Most trafficking victims see a doctor, but do doctors know how to help?

Human Trafficking
by Gaye Clark
Posted 5/05/15, 04:30 pm

Healthcare providers could act as first responders in the fight against sex trafficking, but many of them don’t know what to look for. Sens. Gary Peters, D-Mich, and Bill Cassidy, R-La., co-sponsored the Trafficking Awareness Training for Health Care Act of 2015 to try to better equip providers to help sex-trafficking victims. The bill passed the Senate on April 22 as part of a broader package of human trafficking legislation.

“Healthcare professionals are in a unique position to identify victims of trafficking,” Peters said.

Dr. Kanani Titchen, a resident pediatrician at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, agrees. While in medical school, Titchen encountered a young woman who had a tattoo on her thigh that “made it seem like her body was for sale.” At the time, she raised her eyebrow, but no alarms went off. Later, Titchen said, “I wondered if I had missed an opportunity to help her.” Titchen now co-chairs Physicians Against the Trafficking of Humans (PATH), designed to help educate physicians, residents, and medical students about sex trafficking.

A 2014 study reported that 87 percent of 107 trafficking survivors interviewed had contact with a healthcare provider while they were trafficked, including 63 percent who went to a hospital or emergency room. More than half of those interviewed interacted regularly with some type of clinical facility such as urgent care, women’s health, or Planned Parenthood. The report noted at least two prior studies demonstrated that healthcare providers are “woefully unprepared to identify trafficking victims.

In addition to lack of training, the study revealed providers were, in some cases, complicit in trafficking. Lauren, a survivor quoted in the study, said, “I got pregnant six times and had six abortions during this time. Several of them were from a doctor who was a client. … I came in the back door after hours and paid him off the books. This kept my name off any records. … I think he felt like he was helping.”  

The Trafficking Awareness Training bill will provide a grant to one medical or nursing school in the U.S. to develop an evidence-based training program to teach healthcare professionals to identify and respond to trafficking victims.

Several hospitals and medical organizations have already begun anti-trafficking initiatives. In March, doctors from Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and San Francisco General Hospital held a training session for physicians and healthcare professionals in the San Francisco Bay Area. The American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recently recommended clinicians screen women and girls for reproductive and sexual coercion.

Via Christi Health, a faith-based hospital in Wichita, Kan., is one of the few medical facilities that offers sex-trafficking awareness training. In 2012, MRI tech Nicole Ensminger, concerned about the high rate of human trafficking in Wichita, began a search of protocols at different healthcare facilities. When she couldn’t find one, Ensminger, along with other employees, created the Via Christi Human Trafficking Task Force. The group developed an assessment tool that guides a healthcare professional through a four-step protocol outlining warning signs to look for and the procedures for helping potential victims.

Since its inception in February 2014, Via Christi Health has trained more than 500 frontline providers. Seven victims who received help are no longer being trafficked.

Gaye Clark

Gaye is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute mid-career course.

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