The Center for Victims of Torture: ADVOCATING FOR CHANGE

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Last updated: July 19, 2023

CVT was founded in 1985 as a nongovernmental organization after the governor of Minnesota, Rudy Perpich, Jr., assembled a committee to recommend initiatives that would make a difference for human rights. The committee proposed creation of the United States’ first center for rehabilitative care for survivors of torture. The Center for Victims of Torture opened in St. Paul, with one counselor. Over the years, we grew geographically and programmatically, today offering culturally-competent and interdisciplinary care to survivors, along with initiatives to end torture, enhance the skills and resilience of human rights defenders and organizations, and to facilitate justice for survivors.

Great progress has been made in that time. Since CVT began our work, the United States ratified the Convention against Torture, passed the Torture Victims Relief Act, and filed a presidential executive order banning torture. In addition, tens of thousands of survivors found care and began rebuilding their lives after torture.

Building a movement of healing and justice requires a spirit of innovation and proven effectiveness. Measuring the progress of survivors is embedded into the therapeutic process of every CVT healing initiative. We evaluate and measure the impact of our clinical programs with torture survivors, and share that research with other practitioners to advance the sector’s ability to heal and change. We move the humanitarian sector forward by increasing professional understanding of trauma-informed, culturally-responsive care.

Healing and Research
The wounds of torture run deep into a victim’s psyche, body and spirit. Even the most resilient survivor can find the healing journey slow. When clinical assessments are embedded into the therapeutic process, the therapist and the survivor are able to assess progress holistically. Rather than focusing on one symptom or set of issues, therapy can address the survivor’s physical and mental health, their social well-being and their ability to function on a daily basis.

Assessing Progress
Over the years, we have developed clinical assessment tools to gather information that allows us to evaluate the progress of individual survivors (“tools” meaning the ways we collect information from torture survivors).


As a candidate, President Joe Biden pledged to “finish the work of building a fair and humane immigration system—restoring the progress Trump has cruelly undone and taking it further.” More specifically, he promised to “reassert America’s commitment to asylum seekers and refugees,” including by ensuring migrants’ dignity and “their legal right to seek asylum.”

An important step toward fulfilling those commitments is for the Biden / Harris administration to design and build a trauma-informed asylum system.

Exposure to traumatic events and experiences – in the countries from which refugees and asylum seekers flee or along their migration journey – is prevalent among those populations and has profound impacts, both directly on survivors and indirectly on those who engage with them in a professional capacity. In order to maximize the asylum system’s fairness, accuracy, and efficiency, and to minimize harm to those who access or work within it, the system must be structured to account for and appropriately address trauma.

Reversing the Trump administration’s myriad punitive and cruel asylum-related rules, policies, and practices is necessary to achieving that goal, but it is not sufficient. A system that is trauma-informed “realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery; recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system; and responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures and practices, and seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.”

As the Biden / Harris administration begins the hard work of transforming the nation’s immigration system broadly, and its humanitarian protection components specifically, CVT recommends prioritizing the following five actions. For more details, read CVT’s report here.


  • Provide initial and ongoing training to all government personnel who regularly engage with asylum seekers on: recognizing signs of trauma exposure; understanding common behaviors of people exposed to trauma; and, sensitive or trauma-informed principles for interacting.
    All government personnel who regularly engage with asylum seekers should receive basic training on the psychological and physical effects of torture and other traumas, and on how to engage with trauma survivors in a non-adversarial manner. Such training should be tailored depending on the recipient’s role in the system—for example, whether the person is law enforcement, serves an adjudicatory function, is charged with collecting information, or has medical responsibilities. The training should include how to ask questions in a non-interrogative manner; incorporating boundaries, transparency and choice; and allowing for breaks as needed.
  • Provide secondary trauma and resilience training and support, initially and at regular intervals, to all government personnel who routinely engage with asylum seekers.
    Indirect exposure to trauma can have harmful health consequences to the individual and lead to occupational hazards such as prejudicing asylum seekers’ claims and high staff turnover. Secondary trauma and resilience training and support need to be expanded and emphasized for all government personnel who regularly engage with asylum seekers, including but not limited to asylum officers, Customs and Border Protection officers, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, immigration judges, and medical personnel.
  • Provide trauma survivors with government-funded rehabilitation services, including as a form of redress for asylum seekers traumatized by Trump administration policies and practices.
    A program to provide services should be housed in the Administration for Children and Families’ Office of Refugee Resettlement but should operate in close coordination with United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Rehabilitation services should be provided by non-governmental organizations and entities with appropriate clinical expertise that contract with the federal government. Such services could also be mandated through settlement agreements in certain pending litigation.
  • Phase out immigration detention.
    Often indefinite in nature, immigration detention is both re-traumatizing and an independent source of trauma for many subjected to it and should be phased out entirely. The administration can dramatically reduce the detained population quickly by immediately ending family detention and cutting ties with the private prison industry; eliminating bond for those eligible for release; and applying a presumption of liberty when revisiting the status of currently detained immigrants and during initial assessments of those newly arriving.
  • To the maximum extent possible, eliminate features of the asylum system that are unnecessarily adversarial or otherwise exacerbate or cause trauma.
    This should include shifting to a humanitarian-oriented “reception center” model at U.S. borders, with robust case management and support services; minimizing the use of immigration court; expediting work authorization; and assessing claims through non-adversarial methods, processes, standards, and settings designed to facilitate truth telling and limit re-traumatization.





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