How Nurses Can Identify Human Trafficking Victims

Human trafficking is a growing epidemic in the United States and around the world. With victims numbering in the millions globally, there is an increasing need for people to recognize human trafficking when it does occur and intervene appropriately. In the world of healthcare, nurses often come into contact with trafficking victim quite regularly, whether they know it or not.  If you are a nurse and would like to become more aware of what trafficking looks like and how to identify victims, read on.

What is Trafficking?

According to the Trafficking Victim Protection Act in the US, human trafficking is defined as the following:

a.) Sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or

b.) the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.

*Note: “A victim need not be physically transported from one location, to another in order for the crime to fall within these definitions.” (Definition directly obtained from the Trafficking in Persons Report, June 2013, pg. 8)

That note at the bottom is important. It is a misconception that for trafficking to have occurred that a person needs to have been transported between locations. Instead, trafficking essentially refers to the use of one person to fulfill certain labors or services that they are not volunteering for. Force and coercion are the key words in this definition.

How to Recognize Victims

As a member of the field of healthcare, nurses have a duty to protect and help patients. This duty includes identifying and assisting victims of human trafficking. However, it can be difficult to identify victims if you don’t know exactly what you are looking for. Here are a few signs that you’re dealing with a trafficking victim:

  1. No Health Care

Most trafficking victims will not have regular access to healthcare services due to lack of insurance or capability to go to the hospital or a clinic. Take a look at the patient’s health records. If there are large gaps in treatment, especially for chronic health issues or long-term diseases, you might be dealing with a trafficking victim.

  1. Excessive Bruising

Bruising can be evidence that a person is being mistreated or manhandled regularly. If there are several bruises around the body in different stages of healing, the person could be suffering some type of physical abuse. Pay close attention to the color of the bruises to see how long the abuse may have been going on for. While not necessarily life-threatening themselves, bruises can be a sign of abuse, confinement, or even torture.

  1. Pushy Friend or Family Member

If the patient needs medical attention and they are being trafficked, it is likely that their abuser will accompany them. This ensures that the victim won’t “spill the beans” and let healthcare workers know about their situation. If the person coming with them claims to be a relative but won’t show ID, be careful. If they claim to be a friend and won’t leave the room if requested, it’s possible that they are worried about what the patient might say when they are gone. If you feel like something might be off, pay attention to your instincts.

  1. Sexual Issues

If the patient’s records reveal multiple pregnancies or STDs, it’s possible that they are being trafficked in the sex industry. Many traffickers don’t provide birth control or any type of contraceptives, thus resulting in sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy. Complaints of pain or injury around the genital area are a sign of abuse.

Final Thoughts

Identifying victims of human trafficking is a vital step in protecting patients and helping them get out of desperate situations. As a nurse, you must be on constant lookout to notice when a patient needs not only your medical expertise but also your humanity.

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