By Linda Childers
In 1992, when Holly Austin Gibbs was 14-years-old, she met a man at a New Jersey shopping mall who convinced her to run away from home. He told her she was pretty enough to be a model, and promised to help her find a glamorous job in Los Angeles. It only took two weeks of compliments and coercion before Gibbs agreed to leave with the man. Sadly, rather than finding fame, the self-described shy and insecure teen was quickly forced into prostitution in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Although the police rescued Gibbs two days after her disappearance, she later discovered that most victims aren’t recovered as quickly. Many victims continue to be exploited for weeks, months and even years.
Human trafficking is a growing problem in the United States, and according to the Center for Public Policy Studies, California is considered one of the top four destinations in the country for human trafficking, a practice that uses men, women and children for forced labor or sexual exploitation. While there is a misconception that trafficking only happens overseas, Gibbs points out that in California alone, there were 979 cases in 2015 (781 were sex trafficking; 108 were labor trafficking; 56 weren’t classified; 34 were classified as both).
“I didn’t realize there were other people out there who had been through what I had been through,” Gibbs says. “There was a great deal of time and energy put into my legal case — my trafficker was caught and convicted — but there weren’t many resources available to address my emotional needs.”
Gibbs felt strongly about helping other victims of trafficking. At first, she began sharing her story and educating first responders. In 2014, she wrote a book about child sex trafficking in America. A year later she joined the Dignity Health Foundation, based in San Francisco, as their patient care services program director. In her new role, Gibbs educates health care providers and implements protocols for Dignity Health staff to identify and effectively respond to victims of human trafficking. Launched in March 2015 at St. Mary Medical Center in Long Beach, Calif., two victims were identified within the first two days of the program’s introduction.
Most trafficking cases are discovered when someone reports an unusual or suspicious occurrence to the police. Yet Gibbs learned that although up to 88 percent of all human trafficking victims have some sort of health care encounter during the time they are being trafficked, none of the health care professionals who admitted, treated and discharged them, picked up on the signs that something was wrong.
The new Dignity Health Human Trafficking Victims Program hopes to change this by educating all health care professionals at their 39 hospitals, about what human trafficking is, how to identify its victims, and how to handle suspected trafficking cases. Several states including Florida and Michigan now require health care workers to undergo some type of human trafficking training as part of their regular licensing process.
Learning to Identify the Red Flags in Trafficking
“It’s important to Dignity Health that patients who are victims of trafficking are identified and that we respond to them effectively,” Gibbs says. “By training our medical staff to identify victims, we can put them in touch with services to help them to reclaim their lives.”
While health care professionals are trained to recognize the signs of abuse and domestic violence, they may not know the red flags associated with trafficking, says Noriann Readdy who along with Gibbs facilitates Dignity Health’s trafficking training.
“We’re training our staff to look for red flags such as a controlling companion who insists on answering questions for the patient, or a patient who demonstrates signs of physical abuse or trauma, a fearful submissive demeanor, or an untreated chronic condition,” Readdy says.
“In addition, red flags can include frequent visits to the emergency room, untreated chronic health problems, STDs, no identification or medical records and signs of neglect.”
While several other health care centers in California have begun plans to identify human trafficking victims, Gibbs says the Dignity program is one of the largest in terms their systemwide approach and how they draw on both her own experiences and those of other trafficking survivors.
“We started with our emergency room (ER) and obstetrics departments who now routinely screen for victims of trafficking,” Readdy says. “We want to expand the program to include our postpartum units, our other inpatient services, as well as our outpatient clinics.”
Michael Thomas, nurse director of emergency services at St Mary’s Medical Center in San Francisco, says the training has given his staff, including doctors, nurses and others, the tools they need to recognize the signs of trafficking and to discreetly offer help to the victims.
“If someone comes into the ER that we suspect is a trafficking victim, the first step is to get the patient alone in a confidential location such as taking them for an X-ray, where we can gently ask them questions,” Thomas says. “Having their captor or trafficker at the bedside obviously hinders the assessment.”
Helping Trafficking Victims Reclaim Their Lives
If a patient is identified as a victim of trafficking, Thomas says the training teaches medical staff how how to establish rapport and trust with their patient by conveying compassion, and listening empathetically.
“We let victims know there is help available and a safe place to go,” Thomas says.
If a victim is under 18, it is mandatory under federal law to report sexual exploitation of children and health care providers must notify the police, sex crimes vice squad, and/or Child Protective Services.For adult cases, Dignity Health works with organizations such as One SAFE Place in Redding, Calif.
“We provide in-person advocacy support for victims of sexual abuse/trafficking and are committed to responding to these medical partners 24 hours a day, 7 days a week as victims need our help,” Angela Jones, deputy director of One SAFE Place, said via email. “When responding to trafficking victims, we provide trained advocates during forensic evidence and information collection procedures and provide aftercare to men, women, and children 12 years of age and older. After care can include housing, transportation, counseling, referrals, and additional case-specific needs.”
Thomas says the first step is often just planting a seed in the minds of trafficking victims by offering them a card for One SAFE Place, and letting them know help is available when they are ready.
“One of the most critical parts of our training is teaching staff to challenge any preconceived notions or judgments they may have about trafficking victims,” Readdy says. “We ask them to imagine if a potential trafficking victim was their sister or their daughter. How would they approach the situation under those circumstances?”