Traffickers throughout US Exploit Cognitively Impaired Individuals

Fortify Security Team
Mar 14, 2021

The FBI assesses labor traffickers throughout the United States almost certainly exploit individuals with cognitive impairments,resulting in increased abuse and victimization. This assessment is made with medium confidence, based on an FBI complaint and victim interview, US DOJ press releases, and open source information from the US Department of State (DOS) and a non-government organization (NGO), each with varying degrees of access and corroboration.

The FBI bases this assessment on the key assumption criminal actors seek to compel individuals whose intellectual, behavioral, or social capacity leads them to be easily deceived and with limited means to communicate offenses against them into providing labor and services against their will. Over the next 12 to 24 months, as a result of social restrictions implemented due to COVID-19, alongside a continued need for labor and services, the FBI assesses criminals likely will increase attempts to exploit individuals with cognitive impairments into forced labor, resulting in increased abuse and victimization. Decreased reporting of concerns of manipulation, abuse, or injury could decrease the likelihood for this assessment.

This assessment is based on reporting indicating criminal actors coerce individuals with cognitive impairments to work long hours with little or no compensation. Criminal actors use force, threats of force, and physical abuse on victims with cognitive impairments to obtain uncompensated labor and services in homes and businesses. Criminal actors employ violence, emotional abuse, and degradation as means to control and punish victims for mistakes.

  • As of July 2020, individuals with special needs and the elderly were among populations more vulnerable to human trafficking.d Among these groups, significant gaps are often present in long-term housing and extended support services, according to a DOS Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons United States Advisory Council on Human Trafficking annual report, addressing federal agencies’ efforts to combat human trafficking. Additionally, in calendar years 2018 and 2019, mental health concerns and unstable housing were among the top risk factors for vulnerability in human trafficking, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s annual data reports from the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
  • In May 2019, a Louisiana couple admitted to forcing a cognitively impaired victim to live in a backyard dog cage and perform housework and yard work in exchange for food and water, according to the DOJ’s Office of Public Affairs. The couple, who are related to the victim, shot the victim with a BB gun, threatened the victim at gunpoint to eat moldy food, and withheld the victim’s monthly Supplemental Security Insurance checks, according to an FBI complaint.
  • In June 2018, a South Carolina restaurant manager admitted to using violence, threats, isolation, and intimidation to coerce an individual with cognitive impairment to work for more than 100 hours a week without pay, according to the DOJ’s Office of Public Affairs. The restaurant manager stated the victim could not leave and threatened he would beat the victim’s brains out, forced the victim to the ground and pressed his foot against the victim’s neck, choked the victim when the victim did not sign a check, used racial epithets and derogatory language, and assaulted the victim when mistakes were made, according to a victim interview with the FBI. Additionally, on one occasion, the restaurant manager dipped metal tongs into hot grease and burned the victim’s neck, according to DOJ reporting as of November, 2019.

Labor trafficking takes many forms. According to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA),e labor trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purposes of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery. Although any person can be a labor trafficking victim, some individuals are more susceptible to labor trafficking than others.

Individuals with cognitive impairments often rely on others to help meet their basic needs and sometimes are unaware they are in an abusive and coercive relationship, resulting in their compelled labor and service. Labor traffickers often pose as caregivers or use their relationships with caregivers to exploit cognitively impaired victims for labor or services. They use isolation, fear, and abuse to compel victims to perform services. Labor traffickers ensure victims have limited access to advocates, police, medical attention, and other services that empower victims or potentially remove victims from their control. Additionally, social distancing restrictions implemented to combat the spread of COVID-19, including reduced physical interactions in public places (for example, restaurants) and fewer occasions for individuals to visit residential settings, leave victims with less opportunity to be seen or reported to authorities for assistance.

This product aligns with previous FBI and USIC assessments about the coercion, mistreatment, and abuse of individuals among vulnerable populations to facilitate force labor. This is the first FBI assessment, however, to specifically address the exploitation of individuals with cognitive impairments for the purposes of forced labor and service.

Analysis of Alternatives
The FBI considered the alternative hypothesis labor traffickers likely target individuals with specific skills and expertise for desired labor in homes and businesses, decreasing the threat of targeting and exploitation solely based on vulnerabilities of cognitively impaired individuals. The FBI discounted this alternative due to law enforcement reporting of criminal actors’ proclivity to take advantage of individuals experiencing hardships, dependency, limited communication abilities, and limited financial and social support. The FBI also discounted this alternative due to open source and law enforcement reporting of labor trafficking activities consistently involving low-skilled, non-specialized tasks. Additional reporting indicating labor traffickers are strategically targeting and exploiting individuals who are financially secure and have strong support networks would increase the likelihood of the alternative hypothesis.

As a result of social restrictions implemented due to COVID-19, coupled with the ever-present demand for labor and services, the FBI assesses labor traffickers likely will increase attempts to exploit individuals with cognitive impairments into forced labor over the next 12 to 24 months, resulting in increased abuse and victimization. Opportunities exist for increased collaboration with other government agencies and NGOs to identify and monitor reports of suspected exploitation of vulnerable individuals. Opportunities also include working with NGOs to increase overall public awareness of labor trafficking activities and the key role of law enforcement to protect victims and mitigate the threat posed by labor traffickers throughout the United States. Additional opportunities exist to liaise with social service and health organizations working closely with cognitively impaired individuals to increase awareness of exploitation into forced labor and indicators of labor trafficking activity. Indicators that may inform the FBI of an increase in labor trafficking activities involving cognitively impaired victims would be an increase in reporting to the National Human Trafficking Hotline noting mental health concerns and cognitive impairments of victims, and increased public awareness campaigns from special needs advocacy groups.

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