“Officers Are Doing the Best They Can”: Concerns Around Law Enforcement and Social Service Collaboration in Service Provision to Sex Workersedit
Frontline service providers are often tasked with providing services to criminalized populations, including individuals involved in the sex trade. These providers have been working to transform services to this population, proposing what they believe to be socially just responses in helping individuals in the sex trade transition from “criminals” to a “victims.” While frontline service providers have been advocating for trauma-informed and compassionate responses to working with individuals involved in the sex trade, they regularly temper this work with collaboration with law enforcement, propagating carceral (punishment-oriented) logics in order to “protect” vulnerable clients. This qualitative study, completed in a Midwestern U.S. state, used interviews with 30 frontline service providers who work with individuals in the sex trade to understand service providers’ perceptions around their work with this population, and how this shapes collaborations with law enforcement. Findings reveal that as most frontline service providers assume that individual trauma and drug use are present in the sex trade, these individual characteristics have legitimated paternalistic service responses provided in collaboration with law enforcement. However, a minority of frontline service providers denounce these collaborations as harmful to their clients, revealing that responses to law enforcement are not homogenous across service providers. I conclude by discussing what these law enforcement–social service collaborations mean for the social work profession and provide a discussion of alternative methods to work with individuals in the sex trade.