Nurses Join in the Fight Against Human Trafficking

October 19, 2012

It was near the end of her shift, and the nurse had been on her feet for long hours, rushing from one patient to another in the overcrowded emergency room. She was thinking of home and her comfortable recliner when she pulled back the curtain of the small cubicle.

A young girl was curled up on the bed, clutching her stomach. The middle-aged man hovering over her stepped forward, introducing himself as her husband. Trying not to show her incredulity, the nurse asked the girl her age. The young girl said she was twenty-four but didn’t look a day over fifteen. She was outgoing and even cheerful during the whole visit, but something didn’t ring true. They vanished when the nurse left to get the discharge papers. 

When the nurse experienced a similar incident some time later, she began to ask questions of law enforcement. She suspected the girls she had treated were victims of human trafficking. She was right.

Human trafficking, according to the United Nations, involves an act of recruiting, transporting, transferring, harboring or receiving a person through the use of force, coercion or other means for the purpose of exploiting them. A report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicates federally funded task forces investigated more than 2,500 incidents of suspected human trafficking between January 2008 and June 2010, and about 82% were classified as sex trafficking.  Florida and Texas were listed among the top four states with the highest number of reports.   Texas  has two interstate highways running through it.  In fact, they intersect in San Antonio.


"The victims of sex trafficking are normally hidden and therefore difficult to identify and help. The one place they are likely to surface is in a medical facility or ambulance."   

Once medical professionals are aware that human trafficking exists, they can look for signs in the patients they treat. Most often victims are there to be treated for sexually transmitted or infectious diseases, a result of being trapped in overcrowded, unsanitary living conditions.

Nurses can use their skills of observation to see if the stories the people are telling match the medical evidence. Victims of trafficking often cannot answer routine questions. The persons who brought them in will supply the answers and will refuse to be separated from the victims. There are no personal items such as drivers’ licenses or wallets on the victims.

The age given doesn’t support the physical findings. The dynamics between the caregiver and the patient can also raise a red flag. For instance, is there a lack of concern? Is there a rush or urgency to leave the medical facility?

"When Medical Personnel do Suspect Trafficking, They Will Find it is Extremely Difficult to Separate the Victim from the Trafficker."   

The medical personnel would need to be creative. Perhaps one way may be to offer to walk the patient to the bathroom. In the few minutes alone, a nurse would be able to ask the patient victim if she feels safe with her caregiver or if anyone is forcing her to do something she doesn’t want to do.

It is also important for nurses to notify the physicians and social workers of her suspicions. They may be able to access other information that would help in identifying victims.

The discouraging thing is, while some victims want help, there are others who will refuse it. They are so controlled by their captors, they actually choose to stay. A nurse must realize that he or she cannot control the situation, but they can offer help and a way out. If they see the same victim more than once, they can begin to build trust. In that way, the victim will know that she or he  can return for help.

They key is awareness. By observing and offering help and by notifying others of their suspicions, nurses can be a lifeline for those caught in the horrible nightmare that is human trafficking.

Freedom Youth Project Foundation is working to develop a system of "red flags" of detection to help identify victims through other means of detection. This system of red flags would  assist law enforcement, emergency medical professionals, physicians, nurses, and social workers in helping to identify victims of human trafficking who do not outcry.  Often, victims do not even recognize they are victims and would consider asking for help.  Some victims fear for their life and may not want to come forward. It's important that law enforcement, emergency medical professionals, physicians, nurses, and social workers have ways of detecting whether or not someone is a victim of human trafficking.

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