August 17, 2023
In the introduction of this organizational profile, we explored a springboard of concerns regarding the federally funded National Human Trafficking Hotline. One of the most prominent concerns being that there seemed to be a disconnect between law enforcement and vital crime tips in relation to human trafficking. In this section we pivot to a related and troublesome scope: victims having trouble reaching the hotline.
We were connected to some individuals that had personal experiences calling into the hotline. Their experiences are weighed against the resources that are claimed to be allocated towards potential victims and survivors.
The ladies interviewed have been given an alias to protect their identities, and have given us permission to publish their stories.
Jessy Rescues Maria
*Denotes name replacement by alias name
Jessy* is the rescuer of Maria*. Jessy is an active woman of faith. She participates in street outreaches to support and feed the homeless. One day, one of her ministry partners, Jake*, made her aware of a young lady that was known to be in a dire situation of some form of abuse. Jessy went out to talk to the young lady, who had been panhandling at a shopping center, and learned her name by Maria.
Jessy described the state that she found Maria in: her clothes were worn down, she was wearing a tattered wig, she was skinny and malnourished, and even had a busted lip. Jake always made it known to Maria that if she ever needed food, a shower, or any basic necessities, she could reach out to him for help. Jessy spoke into her that day, and encouraged her for a better life by telling her of her worth and God’s plan for her, and Maria was very moved by those encouraging words and cried.
They parted ways for the day, and Jessy went home. That night, Jessy could not stop thinking about Maria’s condition, and how impacted and moved she was the soonest she was encouraged. Jessy felt compelled to outreach again. She had her fiancé drive her back to where she once found Maria, shocked to see Maria panhandling again. Jessy greeted her, gave her some charitable gifts, and offered to buy Maria dinner at a local restaurant. Maria refused the dinner on the account that she was required to stay out to panhandle for money. Confused, Jessy left Maria to do what she felt obligated to do and went home.
Jessy received a phone call from Jake, her ministry outreach partner, that Maria was with Jake and seeking emergency help. It was there where Maria admitted that she was being forced to panhandle by her relative and work for them in his workshop for extensive hours with no pay. She would get physically abused by her relative if she fell asleep from overnight hours in the workshop, or didn’t collect the required quota while panhandling. Jake relayed this to Jessy and she decided to help. After providing Maria with safe temporary shelter Jake was told that Maria’s abuser was searching for her. Jessy knew her priority was to get Maria to safety and find her a living situation as soon as possible. With her fiancé’s agreement, she took Maria in momentarily until something more long-term became opportune. After some time, allowing Maria to recuperate and rest, the search for rehabilitative aid began.
Jessy called the National Human Trafficking Hotline with the intention to receive aid and resources for Maria. Jessy and Maria both waited for a total of 48 minutes. Jessy made the first attempt, and despite the automated call prompt emphasizing large call volumes and wait times, both Jessy and Maria continued to stay on the line with hopes of finding housing. Finally, after 5 minutes, the queue music stopped, and Maria updated Jessy that it appeared they might get in touch with someone. Then the call was abruptly ended. Stunned, the ladies attempted a second time. Again, the prompt was heard, and the ladies are forwarded to a hold once more. This time the call hold lasted about 40 minutes, and once again, when the line appeared to be picked up, the call was terminated again. After nearly an hour of being on hold, they decided that their chances of getting in touch with Polaris were minimal. Instead, they looked for other resources.
The recording is shown below, names and geographically-identifying descriptions have been censored for the safety of the interviewees.
*Denotes name replacement by alias name
Christina* manages a small non-profit dedicated to rescuing trafficking victims in need. Unfortunately, Christina does not receive external funding. The scenarios of her rescues vary, which also means that the resources can vary as well. These critical resources can be anything from food, clothes, shelter, therapy services, etc., and obtaining them is always a challenge.
Her experience exposes her to a wide range of victim circumstances. For example, in one instance, Christina got word of a mother escaping her pimp with her children in tow. She had close to nothing in her organization bank account. The rescued mother and her children needed a safe place to stay and were in dire need of food. Desperate for help and resources, Christina quickly thought to call The National Human Trafficking Hotline as they are promoted offering such services.
Christina called the number… and waited. She continued to wait for someone to answer for 47 minutes. Frustrated, she hung up and tried again, and finally, a live representative answered. Christina’s simple request was to obtain resources that would be locally available to her rescue. What she received next was an email with a few bullet points and three shelters nearby: no coordination, no meal vouchers provided, no mediative communication between resources…just an email to a rescuer in immediate need. While resources in a time of need are appreciated, the nature of this type of response seems incongruent.
Christina had immediate, first-person contact with the trafficking victim. She needed immediate assistance with safety and housing, where time is of the essence.
A scenario like this also provokes a question. Why doesn’t Polaris have a designated line or point of contact for service providers, like Christina?
They are marketed for hope and help.
Service providers are on the front lines caring and rehabilitating survivors from the point of recovery. The hotline is the point of entry for victims as well as counter-trafficking professionals.
Another route presented itself to Christina, when an aftercare acquaintance made mention of the announcement of a new Survivor Resilience Fund, hosted by Polaris.
On May 10th, 2023, Polaris held an event to announce the “Polaris Resilience Fund”, where actress, Ashley Judd, made a speech in support. This is supposed to be a cash-assisted program for survivors, to assist them through recovery.
Right now there is no simple way to apply for this fund. This initiative is not promoted anywhere on their main page. By searching we found some information describing the initiative, but still, no way to actually apply, at the moment we observed.
Christina made one more effort to hopefully receive assistance from this newly announced fund. She was on hold for 40 minutes, until she could not hold on any longer. She tried again another day. After holding for over an hour, she got in contact with a hotline representative. Christina expressed her interest in receiving assistance and was told to send an email to one of their internal contacts. When she wanted more clarification about what the Survivor Resilience Fund process entailed, she recalled that the conversation was cut short.
Counter Trafficking Alliance team was able to obtain 2 contact emails in relation to the Survivor Resilience Fund, when we asked via calling the National Human Trafficking Hotline. As we do actually service aftercare ministries and catalog their needs, we were a perfect use case to inquire on such a scenario.
We sent a simple inquiry email, curious to know the criteria to apply for such a fund. To our disappointment, the message reported immediately “undeliverable”. We tried sending the same email from two separate email servers and received the same result.
The email seem to prompt a “catchall” automatic rejection error, which is accompanied by a response message “A delivery loop was detected which causes this email to be undeliverable.” We tried from two other separate email servers just to receive the same result. This is a grave concern that must be fixed, given the nuance of communication being had with survivors through that address.
Although the hotline directly gave us these two emails to inquire upon the Survivor Resilience Fund, we went ahead and searched for perhaps another contact email that would give us better results. With additional research we found a contact email on the Polaris website, and sent an inquiry with no response as of yet.
Alice and her forgotten daughter
*Denotes name replacement by alias name
Alice* is the mother of Janet*. Alice answers the phone, she is soft spoken and begins to recount her experience. There is pain behind her voice. She prefaces her daughter’s story by explaining that she had no concept or knowledge of what human trafficking even was. She was in a season of worrying for her daughter, Janet. Janet went missing and would spend some time away from her family.
Alice called the National Human Trafficking Hotline and explained her worries for her daughter’s safety at the time, giving them symptoms of her absence. The feedback Alice received from the hotline was that there was nothing that could have been done at the time if Janet would not willingly leave her trafficking situation. But in the case that she did, Alice could call the hotline back on her daughter’s behalf.
Alice made a second contact with the National Human Trafficking hotline about a year later. Janet’s trafficker had transported her through various states and had finally called her mother at a chance that she got away from him. Janet stressed to her mother that if her trafficker found her, he would kill her. Having been transported so often, Janet did not even know where she was when she called her mother. Immediately, Alice advised Janet to go find the nearest person and let them know she needed emergent help. Janet found a security guard and went into safety momentarily. Whilst Janet was being accommodated by the security guard and eventually the police, Alice was on the phone with the National Human Trafficking hotline. Police arrived on the scene and arrested the trafficking suspect. Alice trying to find resources for her daughter through the hotline found herself unsuccessful. The National Human Trafficking Hotline did not have resources for Janet in the area from which she was rescued.
The police questioned Janet for hours into the early morning. Janet was hungry and traumatized. The only thing offered to her during those long hours was a bag of chips. The police took her back to the same motel she was trafficked out of, and later arranged a contact from a homeless shelter to accommodate her. Alice, without any help or assistance, paid out of pocket for Janet’s travel. Janet then got home, thinking she could put this horrible experience behind her. But unexpectedly, her trafficker was bailed out days after his arrest. Shortly after his bail, Janet went missing.
In a panic, Alice called police and explained her daughter being forced to leave against her will. When an officer arrived, Alice explained that he was more-so trying to pacify her at that moment, without any prescribed actions or resolve. Because of this, Alice tried the Human Trafficking Hotline again.
At this point, Alice had called the hotline so often that they recognized her when she called in. Again, she sought help from this dedicated hotline, and they advised her to call back with any known new activity of her daughter. Alice tracked her daughter through Backpage.com (Website has since been seized by the FBI), and would call in her activity as advised to the Human Trafficking Hotline many times. Alice tracked every single movement as she would observe her daughter being featured in various ads day by day, state by state. Other intricate details were given to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, through some communication Alice would have with Janet such as license plate numbers, hotel names, hotel numbers, timestamps, etc.
One day when Alice called in to report more of her daughter’s activity to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, including her daughter’s latest ad on Backpage, she was then advised not to call in any longer. The hotline representative noted that they were turning this information over to the FBI. Frantic, Alice called the FBI to verify if a case opened on her daughter’s behalf. No such case was started, according to the FBI. After checking thoroughly, it seemed to be that the hotline got her to stop calling in. Days later Janet was thought to be murdered by her captors, causing devastation to Alice. All her attempted efforts to save her daughter to be overthrown into an unsolved mystery.
After some time since her daughter’s tragic mystery, Alice decided to start a non-profit herself. Hoping that the hotline may have improved since her previous efforts to help her daughter, Alice tried again with future scenarios of rescue and needed resources. Sadly, Alice was faced with disappointment. She recounts holding for a representative to answer for unreasonably long periods of time.
Ultimately, the final time calling in to the National Human Trafficking Hotline for Alice was in the turn of trying to get a survivor to a safe place out of her state. The survivor was being pursued by her traffickers, so this was a pretty immediate ask. The National Human Trafficking Hotline attempted to place the victim within the same state, in a safe-house that was no longer operational.
To this day, Alice is very confused about the internal operations within Polaris, who owns the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Aside from the many failures and insufficiencies to receive help through the hotline, one of her major concerns is the information she fed them. Where did it all go? How does the information get used or documented? Who obtains access and who else receives this information? Plagued with unanswered questions, Alice copes the loss of her daughter, hoping that a mother never experiences a similar fate.
Curious as to how operations were running internally, we took a look at career websites to see the conversations happening concerning the internal dialog at Polaris jobs.
Off the bat it was not an overall positive outlook. Current and former employees alike echoed multiple common denominators, amongst various ratings, that seemed to illustrate perpetual failures within Polaris’ system of operations. Many repetitive themes consisted of:
Poor leadership, biased promotion, growth limitations, under-staffing, overworking, high turnovers, and low pay.
“This organization should not be able to run the hotline.”June 6, 2022, Glassdoor Review by former Polaris Advocate employee
“I do not see this organization heading in the right direction at all, find a different org if you do not want to have a career that feels like a downward spiral.”
“The hotline is almost like a sweatshop- every call is timed, and every micro-task is monitored and timed by management.
There’s much lipservice to wellbeing and mental health but NOT EVEN CLOSE to enough is systemically done to address the reality of dealing with some of the darkest nightmare situations that exist in the world.”
“Someone please make this make sense. Leadership refuses to give staff raises and hire more people for the hotline. The hotline is functioning below capacity at all times. The CEO does not care and will make false promises all the time. They say that they do not have money to give raises, but it’s not true, they just spend towards other things. And the ones who suffer the most…it’s the victims who are waiting in line for hours and hours to get help and advocates are not able to fully support them. This organization should not be allowed to run the hotline.”
|Position||2019 Salary||2022 Salary|
“This non profit was built to serve survivors. Yet, they can’t even properly train advocates or keep the hotline fully staffed…the reason why this place is not thriving anymore and why their call volume is so high and wait times are long is because there is not enough people.”
“Unfortunately, talented employees are often held back by over-controlling leaders. Leadership is poor with little experience outside of the organization and therefore, lacking direction and real impact.”
“Upper level management is dismissive of hotline employees and their needs. C-Suite level is aloof and very disconnected from hotline staff. Good staff are worked into the ground with very little opportunity for upwards mobility or pay raise, leading to a constant exodus of the highest performers.”
“Polaris prided itself on being innovative and data driven. It never applied this approach to examine and address its own failures. There was no drive to improve employee experience and in turn better serve its mission) decrease huge turnover rate and high burnout.”
“Hotline advocates are disposable. You can spend 3+ years in a role, perfecting your skills, saving lives, enduring secondary trauma and being a top advocate but that does not mean you have value to management. There has always been a disconnect between the hotline staff and those who work in other departments…”
“What advice and training they do give to address these calls are inconsistent, conflicting and at times harmful. The training you receive from management would differ or be ignored by some hotline advocates.”
These are just fractional examples of some grievances either by the industry or by victims needing to reach the hotline for it’s heavily marketed resources. We sit back and wonder, if this is just by our own inquiry, searching for these testimonies for whoever was willing to speak up, how many other testimonies are out there that have gone unnoticed or are fearful to speak up?
Up to this point, we wonder how many victims may have been shorted, or lost due to this convoluted process? How many faced critical situations after trying to escape?
If you or a loved one were disappointed and underwhelmed by the National Human Trafficking Hotline, and you would like to communicate your experience, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Please Note: If you find yourself in an emergent situation, please dial 911!