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Kristen French Child Advocacy Centre Niagara

Understanding Victim Mindset &
the Stages of Change Model


When speaking about Human Trafficking, and how one may exit “the game” it’s important to talk about their mindset as a victim of Human Trafficking. The reason behind this, is due in part to the amount of power and control a trafficker exerts to his/her victims, can create barriers to victim self-identification. If a victim cannot self-identify and/or see they are in a trafficking situation, exiting can be difficult.

Below we will talk about how a trafficker exerts power and control & how these can reinforce the barriers victims of Human Trafficking face in self-identification.

Power & Control Tactics

Traffickers exert power and control in a variety of forms, some of which are more excessive than others, based on the trafficking situation the victim is in. Some tactics are subtle, but powerful such as isolation from friends, family and loved ones to extreme forms such as physical and sexual abuse.

The power and control dynamic can be very complex to maneuver, especially when traffickers have developed and manipulated intimate relationships with their victims.

For example, by using the “Romeo/Juliet Effect” as a recruitment tactic, the trafficker poses as a boy/girlfriend and begins the process of manipulating intimate relationships.

This manipulation of interpersonal dynamics can create complex psychological and emotional barriers.

To understand some of the common power and control tactics used, we can refer to the Human Trafficking Power & Control Wheel, which was adapted from the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project’s Duluth Model.

This model includes multiple types of fraud, force and coercion which is needed to be classified as Human Trafficking (for more information on defining Human Trafficking click here) that make trafficking victims perceive a bond with the trafficker.

When looking at the diagram above we can see that there are some tactics that are more excessive than others. Based on the specific vulnerabilities of the traffickers victims (i.e. the need for love and affection) he/she will individualize their control tactics based on those vulnerabilities. This is why we cannot say that only one specific population of people are trafficked, as anyone can fall victim to recruitment tactics, but there are populations of people who are more at-risk (for more information on who are the victims click here).

Barriers to Self-Identification

As identified above, we see that traffickers exert power and control in numerous different forms and severity’s, which in turn creates barriers to victim self-identification and access to resources.These barriers can be individualsocial, and environmental.

Individual Barriers — the victim might fear threats of violence or reprisals against loved ones, or be in debt to their trafficker.

Social Barriers — prevailing attitudes towards individuals engaged in commercial sexual exploitation may cause victims to fear how they will be treated by authority figures. This fear and distrust may be reinforced by lies from the trafficker or individual experiences.

Environmental Barriers — a lack of economic choices leave victims susceptible to false promises of security or a better life and vulnerable to document confiscation and threats of deportation.

Additional barriers to victim self-identification include coming to see the abuse as normal or trauma bonding, which is actually a coping mechanism for surviving incredibly abusive and traumatic situations. Victims who have formed a trauma bond with their trafficker will often deny that violence or threats of violence are occurring, rationalize violence, believe that they have some control over the abuse (i.e. seeing the trafficker as the “good guy”, seeing the world from their trafficker’s perspective or knowing how to keep the trafficker happy).

Overall, victims of human trafficking develop complex coping mechanisms for survival that can become barriers to seeking assistance and/or victim self-identification.

Exploring the Stages of Change Model

Stages of Change ModelThe Stages of Change Model depict the dynamic process trafficking victims experiences as they begin to self-identify as victims or prepare to leave “the game”.

The Stages of Change Model has 6 phases, which are all part of the complex process as victims in the change process can move throughout the model in any order or sequence. Victims can enter or complete stages once or multiple times before a stable behaviour or situation is established, because victims do not follow a set sequence order, change is described as being cyclical.


Pre-Contemplation Stage
Pre-Contemplation Stage

In this stage victims of human trafficking have yet to begin the change process, as victims may not self-identify as a victim, they may be defensive and more than likely refuse services if offered. Victims may reach out to service providers with housing, health, financial or legal requests, but will indicate they only need help with the immediate needs and nothing else is needed.

Victims may identify their trafficker/controller as an intimate partner and/or a family member and deny any exploitation. Victims of Commercial Sexual Exploitation (CSE) may admit to commercial sex, but deny elements of coercion, force or fraud which are the three essential elements in human trafficking. Victims of labour trafficking from another country may not identify as a victim of exploitation due to lack of awareness of their rights. Victims identified by law enforcement might deny any victimization and may even state they are willing to engage in labour or CSE.

Contemplation Stage

Contemplation Stage
Victims of human trafficking reach this stage when they have decided that the situation/behaviour is one they want to change. This stage is usually triggered by an event that causes them to doubt their safety, security and/or relationship.

The triggering event can include:

  • Physical or sexual assault
  • Pregnancy
  • Abandonment
  • Injury
  • An incident of mistreatment or discrimination
  • An arrest

Victims will begin to weigh the negatives and positives and start exploring the options of remaining in the situation or changing their behaviour. The victims may be unsure about decisions, but are open to the idea of change and begin to spend time thinking about and maybe talking about their situations. By weighing the negatives and positives, victims are able to see some of the negatives in their relationship/situation, but are still ambivalent or fearful of the challenges and the negative ramifications of change that can arise.

Preparation Stage

Preparation Stage
In this stage victims have made the decision about changing something and are planning and preparing to take action in making that change. Victims begin exploring options and focusing their thinking on what leaving will mean to them, what it will involve, whom they can rely on, etc. This stage could be quick for some, or they could involve a lot of thought and personal reflection.

Victims in this stage are encouraged to think about long-term and short-term goals, the steps necessary to prepare and plans for dealing with potential negative outcomes. Creating a plan for safety, by reaching out to family/friends, shelter options, legal advocate, counselling, reporting, etc.

Action Stage

Action Stage
In this stage, the plan gets carried out that the victim has created in an effort to change their situation. This can consist of one small step, or a slow transition out of the trafficking situation, likely focusing on the intervention plan they have out in place.

This can include:

  • Enrolling in a treatment centre, or make a report to law enforcement
  • Cut off ties with other individuals in the situation, change contact information or relocate

Taking this step can be very difficult for victims as this stage can feel too stable for them, as well as victims remain fearful of, or loyal to their traffickers. At the same time, some victims can be happy or relieved after leaving the situation.

Relapse Stage

Relapse Stage
Victims reach this stage when certain situations cause the victim to fall back into the trafficking situation or back into any stage of the change model. This is where we see the change model being cyclical as described above, victims can enter and exit any stage at any point in time throughout this process. Relapsing is a very real and natural part of the change process and it is not realistic to assume that trafficking victims will begin the change process and easily progress to stable behaviour.

Relapse can happen for multiple reasons, including:

  • Leaving from a therapeutic program
  • Questioning the decision to leave
  • Experiencing serious doubt about the current situation and needing a new support plan
  • Perceives some benefit or returning to the trafficking situation
  • Victims can still feel loyal, feel uncomfortable or feel unsure of their ability to cope with this new life
  • Can also feel that the outcome of the plans and actions taken are not congruent with what was expected

Maintenance & Stable Behaviour Stage

Maintenance & Stable Behaviour Stage
In this stage victims can enter stable behaviour or can remain in the Maintenance Stage for a length of time, and can relapse. Relapse can happen, by either entering a previous stage or back into the “game”. Traffickers are very manipulative, using a variety of methods to bring and maintain individuals under their physical and emotional control. Once action has been taken and the victim leaves the trafficking situation they enter the Maintenance Stage, where they can relapse back into the situation or to any of the other stages, or move into stable behaviour and lasting change.

Victims turn into survivors and are able to avoid responding to triggers that used to overwhelm their coping mechanisms. This stage could manifest in diverse ways, depending on the individual, the survivor can maintain a new job, fully engage with a support network, can be working through trauma, living independently and/or developing new & healthy relationships.

Eventually survivors may fully exit the stages of change and enter Stable Behaviour, but this can happen at different lengths of time based on the survivor and their needs.

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