January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and the AHA is highlighting strides made by hospitals and health systems in this area to ensure the health and safety of their patients.  

In 2005, Ingrid Johnson, R.N., first began to realize that human trafficking is a prevalent issue in the U.S. when her 13-year-old daughter went missing for 11 months. Frightened and determined, Johnson worked closely with law enforcement officials to track down her daughter’s whereabouts until successfully rescuing her from a trafficking ring in New York City with undercover police by her side.

Once she safely got her daughter home, Johnson realized she was ill-equipped to best serve her daughter and get her back on a healthy path. “I thought, now I need help, what’s available?”

Unfortunately, there were too few resources available to help her through this challenging journey, so Johnson combined her clinical background as a nurse with her maternal instincts to protect her daughter.

“The clinical piece is what brings me here today, because that’s what I resorted to, what I know best,” Johnson said, “and that is, clinicians building trusting relationships with our patients.”

Johnson, who was working as a night nurse, put her daughter back in school to resume the eighth grade. Her daughter went on receive her college degree and pursue work as an educator in a charter school in the Newark school system.

“I never thought I’d be here today,” Johnson recalled. “When I was at my lowest, I never thought I’d make it through.”

Advocating for anti-trafficking efforts

For advocates like Johnson and for health care leaders seeking to learn more, the AHA created its Hospitals Against Violence initiative to offer guidance and expertise.

Earlier this month – Human Trafficking Awareness Month – the AHA’s HAV initiative, the law firm Jones Day and HEAL Trafficking partnered to provide new resources to health care providers who are fighting human trafficking. In support of that initiative, Jones Day Jan. 11 released a much-needed tool to help providers navigate the complex roadmap of their reporting and education obligations, particularly because of the increased role of telehealth and multistate practitioners.

Currently serving as manager of patient access at Overlook Medical Center, a member of Atlantic Health System in Morristown, New Jersey, Johnson has made it her life’s mission to fight human trafficking and educate health care providers and others. She serves on a number of community boards, task forces and committees, sharing her story and expertise in identifying and responding to trafficking patients and survivors.

Johnson has been honored with numerous awards for her advocacy efforts, including the prestigious Jefferson Awards for Public Service, for which she won the 2018 Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Award for Outstanding Public Service Benefiting Local Communities. At the awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., Johnson was joined by former AHA Board Chair and Atlantic Health System CEO, Brian Gragnolati, who came to support her as she accepted the award. Having met at an Atlantic Health event several years earlier, the two clearly share a mutual respect and passion for utilizing the health system’s platform and resources to shine a light on this important issue and end human trafficking.

Johnson credits Gragnolati and other leaders at Atlantic for their tireless dedication to raising this issue whenever possible.   

“We got to where we are today because people kept talking about anti-trafficking efforts, and enough people said, ‘We need to do something about this.’”

The path forward

Last year, Johnson helped shape an Emergency Department human trafficking committee at Overlook Medical Center as part of Atlantic Health’s efforts to educate health care leaders on this issue. This group of health care leaders serves as a pilot program for the organization, with representation from clinicians, pediatrics, social workers and more from other disciplines.

The group convenes regularly, using evidence-based practices led by HEAL Trafficking and others. One of the physicians in the group brought up an idea of creating a large, prominent banner to hang in Atlantic Health’s ED – a long process that recently came to fruition, much to Johnson’s delight. She hopes the banner reaches individuals in the community who may not know about the prevalence and realities of human trafficking in this day and age.

“We as health care providers and the general public cannot forget that these victims and survivors are hiding in plain sight,” Johnson said.

This important reminder fuels Johnson and her passionate colleagues to keep fighting, to keep educating and to keep shining a light on survivors’ personal stories.

 “I’ve committed my life to fighting this issue,” Johnson said.


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