Most Americans know that human trafficking is a pervasive and deeply disturbing problem. What many Americans may not realize is just how tragically common it is right here in the United States. In fact, in the State Department’s most recent Trafficking in Persons report, they estimate that the top three countries of origin for trafficking victims found within the U.S. are Mexico, the Philippines, and the United States.
This illicit industry generates nearly $150 billion globally each year, enslaving approximately 25 million people in activities ranging from agricultural labor to manufacturing to prostitution.
Trafficking presents a wide array of physical and emotional health care concerns, from sexually transmitted infections, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, malnutrition and physical injuries. Knowing this, we must do a better job of equipping our health care providers to be able to identify trafficking victims, assess their situation, and help patients start on a road to recovery, as it is estimated that up to 80% of victims will access health care during their time as a victim of trafficking.
However, physicians and nurses often lack the training to recognize the signs of trafficking when providing care to patients, and the tools to respond once a victim is identified. In fact, according to a recent study by the Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization working to combat human trafficking, 57% of respondents reported that they were never asked any trafficking or abuse screening questions by health care professionals during their exploitation.
Perpetrators of these crimes often use fear, coercion, and intimidation to keep their victims quiet and compliant. They will often exhibit controlling behavior over patients, speaking for them or insisting on staying with the patient for the duration of their visit. Training not only doctors and nurses to identify suspicious behaviors but also receptionists and other hospital support staff can help to quickly and quietly notify response teams.
Last year, Congress passed the Stop, Observe, Ask, and Respond (SOAR) to Health and Wellness Act, which expands the Department of Health and Human Services program of the same name. The program trains health care and social services providers to identify potential victims and work with law enforcement and other victims’ services agencies to provide a trafficked person with coordinated care tailored to their circumstances.
As I’ve traveled across the state, community leaders and organizations often express frustration in navigating the federal bureaucracy, which is why I have worked hard to ensure that providers as well as communities know how and where to access these federal resources.
Recently, I hosted a breakfast event with Cindy McCain of the McCain Institute, as well as Katherine Chon, co-founder of the Polaris Project and current Director of the Office of Trafficking in Persons at the US Department of Health and Human Services to discuss this exact topic. Trade associations representing numerous health care organizations, from nurse practitioners to hospitals, as well as members of Congress and their staff, joined to talk about practical solutions when addressing this issue.
Including health care providers in the discussions we’re having around these issues is a critical component of finding lasting solutions. They have invaluable insight into how we can continue to address this issue and build systems that save people from the hell of trafficking. We all have a role to play in stopping this heinous crime and assisting trafficking victims on their road to recovery, and it is my plea that we — health care providers and all of us — take that role seriously. So many lives depend on it.
U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall represents the Kansas 1st District and is running for the U.S. Senate.