Violence is an epidemic that kills tens of thousands of Americans every year and injures millions more (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019). It devastates individuals, families, and communities, weaving a path of destruction that often perpetuates and multiplies due to its contagious nature. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines violence to include “neglect and all types of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse” . Violence is undoubtedly one of the most prominent public health issues of our time, and it is entirely preventable.
Trafficking in persons is a particular type of violence that is pervasive yet widely misunderstood. It affects every country, including the United States [United Nations, 2019]. In 2018 alone, there were 10,949 tips of human trafficking reported to the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline (NHTH), 2,378 of which involved children under the age of 18 [NHTH, 2019]. Keep in mind, these numbers represent only those cases that were reported to the NHTH. Unfortunately, due to many misconceptions about this issue, trafficked persons often go unnoticed.
A 2014 study published in the Annals of Health Law found that nearly 88% of sex trafficking survivors had contact with health care while being exploited [Lederer and Wetzel, 2014]. A 2017 survey from the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (Cast) found that over half of labor and sex trafficking survivors had accessed health care at least once while being trafficked. Nearly 97% of that group indicated they had received no information about human trafficking or related victim services during those encounters [Cast, 2017]. These studies underscore the reality that health care professionals are too often unprepared to identify and assist trafficked persons.
Every day, health care systems treat patients who face multiple issues of violence, including human trafficking. While a community may have resources to address various forms of violence (e.g., victim advocacy and support, emergency shelter and services, peer support and survivor mentors, etc.), all too often health care professionals may not be aware of or connected with such resources, leaving them unequipped to appropriately respond to patients who may be experiencing abuse, neglect, or violence. This gap leaves the patient and provider vulnerable to ongoing trauma, as providers who feel unequipped to connect victims with community-based violence response resources may also feel a sense of helplessness and hopelessness.