Human trafficking is modern-day slavery, involving victims who are forced, defrauded or coerced into labor or sex acts. According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, traffickers are estimated to exploit 20.9 million victims annually, with an estimated 1.5 million victims in North America.
“That means we have thousands of victims per state, and they’re not just in major metropolitan areas,” said Jeffrey Barrows, D.O.’78, M.A., vice president of education and advocacy for Abolition International, an organization working to end sex trafficking and exploitation.
His Oct. 9 campus presentation, titled “Human Trafficking Awareness for the Health Care Professional,” was part of DMU’s Global Health Learning Collaborative, a student-run series of interactive discussions about topics affecting the health of people around the world. Barrows discussed the legal definitions of trafficking and the environments in which it occurs. He explained the crime is high-profit and low-risk: Unlike guns or drugs, its victims can be sold again and again; awareness is low among citizens and communities; and there’s a lack of training to recognize and address it. In addition, victims are often vulnerable, especially if they’re children.
“The vast majority of domestic minor victims are abused at home first – emotionally, sexually or physically,” he explained. “They often have low-esteem and are runaways.”
Barrows emphasized that health care professionals must become aware of human trafficking and learn to recognize the signs among patients. He noted that various studies reveal that approximately half of sex-trafficked victims come into the health care system, but none are freed as a result.
“We in health care are commonly encountering these victims, but we are missing them,” he said.
To change that, Barrows encouraged the estimated 120 presentation attendees to become informed of the crime and its signs and to utilize “SOAR”:
- STOP to consider whether any “red flags” indicate a patient may be a victim;
- OBSERVE by examining the patient once she or he is separated from a suspected pimp;
- ASK potential victims – again, not when their suspected pimp is present; and
- RESPOND by being prepared – know the proper law enforcement authority to contact and local resources for the victim.
A panel discussion that followed Barrows’ presentation featured Ben Rezny, D.O.’16, a former Minnesota police officer who worked on a federal task force investigating human sex trafficking and Internet crimes against children; Michael Ferjak, senior criminal investigator for the Iowa Department of Justice/Iowa Attorney General’s Office and director of the Iowa Department of Justice Human Trafficking Enforcement and Prosecution Initiative; and a woman who had been a victim of trafficking from age three – with her twin sister – to age 16.
“As a young person, I didn’t know that what was happening to me was wrong,” she told the audience. “You’re going to come across people who don’t want the help, but some people don’t know they need the help.”
Barrows said that health care providers can take two critical actions if they believe a patient is being trafficked. “Number one, we can help them understand they’re victims,” he said. “Number two, we can offer them an option. It may not be us but a phone number of an organization they can call or someone they can talk to about their situation.”
Katie McGough, D.O.’17, a leader in this year’s Global Health Learning Collaborative, hoped the event raised awareness about the existence and effects of human trafficking.
“Although our research on human trafficking initially began with a global perspective, it didn’t take long for us to realize the prevalence in our own country,” she said. “These individuals are present in our hospitals, clinics and neighbors’ homes. Many aren’t prepared to recognize that reality. We felt it was our obligation to share this knowledge. Together, we can raise awareness and make an impact both domestically and abroad.”