Victims in Our Midst: Health Care and Human Trafficking

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Human slavery has been in existence for thousands of years and unfortunately still flourishes today. An estimated 36 million slaves exist — perhaps more than any time in history —in countries around the world, even the U.S.

“You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge.” —Deuteronomy 24:17

This verse names the three populations most vulnerable to exploitation: those living in a foreign country, children without parents, and women without protection. These populations have always been the most vulnerable to human trafficking, and they remain so today.

Hope for Justice aims to end human trafficking in our lifetime. And one priority to achieve that in the U.S. is training healthcare professionals to recognize victims of human trafficking. Almost 88 percent of victims of domestic sex trafficking encounter healthcare professionals while they are being trafficked.

These exploited women and children come in and out of various healthcare settings on a daily basis without being identified because so few healthcare professionals have been trained on how to identify potential trafficking victims.

Three categories of human trafficking indicators may present in the healthcare setting, including:

1. Controlling behavior: Someone accompanying the patient controls all the conversation. Normally the conversation is between the patient and the healthcare professional, but a trafficker may attempt to insert himself or herself into the conversation in an unnatural manner, even to the point of correcting the patient.

2. Red flags: Danger signs appear when a patient doesn’t know their address or what city they are in. They may also carry large amounts of cash, have on less clothing, and attempt to lie about their age.

3. Physical evidence: Typical physical indicators include bodily or mental trauma or multiple sexually transmitted infections. Sexual trauma may be evident during an exam.

Victims fail to be identified because only a handful of hospitals across the country have a protocol in place to properly respond. Every major hospital should develop a response protocol for victims of human trafficking just as they have prepared one for child abuse, domestic violence, and sexual assault.

A good response protocol for human trafficking will contain local indicators supplied by local law enforcement, as well as decisions regarding how to handle a suspected victim of human trafficking who is a minor but refuses intervention. Clear guidelines should be established on when and how to carry out an intervention so that patient and hospital staff safety is maximized. The response protocol should include proper reporting mechanisms as well.

Properly responding to victims of human trafficking is a complicated process, but releasing even one victim onto the road of recovery is worth the effort.

Author’s Note: If you are a healthcare professional, please contact Hope for Justice at to explore training opportunities at your facility. Together, we can decrease the staggering number of victims of this horrid crime.

Dr. Jeffrey Barrows, an obstetrician/gynecologist, is currently Director of U.S. Training for Hope for Justice. He participates in a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' working group on health and human trafficking.

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