Social Work Professor Uses Research to Give Sex Trafficking Survivors a Voice


Mary Twis


Mary Twis, assistant professor and graduate program director in social work in the Harris College of Nursing & Health Sciences, is a veteran social worker who studies domestic minor sex trafficking and commercial exploitation of children. Below she shares insights about the impact of her new methodology for interviewing survivors, her current research, trafficking prevention measures and what’s exciting about the incoming generation of social workers.

Sex trafficking has risen to the social consciousness in recent years. Where do you think we can make the biggest impact?

MT: Most of what the field focuses on is what public health might term “tertiary prevention.” This is very important, of course, because it’s about intervening with people who are already impacted by sex trafficking and preventing secondary victimizations, re-trafficking and other negative consequences that sex trafficking survivors are more at risk for experiencing than the general population. But we must do more to prevent sex trafficking in the first place. And when I look at the vulnerabilities that make people more likely to experience sex trafficking — most of which are highly associated with poverty — meaningful primary or even secondary prevention would look like investing more in programs and policies that prevent poverty in the first place. On this, we as a society are not doing enough.

You created a new methodology for interviewing survivors. How is that a game changer?

MT: If you look around at the agencies that provide services to trafficking survivors, many are staffed by individuals who have never survived trafficking and do not hail from communities that have disproportionate rates of sex trafficking victimization. While it’s important to involve all community members in prevention efforts, no matter where they are from, I am very concerned by the lack of representation of actual survivors within agencies that make the decisions about how services and prevention efforts ought to look. Methodologies that focus on the survivor voice and lived experience are likely to center their voices more within the anti-trafficking movement. We will only make a meaningful difference to the extent that we are willing to actually hear from the people affected — as we say in social work, “nothing about us without us.”

What has been your biggest takeaway from the research you’ve conducted so far?

MT: There’s a lot, so it’s hard to summarize it in a sound bite. I think the most important takeaway, as it relates to what I’ve already discussed, is that survivors believe that current services (i.e., tertiary prevention efforts) are far too short term and limited in scope to make an effective dent in the number of barriers that they face when trying to exit trafficking. Services need to be two-plus years, and they need to be designed to provide holistic, wraparound care for survivors who present for services with complex needs. Efforts that fall short of this model are far less likely to materially improve the lives of survivors in measurable ways.

Do you have any updates on past research projects?

MT: I’m currently doing the analysis for a longitudinal study of child sex trafficking survivors receiving services post-recovery. While I am still in the process of analysis, some of the results that are coming back confirm what I’ve already mentioned. Of the survivors identified in this sample, a vast majority identify as members of a minority racial group, such as Black/African American, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian or biracial. Most have experienced more than one type of violence victimization. And, from preliminary analyses, it looks like they do better on measurable outcomes when they receive services over an extended period of time.

What research do you currently have in the works?

MT: I’m working on a secondary data analysis of 48,000 case files of children/youth who have been screened for trafficking, in order to explore social and build environmental data that may be predictive of communities that are more likely to experience disproportionately high rates of trafficking. I’m also working on a brand new project focused on developing artificial intelligence/machine learning capabilities to detect trafficking and child sexual exploitation on the dark web.

As a professor, what are you most excited about with the next generation of social workers?

MT: They are social justice focused, committed to diversity, equity and inclusion and passionate about addressing prejudice and discrimination. Back when I was in school, we talked a lot about cultural competence, which is really an outdated way of thinking about diversity and inclusion. Students today are committed to anti-racist practice and to looking at the world with a critical lens. This is very exciting.