The need for H.O.P.E: victims of human trafficking need better care from health professionals


I remember the first time I told a doctor that I was being trafficked. That experience was also the last time I told a healthcare professional. My psychiatrist in an acute inpatient psychiatric hospital heard my story and told me that trafficking only happens in third-world countries and in movies. While this professional was the most ill-informed I ever encountered, they were not the only healthcare workers that did not have the training they needed to identify me. 

I remember tucking my hospital gown between my legs to hide the bruising on my thighs. I remember explaining away cuts and burns. I remember being encouraged by doctors and nurses to report sexual assaults. I remember a psychiatrist telling me I would never get better, so I should stop seeking help. I remember the look in a nurse’s eyes when she knew something was off but did not know how to intervene.

It was that nurse, the one whose instinct told her that something was wrong, that gave me hope. She saw me. When you’ve been through what I’ve been through, you never forget the first person to really see you. She gave me hope that someone could help me, that someone saw me as a person. She gave me hope that someday my life would be different.

For 20 years I was trafficked for sex by a member of my family, and for 20 years I was discharged into the hands of my trafficker, a seemingly good man who was charismatic and kind to everyone in the office. All the while, I remembered the nurse who saw me, and I held onto hope that there were others like her. 

I have heard story after story that mirrors my own: men, women, and children being trafficked, desperately hoping a healthcare worker would spot the signs but being placed back into the hands of their traffickers. The statistics back our experiences. 

A Loyola University study outlined not only the kind of injuries that those being trafficked experienced but outlined key healthcare touchpoints as well. Physical violence was prevalent, with 92% of survivors reporting being physically assaulted, which included being beaten, kicked, and strangled. As many as 70% of survivors reported physical injuries, with more than 50% of those survivors reporting injuries to the face or head. 

There are many common health issues that may lead someone who is being trafficked to seek medical care. The Department of Health and Human Services reports that many traffickers hire unqualified professionals or wait until the condition is life-threatening before allowing their victims to seek real medical care. These actions can lead to infections, undetected or long untreated illnesses, infectious diseases, and improperly healed breaks or contusions.

Statistics also show that those being trafficked do seek care. The above-mentioned Loyola University study found that as many as 90% of minor human trafficking victims and 50% of adults have contact with medical professionals. Of those who seek care, 68% are seen in the emergency department, but the Department of Health and Human Services reports that only 3% of emergency rooms identified themselves as receiving trafficking training.

It was my experience, combined with the testimony of others and the shocking numbers above that led me into the world of anti-trafficking advocacy. When I was invited to participate in the making of a healthcare training, my answer was a resounding “yes.” This kind of training is imperative to identification and intervention for human trafficking victims.

Healthcare workers themselves reported feeling ill-equipped to spot the signs of trafficking in patients and act effectively, but that didn’t stop them from wanting to learn. It is healthcare professionals like the nurse who saw me that want to learn, and that will make a difference in the lives of those being trafficked. Safe House Project, in collaboration with the Academy of Forensic Nursing, stepped up to bridge the gap between healthcare workers and those being trafficked who desperately need to be identified. They sought to do so by releasing the Healthcare Observations for the Prevention and Eradication of Human Trafficking (H.O.P.E.) Training. 

The H.O.P.E. Training is a survivor-informed, trauma-informed, and patient-centered online training that equips all healthcare workers to identify potential human trafficking victims, offer resources, and intervene in accordance with state mandates and their facility’s policies and procedures.

The H.O.P.E. Training provides healthcare workers with a unique perspective that will allow them to understand human trafficking domestically through real survivor experiences and industry expert analyses. The training is available to both healthcare systems and individual healthcare workers that seek a comprehensive understanding of human trafficking and what they can do to identify and intervene on behalf of their patients. The training is also available for continuing education credits.

This training allows us to break down harmful stereotypes and replace them with facts. This allows for healthcare workers like the psychiatrist I saw, who told me trafficking only happens in third world countries and movies, to better serve their patients through educating themselves. The survivor voice that is elevated throughout the H.O.P.E. training gives real-life examples of stories that break the stereotypes, just as my story broke stereotypes.

For 20 years, I needed a healthcare worker who had taken a training course like the H.O.P.E. Training. But I never forgot the nurse that treated me with compassion, like a person. You can be that healthcare worker for a patient. You can be part of the solution. Take the H.O.P.E. training. Join the fight to eradicate human trafficking. 

For more information, or to sign up to take the H.O.P.E. Training, visit SafeHouseProject.org/healthcare

Sarah Beth is a Content Creator and Survivor Leader at Safe House Project