Health Care Workers are Front-Line in Early Detection of Human Trafficking Victims

January 12, 2012
Health care workers are now becoming part of the front line response in the fight against Human Trafficking. Texas State Senator Leticia Van De Putte hosted a Human Trafficking Health Summit on Wednesday, January 11 (National Human Trafficking Awareness Day) in San Antonio, TX to address this topic. The goal of this summit was to increase awareness of human trafficking in the health care field so that health care professionals are aware of best practices in responding to victim's needs and early front-line identification of victims.  

Human Traffickers are nomadic and move frequently around the nation.  Minors who are trafficked frequently suffer with injuries from violence and abuse.  They also have a high rate of sexually transmitted disease and other issues.  Most commonly, they would be taken to an emergency medical clinic.  It is important for health care providers to recognize the signs that lead to identification of victims.

The Human Trafficking Summit included a series of 4 discussion panels, including doctors, nurses, law enforcement, social services and other experts in the health care field.  In addition, a human trafficking survivor, Linda*, bravely shared her story of being trafficked starting at the age of 6, though it was difficult to recount many of the details.  Linda’s mother, who was the adult trafficking her, arranged for Linda to be married at age 13 to another Trafficker. She gave birth to 2 children before the age 15. Linda related to us that as a child, she was too scared to speak up, but was always hoping someone would question her situation and recognize the signs.  There were many missed opportunities to question her unusual health care needs. She was taken to clinics during multiple pregnancies beginning at age 11. She also noted that her last time in school was the 6th grade. As a child being trafficked around the country she felt abandoned and always wondered why school officials never came looking for her.  Linda felt she had several clear signs that should have been recognized as "red-flags" by a healthcare and law enforcement professionals in the position to rescue her from her traumatized life.  She emphasized the importance of listening to victims and their stories when given a chance, and asking them questions that might get them to open up about their experience.  

Many panelists recounted how often health care professionals recognize "red-flags" but have concerns if some questions might be considered 'off-limits' and violation of privacy for a young patient. Professor Patricia Crane of the UT Medical Branch in Galveston pointed out that any question which can impact the type of referral, treatment plan or discharge plan is not only relevant but absolutely necessary. This applies to social workers, case managers and health care providers.

One of the most important things we can do to combat human trafficking in the United States is spread awareness among those that have the power to help. Statistics show that 1 in 3 domestic minor victims of human trafficking will come into contact with a health care worker. Including health care workers in the fight against trafficking is a very positive strategy because they are in a position to notify law enforcement while a child is in their custody.  Finding new ways to identify victims is an important part of combating this crime.  Currently, less than one-half of one percent of victims of child sex-trafficking are rescued according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  Training health care professionals to be front line identifiers is a major positive step.

*Name changed

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