In Case You Missed It: Being Aware to Support Human Trafficking Patients

The fifty-second episode of The College Handoff is “Being Aware to Support Human Trafficking Patients.” This episode features Tyler Schwab, the Director of Aftercare for Latin America for Operation Underground Railroad, and Tanner West, the social media specialist for the BYU Anti-human Trafficking Club.

Human trafficking is a form of modern slavery that affects millions of individuals across the globe. Law enforcement often deals with discovering and resolving these cases. However, the eyes and ears of the community have proven to be crucial to discovering perpetrators and victims of human trafficking. Some of the most important eyes and ears in the fight against human trafficking belong to healthcare workers. “A lot of the tips around the United States specifically get to law enforcement through medical employees, those who provide those medical supports and hospitals because they’re the ones that are on the frontlines treating some of these victims. A victim will show up with their pimp, bruised and beaten and needing medical care. It’s a nurse, or it’s a practitioner that noticed that something isn’t right, and reports that to law enforcement, or has excellent connections with like a victim advocate in a police department, or has a solid connection to an NGO, where intervention can happen,” Tyler describes. “I think there’s a study that came out a couple of years ago by this organization called Shared Hope International, where they interviewed a certain number of survivors of human trafficking. About 92% of them said that they had seen some kind of medical professional during their time of being exploited, which is just a huge number of people being seen by medical professionals. So much of that responsibility relies on medical professionals to be trained and knowledgeable of what to look for when it comes to a victim of human trafficking to be able to be the link between that victim and their eventual hope to freedom.”

Some common red flags indicate someone is a victim of human trafficking that healthcare workers should be aware of. “These trafficking victims will usually not carry ID with them. A much older individual will usually accompany them. This older individual could be identified as their boyfriend or their uncle. So we see that a lot where a pimp who’s maybe 34-35 years old will take a girl who’s 14-15 years old to the ER, and he will say he is her boyfriend. And even though that’s suspicious right away because she’s 15 and he’s 34, because of the state of just where medical emergencies are happening, very rarely those get put together, and those red flags get drawn. But that’s always a good indicator of what kind of exploitation you could be experiencing if the medical staff can ask what type of relationship is happening between the pimp and the victim because very rarely will a pimp allow a victim to go to the hospital on their own,” Tyler says. “Usually, these victims will carry a large amount of cash on hand, which is another warning sign, especially like more and more in this world we live in. So, if you have an underage girl who has a lot of cash on hand, it’s a big warning sign. Also, many of these survivors will have a lot of STDs and untreated illnesses. Some girls will have untreated wounds, which is another sign and indication that a woman won’t get supplied with any treatment. You see other injuries or other scarring or other open wounds that haven’t received treatment yet.”

While nurses tend to address the physical wounds of a victim of human trafficking, there are emotional wounds that these patients will be facing as well. Tyler lists two things that nurses can do while treating victims of human trafficking to make them feel safe and comfortable. “The first one is to offer help without wanting to receive anything in return. And so that may sound a little bit weird, but in the life of a trafficking victim, everything has a cost. If you want to eat, there’s a cost. If you want to sleep, there’s a cost. If you want a gift, there’s a cost. And so, their whole life is transactional. Anything that they want that’s a good thing, they’re expected to offer something sexual in return. And unfortunately, that can translate after they’re rescued and in the hands of law enforcement, where they’re not expected to perform sexually, but they’re expected to give information. So a cop can say we can offer you aftercare if you’ll talk to the district attorney and report your trafficker, which can sound like a good thing, but in the trafficking victim’s mind, it’s another thing that’s transactional” Tyler explains. “And so when a nurse is offering care, I think that’s something that they should emphasize to the trafficking victim: everything that they are offering is ‘for free.’ And they’re not expecting anything in return. They’re not expecting a thank you. They’re not expecting any kind of information against a trafficker. The care that they are offering is totally for free and out of the goodness of their heart. Because that concept is so foreign to a trafficking victim, it can go a long way for them when they eventually go before a judge or go before the police to know that certain things are given out of the goodness of someone’s heart and not for any kind of information or any kind of exchange.”

“The second thing is just a judgment-free zone,” Tyler continues. “Trafficking victims are very used to being judged not just on their appearance, but on a whole range of things. And so a trafficking victim comes into an ER, and there’s a lot of open wounds, and there may be quite many sexually transmitted diseases. They come in with even maybe an attitude of ungratefulness. They’re in withdrawal from any kind of addiction. To have the nursing staff and medical staff come at them from just a place of pure compassion will go a long way in their overall healing as well because they’re so used to being judged on every single aspect of their life. And suppose they go in and get access to medical care. That rapport is built with medical professionals offering help without anything expected in return and coming from a place of just pure, compassionate love. In that case, it will go a long way. It’s showing the trafficking victim that there are good people in this world, and not everything in their life is transactional and that there are people that are looking to do good for them just based out of the goodness of their heart.”

The hospital isn’t the only place nurses can fight against human trafficking. Student nurses at BYU can join the Anti-human Trafficking club. “It’s important everywhere to have an anti-human trafficking club because human trafficking is a real and horrible and hard to find an issue that can even exist in Provo, Utah. And it’s essential here at BYU because there are so many passionate people and so many good-hearted people who want to make changes in the world,” Tanner, a member of AHTC, says. “By highlighting something dark and bringing light to it, it is wonderful just to have people know about this, especially our frontline healthcare workers who are very likely to come in contact with those in human trafficking, whether it be sex trafficking, labor trafficking, or whatever form of exploitation it is.”

AHTC has two goals that they strive to achieve. “Number one is to spread correct awareness of the issues of human trafficking, whether it be sex trafficking or labor trafficking, to as many people as we can,” Tanner explains. “And our second goal is for those who are interested in connecting with organizations who are making real changes and doing incredible things to help survivors recover, as well as help prevent these things from happening.” Anyone interested in the club and these goals can join by following @byuahtc on Instagram, where they post about their various events and volunteer opportunities.

If you want to listen to Episode 52 of The College Handoff, features the full interviews with Tyler and Tanner, an interview with Casey Matheson and Jen Wagenaar of HCA Healthcare, and more insights into Tyler’s career as an aftercare specialist, the importance of relationships between healthcare workers and law enforcement, and more ways that students can get involved in the fight against human trafficking, go to or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

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