Local hospitals help victims of human trafficking by educating staff and providing trauma informed care

September 11, 2019 /

It’s not every day a human trafficking victim has access to health care, but when they do, they often do not speak up about their abuser, despite this being one of the very few moments victims are alone.  

However,  local Dignity Health hospitals are working to change that with the Human Trafficking Response Program. The goal of the program, which began in 2014, is to notice the signs, identify trafficked persons in the health care setting and assist them with trauma informed care and services.

“The whole idea has been to really assist our staff in being more diligent about these issues and identifying any types of red flags when potential victims or survivors are coming through our doors so that way we can help link them to services if at all possible,” said Loni Pirtle, the co-lead of the Internal Human Trafficking Task Force for Mercy Hospital. 

Trafficked persons often go unnoticed. A 2014 study by Annals of Health Law found nearly 88 percent of persons who identify as a sex trafficking survivor had some contact with health care while being exploited. 

A 2017 survey report by the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking found more than half of labor and sex trafficking survivors surveyed had access to health care at least once while being victimized, and 97 percent of those surveyed said they were never provided information or resources about human trafficking when visiting a health care provider.

Dignity Health is guiding staff on how to respond to patients who may be victims or survivors of any type of abuse, neglect, or violence, including human trafficking, says the agency’s website. The staff uses a tool that guides health professionals on how to offer victim assistance to patients in a trauma-informed manner.

Victims of sex or labor trafficking may find themselves in local emergency departments when they are in vulnerable situations, such as a woman in need of emergency care during a pregnancy, said Pirtle.

“People who are at risk of trafficking or who are being trafficked in some way — both sex trafficking and labor trafficking — are generally not in a position to be getting preventative heath care or timely care,” said Pirtle. “So something that small can work into something very big and need emergency care.”

To prepare staff to identify and respond to trafficked persons, Dignity Health, with support from Dignity Health Foundation, has invested more than $1 million to train nearly 4,000 staff members at its hospitals to recognize victims and provide trauma informed care, according to their website.

Dignity Health is in the process of expanding to help all forms of trafficking victims — including sex and labor trafficking — who suffer from serious medical and mental health issues.

Experts say Kern County is in dire need of programs such as this one. Kern is just another stop for abusers as they make their way to areas with high rates of trafficking, such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Fresno and Sacramento, according to Sandy Woo Carter, the project lead for Dignity Health’s Human Trafficking Response Program. 

“We are in the area where people drive through to get to places,” Woo Carter said. “We’re in a place in our community where there are a lot of folks who are motivated, who are really wanting to learn how to address trafficking in our community.” 

“However, we are still working out how we can further educate ourselves and what other things we need to learn,” said Woo Carter. “Education and awareness is still kind of uneven.”

Woo Carter said Dignity Health is in the works of forming education modules to educate staff on how to identify people who could potentially be trafficked.

“We want to be able to not only educate our staff to identify these folks, but we also want to create education on how to create those hand offs to the community partnerships that are so vital to a patient’s healing journey,” said Woo Carter.

One of Dignity Health’s goals is to partner with others in the community organizations to improve the quality of life for victims, said Pirtle.

“Trafficking can affect people from all walks of life,” said Woo Carter. “Victims and survivors come from all different backgrounds, and so do the perpetrators, so we have some work to do.”

“There’s a lot of opportunity for us nationally to grow in that awareness that trafficking really affects all communities,” said Woo Carter continued.

More than 8,500 tips were reported to the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline in 2017, according to Dignity Health’s website. 

Anyone can help victims — even if you aren’t in the health care field — by evaluating your choices, said  Woo Carter.  

“I think that just looking at the way we live, for example just looking whether or not we are participating in unethical supply chains that utilize traffic labor,” she said. “So anytime we are shopping for clothing or food, are we using that critical lens to see whether or not we are supporting an unethical supply chain?”

Kern Sol News is a youth-led journalism organization in Kern County. In their stories, reporters shine light on health and racial disparities in under-served communities across Kern. For more stories by South Kern Sol, head to southkernsol.org.

Jessica Manzo

Jessica Manzo is a youth reporter for South Kern Sol and a student at Cal State Bakersfield.