Human Trafficking Hotline fails to report tips to law enforcement, state attorneys general say in letter to Congress

The government-funded National Human Trafficking Hotline is failing to report thousands of potential trafficking cases to law enforcement, according to a letter signed by the attorneys general of 36 states, including Florida, which called for a Congressional investigation.

The letter raised alarms that the nation’s most widely distributed tip line for cases of human and sex trafficking is failing to help rescue victims and hampering efforts by law enforcement to find and charge criminals.

Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody was one of the signers of the letter, which was sent to leaders of the U.S. Senate and House by the National Association of Attorneys General.

“It has recently come to our attention that the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which Congress has funded for 15 years, is not reporting tips of adult trafficking to state law enforcement,” except when a victim self-reports and gives explicit permission to pass information to law enforcement, the letter reads.

“Not only do we believe this action contravenes one of Congress’ intended functions of the hotline, but we believe it disrupts the federal-state partnership to end human trafficking and help its victims,” it continues.

The letter comes amidst concerns from advocates that the hotline is a dead-end for trafficking cases, where a tip might not reach police for months, if ever.

The letter cites the hotline’s own data that shows there were 51,073 phone calls, texts, emails and other communications sent in last year. Of those, just 13,277 were submitted by trafficking victims. According to the hotline’s website, “except in situations involving potential abuse of a minor or if we believe a person is in imminent danger, the trafficking hotline will not take action without the consent of the person in the situation.”

In other words, many tips from a third party will not be given to law enforcement, the letter to Congress said.

“Possibly more alarming, some states are reporting that they receive tips from the hotline a month, sometimes two months, after a tip of suspected trafficking is reported to Polaris. If the hotline is not promptly sharing tips with law enforcement, law enforcement cannot act to help victims of trafficking,” the letter said.

Moody said in a press release this week that Polaris, the company responsible for operating the hotline, is failing to report information to law enforcement in a timely manner.

“Polaris is failing to follow this important standard, yet continues to receive large amounts of federal funding,” the statement from Moody said. “I’m urging Congressional leaders to get to the bottom of this, so our law enforcement authorities can be better equipped with the knowledge needed to stop this atrocious crime.” The non-profit Polaris has been operating the hotline since 2007 and is paid about $3.5 million annually.

The hotline’s mission is to “[facilitate] reporting to specialized human trafficking task forces, federal authorities, local law enforcement, and service providers throughout the country,” according to the website of the Department of Health and Human Services, which provides most of the hotline’s funding.

Issues with the National Human Trafficking Hotline have been on the federal government’s radar for some time. HHS told the South Florida Sun Sentinel in January that it had previously commissioned a study of the hotline and that the findings will be released over the next year. The department previously issued a letter touting the successes of the the hotline, including providing about 15,000 tips to local law enforcement.

In response to the alleged shortcomings of the tip line, some states have resorted to developing their own hotlines, including Florida.

“We cannot in good conscience continue to ask the public to share tips about trafficking in their communities if the hotline will not give us, as law enforcement, the opportunity to address those tips,” the letter from the attorneys general said. “It serves no one well to do so, least of all the victims that could be helped by a tip phoned in by a good Samaritan who sees their suffering and tries to do the right thing.”

Chase Sizemore, a spokesperson for Moody, said in an email Wednesday that the attorney general collaborated with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to create a hotline, 1-855-FLA-SAFE, that reports directly to FDLE.

Polaris has said that reporting cases directly to law enforcement without explicit approval from victims would be an overreach. Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch met with Polaris Chief Executive Catherine Chen last summer, according to the letter. During the meeting, Chen explained that Polaris uses a “victim-centered” approach that is supposed to give them more control over what happens in their case. Chen also told Fitch that the hotline would begin focusing more on connecting victims with resources instead of collecting tips, the letter said.

The attorneys general were not impressed by Chen’s proposal.

“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,” the letter read.

Polaris pushed back against the letter from the attorneys general in a statement released Wednesday.

“To serve this mission, the trafficking hotline must have the trust of victims and survivors we serve,” the statement said. “To that end, the trafficking hotline does not report their situations to law enforcement without their consent. Instead, the trafficking hotline works with victims to determine what they need to begin to break free and rebuild their lives,” the statement read.

But not all victims are on Polaris’s side of the argument. Tsvetelina Thompson, a trafficking survivor and advocate in Fort Lauderdale, said that people calling into a hotline are normally doing so because they need immediate help. When a survivor is only able to get away from a trafficker for 10 minutes to make a call for help, they might not be in a position to make a second or third follow-up call.

“A hotline is, you call and you get immediate help. And that’s not the case,” she said. “If you want to be an assistance line for providing information or resources, that’s great. But then don’t call yourself a hotline.”

Clarification: a previous version of this story was amended to clarify that some third-party tips are sent to law enforcement.