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Identify And Assist: Supporting Human Trafficking Victims

Ira Gelb, flickr Creative Commons

This story originally aired during Morning Edition 4-29-15

Doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals often treat victims of human trafficking. But if people in the medical fields don’t know the warning signs or how to help someone who is being trafficked, an opportunity to save a life could be missed. To keep that from happening, Via Christi Health in Wichita has an unique training programs for employees. KMUW’s Abigail Wilson has more...

A few hundred medical personnel wearing scrubs and tennis shoes and I.D. badges clipped to their breast pockets, are seated in a conference hall at Via Christi St. Joseph Hospital.

Emergency room nurses, surgeons and even hospital administrators are here to learn how they can help identify and assist victims of human trafficking right here in Wichita.

Credit Via Christi Health
Sedgwick DA Marc Bennett

Stepping up to the podium is Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett.

He prosecutes human trafficking cases and is here to provide a law enforcement perspective. Bennett says the U.N. defines human trafficking as "the illegal trade of human beings through force, fraud or coercion for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor."

"Not all human trafficking is prostitution, but all prostitution is human trafficking," Bennett explains.

He says prostitution is nothing like the Hollywood stereotype we often see.

“One young girl, she was 13, sold to the same guy three times and I asked her if she could identify him. She said, 'Dude, I didn't look at him.' There's nothing romantic…there's nothing 'Pretty Woman' about this," Bennett says. "This is an ugly, seedy world with a very small amount of money changing hands over and over again - 100 bucks for 30 minutes. And it's just over and over and over again.”

In last decade, area law enforcement has worked more than 150 human trafficking cases involving minors as the victims. There were 29 cases reported in Sedgwick County last year.

Credit Via Christi Health
Via Christi employees listen as Marc Bennett explains the world of a victim of human trafficking.

“Is it a form of modern day slavery? That may sound a little hyperbolic, a little bit inflammatory."Bennet emphasized. "But that's not an over exaggeration. That's what this is. People who are holding someone else who have no right over their own bodies. I don't know what else you could call it.”

He says teen runaways are at a high risk of being trafficked. In fact, the risk is so high that law enforcement across the country use the number of reported runaways to estimate how many children enter the sex trade each year. Right now, the estimate is at 1 million.

“They hit the streets at 14 or 15," Bennett says. "They're not exactly equipped to go work anywhere. No one can hire them. They don't have any job skills. They have one commodity: themselves.”

The increased awareness regarding the role healthcare professionals can play in stopping human trafficking here is often all about one person: Nicole Ensminger, the MRI tech who welcomed her peers to the training.

Credit Via Christi Health
Second from the right, Nicole Ensminger watches the training session.

Having learned of the high rate of human trafficking in Wichita a few years earlier, Ensminger says she first realized the need for this training in 2012 while she was doing research as a graduate student at Friends University. She wanted to compare and contrast the protocols and training used at different healthcare facilities related to human trafficking. But she couldn’t find any information.

“And now, I realize that’s because the protocol was non-existent. There was not a protocol anywhere in the United States being utilized specifically for human trafficking in the clinical setting. This is kind of where I had my ‘a-ha moment’ and realized that there was a big gap; that health care was really lacking education when it came to human trafficking on how to detect the warning signs and how to assist the victims.”

So she, along with other Via Christi personnel, formed what is now known as the Via Christi Human Trafficking Task Force.

“Studies have shown that 87 percent of human trafficking victims come in contact with a health care system sometime while they're being trafficked," she says. "And if health care professionals are not trained on how to detect that a person may be a victim of human trafficking, then those individuals walk in the door, seek treatment, and walk right back out.”

Credit Abigail Wilson
Nicole Ensminger displays the human trafficking assessment tool.

That’s exactly what Ensminger is trying to avoid. Sitting in an office chair, with her blonde hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, she pulls a small folded pamphlet out of the pocket of her scrubs.

“So we have an assessment tool that we have developed which guides the healthcare professional through the steps they should take if they think someone is in a human trafficking situation.” 

The panels of the brochure list different things for the health care provider to look for: signs of physical trauma, an inconsistent or scripted history, if the patient is accompanied by someone who seems to be in control of everything they do. It's a long list.

"If any of those indicators or red flags are present then the health assessment tool guides the healthcare professional on what steps to take," Ensminger says. "Of course, in the first step we attend to the medical needs and treatment of the patient and then in step two we have a series of questions that we ask.”

The questions include “have you ever exchanged sex for food, shelter, drugs or money?"

They also ask about physical abuse from employers. Ensminger says that men, women and children being trafficked are frequently seen in emergency rooms and at urgent care. She says they come in need of medical help for infections and trauma encountered through being trafficked, beaten and abused.

“The traffickers typically will wait until it's absolutely necessary for them to receive treatment," Ensminger says. "However, they do want them to get treatment because they still want that person to be profitable. So they will bring them in, they just may wait until it's absolutely necessary.”

In the time since Via Christi’s training initiative was launched in February of 2014, nearly $20,000 has been spent to train and give resources to over 500 front line caregivers to help identify and assist victims of human trafficking in a healthcare setting. Seven victims have accepted help and are no longer being trafficked since the program started. But Ensminger says the task force knows there are many more victims to be found.

“It's unbelievable how many people have come up to me and told me after our education that they can think of at least one time, and some people multiple times, that they've been in contact with someone that they know had to have been in a trafficking situation,” Ensminger says.

That being said, Ensminger says the initiative has been so successful at Via Christi that the model will soon be spreading throughout the Ascension network.

“Ascension is Via Christi’s parent organization," Ensminger says. "(They're) in 23 states throughout the U.S., so we are getting really busy right now in spreading all this work throughout (the network).”

Credit Via Christi Health
An employee of Via Christi asks a question about human trafficking following the training session.

And as the work of Via Christi’s Human Trafficking Task Force spreads nationwide, Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett encourages the room full of Wichita healthcare professionals to take advantage of this training and be on the lookout for victims.

“They get injured, they get hurt, they get sick, which happens frequently in this lifestyle," Bennett says. "They need you to fix them up so they can get back to work, and in that moment, that fleeting moment when they come into your presence, that's your opportunity.”