Is Your Patient a Victim of Human Trafficking?

By Amy Wasdin, RN, CPHRM, Patient Safety Risk Manager II, The Doctors Company

Most health care providers are aware of their role and responsibility to identify and report victims of child abuse, elder neglect and domestic violence. However, there is another type of abuse that is on the rise and reported in every state throughout the nation. In 2016, human trafficking cases reported in the United States rose by more than 36 percent from 2015, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline statistics.

Human trafficking occurs when a trafficker exploits another individual with force, fraud or coercion to make him or her perform labor or sexual acts. Victims can be any age (adults or minors), any gender, and from any cultural or ethnic group. The trafficker, or abuser, might be a stranger, family member or friend. This criminal industry is extremely profitable, generating billions of dollars worldwide. Lack of awareness and misconceptions by health care providers allow opportunities for identification of the victims to go unnoticed and unreported.

Victims of abuse rarely find opportunities to interact with other persons without approval from the abuser. A visit to a physician or dental practice may provide a rare opportunity for a patient to receive the help that he or she desperately needs. Research published in the Annals of Health Law in 2014 revealed that 87.8 percent of trafficking survivors reported that they were seen by a health care provider during their trafficking situation.

Human trafficking victims commonly are seen in medical and dental practices with the following conditions:

  • trauma such as broken bones, bruises, scars, burn marks or missing teeth
  • poor dental hygiene
  • pregnancy
  • gynecological trauma or multiple sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
  • anxiety, depression or insomnia

Victims usually are afraid to seek help for a variety of reasons that usually stem from fear, shame or language barriers. Health care providers and their staff should be trained to recognize the signs of human trafficking and know what steps to take.

Red flags to look for from the victim include:

  • fearful demeanor
  • depressed or flat affect
  • submissive to his or her partner or relative
  • poor physical health
  • suspicious tattoos or branding
  • lack of control with personal identification or finances
  • not allowed to speak for himself/herself
  • reluctant or unable to verify address or contact information
  • inconsistency with any information provided (medical, social, family, etc.)

Victims may be fearful and untrusting of their environment, so it is best not to directly ask an individual if they are a victim of human trafficking. Instead, the Department of Health and Human Services recommend questions such as the following:

  • Has anyone threatened you or your family?
  • Can you leave your job or home if you want to?
  • Are there locks on your doors and windows to keep you from leaving?
  • Do you have to get permission to eat, sleep or use the restroom?
  • Has someone taken your personal documents or identification?

Human trafficking is a federal crime and violators who are prosecuted receive prison sentences. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act was enacted in 2000 and provides tools to address human trafficking on a national and worldwide level. Many states also have laws and penalties for human trafficking.

If you suspect that a patient is a victim of human trafficking, please call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888.373.7888 or go to https://humantraffickinghotline.org/report-trafficking to report online. The hotline is not a law enforcement or investigative agency, but will take any possible steps to aid the victim and could result in a report to law enforcement.

Health care providers should follow state laws regarding mandatory reporting to provide notification of patient abuse or neglect situations. Unless calling the authorities is mandatory, it is recommended that you do not do so without the patient’s permission.

For resources and information on assessment tools, go to the National Human Trafficking Hotline’s Resources for Service Providers or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

 

Reprinted with permission. ©2017 The Doctors Company. For more patient safety articles and practice tips, visit www.thedoctors.com/patientsafety.

The guidelines suggested here are not rules, do not constitute legal advice, and do not ensure a successful outcome. The ultimate decision regarding the appropriateness of any treatment must be made by each health care provider in light of all circumstances prevailing in the individual situation and in accordance with the laws of the jurisdiction in which the care is rendered.

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