First Responders: Health Care Workers Critical Players in Combatting Human Trafficking

Jun 3, 2019

She starts to give her name to the emergency room receptionist, but the man by her side interrupts her. She stands silent, eyes downcast, as he relays her personal information to the front desk person, pulling her ID out of his wallet. He explains that they are in the process of moving and have no permanent address. When they are done checking-in, he ushers the woman to the waiting room where she sits quietly until her name is called.  When she stands up, he is right next to her, walking with her to the examining room until the nurse stops him and asks the woman if she wants the man to accompany her. The woman looks at the man, who gives a little nod, and she consents to his presence. He continues to speak for her during the exam, explaining that their lack of health insurance has prevented her from seeking timely treatment. The physician silently notes that the physical complaints the man relays do not appear consistent with the woman’s symptoms. But the woman never contradicts the man. In fact, she hardly speaks, and when she does, her voice is an almost inaudible whisper. The doctor and nurse leave the room for a few minutes and when they return, the man and woman are gone. A hospital security officer watches a couple walking out of the ER, the man holding the woman tightly around her upper arm, leaning close to her, speaking in harsh, clipped tones.

According to a report cited by the Human Trafficking Hotline, 87.8% of trafficking survivors use health care services while they are being trafficked. Yet, as in the scenario above, many health care workers fail to recognize or respond to indicators of trafficking. As the industry of human trafficking grows – it is now ranked the second-largest criminal enterprise in the world – so, too, does the number of victims seeking aid from health care services. For a survivor, a health care setting may serve as a door that allows her to glimpse the possibility of escape from her life of servitude and confinement. Health care workers occupy a pivotal role keeping this door open for survivors. It is imperative that they have the education and support to assess potential trafficking victims and quickly connect them to life-changing resources.

Health care does not just take place in doctors’ offices and hospitals. Trafficking survivors may be found in a variety of health care settings including, but not limited to: dentist offices, substance use treatment centers, and in facilities offering mental health services. This means a survivor will likely make contact with a range of workers, such as the EMT who helps her onto an ambulance, the administrator who takes her personal information, the nurse who takes her blood pressure, the interpreter who facilitates her communication with a doctor, and the social worker who checks in on her. As they interact with the patient, each of these workers has the opportunity to assess her for signs of trafficking and to offer access to help if deemed safe and appropriate for the survivor. In other words, each one of these health care workers – no matter his or her title – has the opportunity to save a life.

Signs of human trafficking are not only evident in the survivors who access treatment; trafficking victims may be found among the health care workers themselves. According to Polaris, an organization that provides a national trafficking hotline, these trafficked health care workers may be found in occupational therapy settings, in homes serving as health aides, and in residential care facilities. Further, traffickers tend to target victims with vulnerabilities such as physical disabilities, substance dependence, mental health issues, or developmental disabilities. Traffickers may attempt to access health care facilities that serve these populations in hopes of ensnaring future victims.

Recognizing the intersections between health care and human trafficking, some states are considering legislation or have passed laws that provide trafficking awareness training to a diverse range of health care workers. And some health care workers are taking initiative by forming their own advisory boards and protocols.  In Delaware, for example, health professionals formed the Human Trafficking Medical Committee, which works with the state to educate health workers about the signs of trafficking and to develop systems for compiling trafficking data. At the national level, the Stop, Observe, Ask and Respond (SOAR) to Health and Wellness Act, which would provide health care workers with trafficking awareness and response training, became public law on December 31, 2018. Our attorneys are among those committed to ensuring the safety of both consumers and workers in the health care industry. If you or someone you know is a human trafficking survivor and would like to learn how the civil justice system can help combat trafficking, please contact us for a free consultation.


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