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

BY SARAH BETH

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. 

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