative for the hotline to operate at its most efficient – with trained and adequate staff members, easy access to services, and readily available assistance. If there is an increase in call volume or reports of trafficked victims, it is expected for Polaris to refine its operations to meet the needs of its core subjects.

Polaris describes its hotline in a Hotline Catalyst Program report as a sound framework which was used in similar anti-trafficking hotline programs for Canada and Mexico:

Hotlines are inherently complicated operations – requiring human trafficking, technology, data, advocacy, and policy acumen all working in sync to build a trusted resource that can both reach and serve survivors. When done well, the effect reaches far beyond the work done on individual cases, providing a focal point to catalyze a national anti-trafficking movement across all stakeholder sectors. Polaris’s Hotline Catalyst Program offers specially designed, proven tools, trainings, practices, knowledge and standards related to designing, developing, and operating effective, sustainable, and victim-centered national human trafficking hotlines.

Our methods have been tested and refined over a decade, through operating the world’s premiere national human trafficking hotline in the United States, and we have been instrumental in providing consultation and support to new and existing hotlines in seven countries. Led by a team of Polaris global hotlines experts, Polaris works closely with each country partner to identify ambitious yet realistic goals for their hotline, craft a customized roadmap for getting there, provide guidance on how to adapt these practices to different country contexts, and scope out each step along the way. Our aim is to accelerate a country’s learning curve, avoid any reinvention of the wheel, ensure efficient deployment of resources and ultimately, to achieve maximum impact and to get it right the first time.

“The Hotline Catalyst Program” – Polaris

What is the user journey for the hotline? It is briefly described as the following:

  1. A person (victim, officer, trafficker, family member, etc.) contacts the hotline through one of the available communication methods — phone call, text, email, online report, or web-chat.
  2. An advocate answers the call and may ask specific questions depending on the victims status
  3. The advocate (supposedly) documents the report in a system for further action, if needed.

This alone is the only documentation available to describe the call journey. Polaris lacks transparency into the post-report process after a report is submitted, or if calls are created into cases to then allow follow-up action. Without clarity or direction, victims, and other callers, are left unclear on the expectations and/or outcomes.

It is noted in their 2019 report that the hotline will not contact law enforcement or otherwise take action on behalf of the victim or survivor without the person’s consent. But possible actions if allowed to act include putting together a safety plan, finding an attorney, shelter bed or a trauma counselor, or in some cases, seeking law enforcement intervention.

There does not appear to be a clear workflow of how a call is structured when a user calls in. The world needs reassurance that voices are heard and Polaris will take action to save, protect, and monitor these victims.

2019 Polaris Data Report


“…Since 2007, Polaris has operated the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline, connecting victims and survivors to support and services, and helping communities hold traffickers accountable. Through that work, Polaris has built the largest known dataset on human trafficking in North America. The data and expertise gained from two decades of real-time trafficking cases was intended to influence strategies that hold traffickers accountable, support survivors on their healing journeys and address the vulnerabilities that enable the business of stealing freedom for profit.”

There are some indicators that there may have been some bumps in the road with their mission. Let’s take a look at some springboard concerns that may bring about a national outcry.

A National Outcry

On February 27, 2023 the National Association of Attorneys General wrote a critical letter to congressional leaders, declaring an issue detected with the National Human Trafficking Hotline. The letter drafted was a bipartisan submission on behalf of 36 state and territory attorneys general.

National Association of Attorneys General bipartisan letter to Congressional Leadership

Since 2007, by congress-authorized funding, Polaris has operated the National Human Trafficking Hotline. There is dependency of this hotline, by state, to provide necessary information and tips that could aid arrests of human traffickers, as well as enable victim recovery and rescue.

It was expected that Polaris would forward these tips over law enforcement, but would only do so in cases where adult victims were in limited circumstances.

National Human Trafficking Hotline sign hung up in bathroom stall. In a seeming offer to help it reads, ” Help is just one phone call or text away”.

If you have ever crossed paths with a National Human Trafficking Hotline sign that maybe hangs in bathroom stall, or is hung up in an airport hallway, one would read this sign and immediately think this is a promising offer for rescue, help and/or immediate resources.

National Human Trafficking Hotline sign hung up in airport hallway. In a seeming offer to help it reads, “Help is available. call 888.373.7888”

The usability for this hotline, and its portrayed purpose is crucial for law enforcement’s work.

“Those tips are
crucial to catching criminals, to recovering victims, to uncovering evidence of broader
trafficking operations, and more. Those tips help local and state law enforcement to end trafficking and to help its victims.”, stated the bipartisan letter to congress. Lynn Fitch, Attorney General of Mississippi, met with the CEO of Polaris, Catherine Chen (appointed by Alejandro Mayorkas to the Homeland security Advisory Council) to discuss the infrequency of the hotline reporting adult victim tips to law enforcement.

“This past summer, Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch met with Catherine Chen,
Chief Executive Officer of Polaris, to discuss her concerns about the lack of adult tips
Mississippi was receiving from the Hotline.”

National Association of Attorneys General
National Association of Attorneys General bipartisan letter to Congressional Leadership

As we may interpret, time is of the essence with crime tips, but in the world of combating human trafficking, these types of crime tips could determine the timing of trafficker arrests, and the timing of victim recovery. This is why the immediate relay of this type of information is critical within the timing processes of investigation. Signatories of this attorneys general letter cited that law enforcement would sometimes get human trafficking tips one, maybe two months after the initial tip was reported.

“During last Summer’s meeting, Ms. Chen informed General Fitch that the Hotline was
beginning to transition away from serving as a tipline to concentrate more on connecting
survivors with resources. We cannot stress enough how great a departure this is from our
understanding of the current practices and purposes of the Hotline or how serious a
detriment it will be to our work to stop trafficking and aid its victims.”

National Association of Attorneys General

A sharp pivot from Polaris’ known objectives of servicing victims was discovered. Catherine Chen, CEO of Polaris, by admission to Mississippi’s attorney general gave insight to why there seemed to be deficiencies in Polaris Project’s performance to maintain the promises of their National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Forced to address the issue?

The National Association of Attorneys General issued their letter February 27, 2023. Two days later, on March 1, 2023, Polaris issued a press release in what seems to be an attempt to clarify and “address” the National Human Trafficking Hotline’s role in survivor services.

Polaris Project Press Release

As the CEO of Polaris admitted, “…the Hotline was beginning to transition away from serving as a tipline to concentrate more on connecting survivors with resources.”,–Although this is a strive away from what they initially committed to do as well as what the public interprets their federally-funded services to be. This press release seems to be an attempt to damage control the public’s perception along with other measures that were onset because of this discovery.

In swift timing after this call for transparency was issued regarding the National Human Trafficking Hotline Florida representatives, Laurel Lee (R) and Kathy Castor (D) introduced the National Human Trafficking Hotline Enhancement Act, which would mend the gap between the hotline receiving human trafficking crime tips and obligating them to report them immediately to law enforcement (as the governing body perceived the hotline was operating in the first place).

Catherine Chen explained to The Washington Post that reporting every human trafficking call would hinder the caller’s trust. She suggests that the proposed legislation obligating to do so is “an existential threat.”

“We believe law enforcement has to be part of the solution,” she said. “But this idea that you can mandate that the hotline report every single bit of information whenever it is that law enforcement wants it fundamentally reverses the trust that we’re trying to build with victims and survivors. And they will absolutely stop calling us.”

Catherine Chen, CEO of Polaris – The Washington Post

Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch has since communicated via Twitter that any tips for suspicious activity should be forwarded to her office.

Federal Evaluation

It is worth noting that the Health and Human Services Department’s Office of Planning, Research, & Evaluation (Administration for Children and Families) seems to be closing in on a 7-year evaluation of the National Human Trafficking Hotline. The evaluation would result in describing the National Human Trafficking Hotline’s: activities, procedures, staffing, outcomes for callers, partnerships between service providers and law enforcement, and to elaborate on key performance indicators (KPI’s).

We at Counter Trafficking Alliance eagerly await to see the outcome of this evaluation, should the results publish publicly.

A possible indication that at least one of these metrics does not reflect very well is where Polaris would be obligated to “…also provide time-sensitive tips to appropriate local, state, or federal law enforcement authorities.” Through what we have learned through a bipartisan attorneys general concern submitted to congressional leadership, there seems to be inconsistency with at least that key performance indicator.

These points are only the beginning for us. There are many facets of concern with the hotline that is marketed as the top resource the United States for human trafficking. In this report we will explore areas that we feel need to be addressed. These concerns affect the holistic landscape of the counter-trafficking industry and the victims/survivors they aim to help.