January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month

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Human Trafficking

Addressing the Health and Well-being of Victims and Survivors of Human Trafficking

By George L. Askew, MD, FAAP, Chief Medical Officer

“When a man, desperate for work, finds himself in a factory or on a fishing boat or in a field, working, toiling, for little or no pay, and beaten if he tries to escape — that is slavery. When a woman is locked in a sweatshop, or trapped in a home as a domestic servant, alone and abused and incapable of leaving — that’s slavery.”  - President Barack Obama.

Today, one of the major growing concerns for our nation is human trafficking.  Simply put, human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. Victims of human trafficking are subjected to force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of commercial sex, debt bondage or forced labor. It is estimated that more than 20 million women, men and children around the world are victims of human trafficking.

Photo of young girl crying with her hands over her face.Among the diverse populations affected, children are at particular risk for sex trafficking and labor trafficking. Contrary to popular belief, trafficking in persons can occur in both legal and illegal industries and markets, including, but not limited to: brothels, massage parlors, street prostitution, hotel services, hospitality, agriculture, manufacturing, janitorial services, construction, health and elder care and domestic service.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is the federal agency responsible for providing victims and survivors of human trafficking access to benefits and services needed to help them restore their lives and achieve self-sufficiency. As a key ally in this mission, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) has been deeply committed to combating human trafficking in all of its forms, particularly those that target children and youth. 

Last year, ACF worked on behalf of HHS and with co-chairs Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security to create the Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services to Victims of Human Trafficking in the United States, which calls for coordinated, effective, culturally appropriate and trauma-informed care for victims and survivors.

Trafficking victims and survivors may suffer from an array of physical and psychological health issues stemming from inhumane living conditions, poor sanitation, inadequate nutrition, poor personal hygiene, brutal physical and emotional attacks at the hands of their traffickers, dangerous workplace conditions, occupational hazards and general lack of quality health care.

Preventive health care is virtually non-existent for these individuals. Health issues are typically not treated in their early stages, but tend to worsen until they become critical, even life-endangering situations. In many cases, health care is administered at least initially by an unqualified individual hired by the trafficker with little if any regard for the well-being of their “patients” — and even less regard for disease, infection or contamination control.

Here, in the Office of the Chief Medical Officer (OCMO), we are focusing on health-specific concerns for human trafficking victims.  As a unit of ACF, we pursue this goal through the lens of the social determinants of health.

A few months ago in response to the Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services to Victims of Human Trafficking in the United States, our office collaborated with the HHS Office of Women's Health to develop a pilot project that will create a national technical working group to strengthen coordination of medical and health system responses to human trafficking. Specific actions include: 

  • Supporting the development of protocols to manage and provide services to victims of human trafficking
  • Training and educating health care providers to recognize signs of human trafficking, identify potential cases, and respond effectively
  • Creating a referral mechanism for healthcare professionals to inform and connect with law enforcement agencies, social service providers, and community-based organizations
  • Promoting effective, culturally relevant, and trauma-informed care to improve the short-term and long-term health of victims

The ACF Acting Assistant Secretary stated this project will alter how we identify and serve victims through our emergency rooms, hospitals, clinics and ambulatory care facilities. “We know that many trafficking victims come in contact with health care systems.  This link is critical and offers a great opportunity to intervene to stop the trafficking and begin the recovery process.” OCMO is proud to play an active role in this initiative and we will continue to uncover and address health issues that affect the victims of human trafficking.

If you think you have come in contact with a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1.888.3737.888. For more information on human trafficking visit www.acf.hhs.gov/trafficking.

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