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Responding to Victims of Human Trafficking within the Health Care Setting

Responding to Victims of Human Trafficking within the Health Care Setting

By Jeffrey J. Barrows, DO, MA (Ethics)

Imagine you are staffing the urgent care clinic at your hospital when you encounter a 19-year-old foreign national woman brought in by a family member because of a possible fractured arm. Radiologic studies show a spiral fracture of the radius raising the suspicion of abuse as the etiology of the fracture. As you continue your evaluation of this patient, you begin to notice that she appears cautious and at times fearful of this family member. You’re not sure exactly what’s going on and initially consider domestic violence. However several things remind you of that lecture on human trafficking several months ago. You try to remember the various indicators of trafficking and what you are supposed to do if trafficking is suspected. You wonder if you should try to separate the family member from the patient and whether there is any danger to you and your staff. What if the family member refuses to leave? The more you think about it, the more you realize that you are not prepared to deal with the problem before you and find yourself feeling helpless and frustrated.

As greater numbers of health care professionals become educated about the issue of human trafficking, they are increasingly recognizing patients who might qualify as trafficking victims, but usually within a setting lacking advanced preparation, thus experiencing this frustration and sense of helplessness. 

The answer lies in the development of a response protocol designed specifically for possible human trafficking victims. All hospitals and large clinics should take the time and effort to develop their own response protocol for potential victims of trafficking just as they have already prepared protocols for victims of domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault. This will allow them to safely and effectively assist the human trafficking victims regularly coming into their facilities. Fortunately, there is a free toolkit online that describes in detail the steps necessary to develop a response protocol at: https://healtrafficking.org/linkagesresources/protocol-toolkit/

There are multiple factors that complicate our ability as health care professionals to assist these victims, including the issue of trauma bonding, associated criminal activity, and the real danger these victims and their families face. Safely navigating these hazards and difficulties requires advanced preparation and careful consultation with various experts in your location. These experts include those law enforcement officials in your city who focus on the crime of human trafficking, local child protective agencies that have a full understanding of child sex trafficking, and Homeland Security officials who understand and can assist foreign national victims of human trafficking. In addition, local non-profits that focus their efforts to assist victims of human trafficking are critical partners as you encounter the many varied nonmedical needs of these victims.

Perhaps you can be the champion within your health care facility that initiates and facilitates the development of a specialized response protocol for victims of human trafficking, so that you and other health care professionals in your organization don’t experience frustration and helplessness as you encounter these victims, but instead experience the fulfillment that your encounter has truly made a difference in the lives of these suffering victims.

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