The International Labour Organization estimates that human trafficking is a $150 billion industry worldwide, with approximately 21 million victims. Hospitals and health systems are in a unique position to intervene, and a recent webinar as part of the AHA’s Hospitals Against Violence Initiative provides health care leaders with tools to help them do just that.

Hollie Austin Gibbs, the human trafficking response program director at Dignity Health and a survivor of sex trafficking, led the discussion, alongside Philip Brown, director of emergency services at Mercy Medical Center in Merced, Calif.

Dignity Health, which includes 40 hospitals in three states, has launched a program to identify trafficked persons in health care and assist with victim-centered, trauma-informed care. The webinar, “Human Trafficking 101,” is the first in a series led by Dignity Health and part of the AHA’s effort to increase awareness of violence in hospitals and communities and engage hospitals and health systems in identification and more knowledge about how to render assistance to the victim. 

“We’re openly sharing [information] with our partners because our hope is to change the statistics and studies,” Gibbs said. “We want all health care providers to be educated on this topic and we want all health care systems to have some sort of policy or procedure implemented guiding staff on how to respond if a victim is identified.”

Gibbs opened the discussion with her own story: At 14, she befriended a man she met at a local shopping mall in New Jersey. When he promised her a glamorous life as a model in Los Angeles, she decided to run away with him. Gibbs met him at a hotel where he ultimately forced her into prostitution. After two nights, she was arrested by law enforcement and recovered.

Although police eventually realized Gibbs was a victim, the arresting officer was “very cruel,” and Gibbs said she became “traumatized, angry and resentful.”

“I want to use my experience to help professionals understand my mindset as a 14-year-old victim of sex trafficking, and why I was not forthcoming especially by the time I got in front of health care professionals,” she said.

Gibbs provided 10 myths about human trafficking.

Myth 1: Human trafficking only happens overseas

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center reports human trafficking in all 50 states. Human trafficking is defined by the inducement, recruitment, harboring, transport, provision or obtainment of another person by force, fraud or coercion for commercial sex or labor services.

Myth 2: Only foreign nationals are trafficked in the United States

More than 7,500 cases of human trafficking were reported in 2016, and of those, at least 2,075 involved lawful, permanent residents of the United States, Gibbs said.

Because victims of human trafficking are often part of populations that are highly stigmatized and ostracized from society, it’s important to get the perspective of actual survivors when training your staff, Gibbs said. This is beneficial because they “can share not just their experiences but their expertise on what would have helped them as a victim in a facility similar to yours,” she said.

To request a speaker in your area, contact the National Survivor Network.

Myth 3: Human trafficking and human smuggling are the same crime

“Think of human trafficking as a violation of someone’s human rights, and think of human smuggling as a violation of a country’s immigration laws,” Gibbs said.

With this in mind, it’s important to be aware of the populations in your community that could be vulnerable to human trafficking, said Brown.

“In Merced, we’re an agricultural community, so we have lots of migrant workers,” Brown said. “Of course, when you have vulnerable populations, you have people who exploit them.”

Brown shared an example of his staff discovering a patient was being trafficked for labor.

“We just asked a couple of basic questions: ‘Where are you from? Where are you going next?’ And [the patient] just simply didn’t have any answers,” Brown said. “That activated some red flags.”

Myth 4: Sex trafficking could never occur in a legal setting (like a strip club)

It happens “regardless of the situation,” Gibbs said. “There have been cases of human trafficking recorded in strip clubs, escort services and in pornography.”

Myth 5: Everyone engaging in prostitution is doing so by choice

“The reality is, many turn to the sex trade [due to] lack of options,” Gibbs said, emphasizing the importance of supporting community resources that serve vulnerable populations. “Populations who are homeless, [who face] addiction, even a single mother seeking financial help — anything we can do to connect vulnerable persons with resources bolsters our defense against human trafficking,” she said.

Myth 6: Victims of human trafficking will reach out for help

Victims may blame themselves and not want to come forward. They may also may view commercial sex work as a survival method, or they may not speak English or know their rights.

Myth No 7: Only women and girls are victims

All genders are targeted, Gibbs said. Traffickers often target young people living on streets, and a large portion of this population is LGBTQ. Brown shared a story of a male victim at Dignity.

“We discovered that his family had kicked him out because after he moved away or ran away he became sexually exploited and trafficked,” Brown said. “His family didn’t want to talk about it, so he didn’t know what else to do but turn to the ER.”

Myth 8: Child sex trafficking could never occur in my community

“I doubt you would have any trouble finding at least one sex trafficking case reported in your city or county,” Gibbs said.

Myth 9: All traffickers are stereotypical pimps

Perpetrators can sometimes be part of the victims’ own families, or they can be young and approachable.

Myth No. 10: Human trafficking refers only to sex trafficking

Human trafficking is an umbrella term referring to both sex and labor trafficking.

Gibbs urged listeners to follow Dignity Health’s lead in implementing procedures to educate staff about human trafficking and to acquaint themselves with related community resources. Health care leaders can access to Dignity Health’s free, 50-page educational program here.

Hospital and health system staff who need assistance can reach out to the National Human Trafficking Hotline at (888) 373-7888.

“Despite how dark this topic is, there is hope,” Gibbs said.

To view a replay of the webinar and other Hospitals Against Violence resources, visit http://www.aha.org/advocacy-issues/violence/index.shtml