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Vicarious Trauma and Turnover Intent in Trafficking Services

Principal Investigator (PI) / Project Lead:

HENDRIX, ELIZABETH (Social Work PhD student)

Funding Organization:

University of Utah Research Foundation


Research Incentive Seed Grant Program – College of Social Work

Award Number:


Project Period:

3/1/2021 – 3/1/2023

Total Funding:


Project Status:



Project Description:

Given the current dearth of knowledge around the experiences of trafficking victim service provider (VSPs), the objective for this proposal is to examine vicarious traumatization (VT) in a sample of VSPs working directly with trafficking victims and a possible intervention.



Human trafficking encompasses labor and commercial sex acts induced by force, fraud, or coercion for someone else’s benefit and is fundamentally an exploitation of people for their bodies and labor. Throughout and in the aftermath of their victimization, survivors of both sex and labor trafficking experience devastating physical and psychological harms resulting from the violence, deception, and psychological coercion used by traffickers to maintain control over victims, as well as the nature of the trafficking victimization.

If identified as trafficking victims and engaged in services (which itself requires significant effort on the part of allied organizations, law enforcement, and victim services), they will likely engage with a victim service provider (VSPs) who will assist in navigating the complexities of multiple systems (e.g. child welfare, criminal justice, and housing authorities), understand critical but sometimes muddy processes (e.g. apply for housing programs or complete immigration paperwork), provide critical tangible resources, and foster a relationship that leads to stability and healing for trafficking survivors.

VSPs are exposed to significant traumatic material, as they empathically engage with trafficking survivors and their narratives. Negative transformation in fundamental beliefs and traumatic stress symptoms as a result of the traumatic exposure is termed vicarious traumatization (VT), and can lead to burnout and turnover among these specialized staff, resulting in disrupted or less efficacious services for survivors and loss of institutional investment and knowledge. To combat this, organizations may develop a trauma-informed climate, which practices safety, trust, choice, collaboration, and empowerment in client- and staff-facing interactions.

This study aims to understand the experiences of vicarious traumatization among human trafficking victim service providers, how it impacts their intent to continue in their roles, and how a trauma-informed climate might influence this path. This lays the groundwork for future development of interventions designed to promote trauma-informed organizational climates as a support for retention of quality staff, first step to understanding and fostering effective helping relationships for victims of trafficking.

The expected outcome of this project is an increased understanding of the impacts of human trafficking work on professionals, and how organizations may foster positive resolution of potentially negative impacts. Additionally, this research could lay the foundation for future waves of longitudinal data on changes in attitude and experience over time, as well as turnover intentions. With this knowledge, we can develop tailored interventions at the individual and organizational level to support retention of quality, specialized trafficking professionals, who can in turn meet the highly complex needs of survivors of trafficking.

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Last Updated: 8/29/23