Warning Signs of Child Trafficking for Health Professionals

Physician’s Weekly magazine’s 9/10 issue notes that according to a 2014 study in the Annals of Health Law, almost 88 percent of human trafficking victims reported having had some contact with the health care system during the period of their victimization.

Yet, another published survey (by Physicians Against the Trafficking of Humans, or PATH) showed that more than 70 percent of doctors say they don’t know what to do if and when they interact with a sex trafficking victim. Physician’s Weekly suggests “screening techniques” for health care professionals who suspect a patient might be a victim of human trafficking. They include watching for malnutrition, bruising, scars, burns and cuts; patient exhibiting fear, anxiety and depression; multiple STD or pregnancy tests; presence of a third party who doesn’t allow the patient to speak; substance addiction/withdrawal symptoms; no fixed address or the patient’s lack of awareness of what city s/he is in; and existence of tattoos of names or strange symbols (often the “branding” mark of the trafficker).

PATH offers physicians a list of critical intervention techniques when faced with a situation in which trafficking victimization might be involved.  Doctors should not react or “act shocked” if a victim discloses, in order to avoid the perception that they are judging or are disgusted by the victim.  The patient’s identity and privacy must be respected, so an alias should be used for the patient’s record.  When possible, the doctor should try to see the patient alone (especially if the patient appears under someone’s control), at which time the doctor could explain that all information is being kept confidential and that the doctor can contact the police on the patient’s behalf, except in instances in which mandated reporting is called for. Above all, PATH advises, doctors must resist the urge to “rescue” the patient unless the patient specifically gives his or her consent. The most important thing doctors can do is to reassure suspected victims that the doctor cares and can be trusted.

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