Shedding Light on Human Trafficking
It was a typical busy day in the St. Anthony’s Hospital Emergency Center when the young woman came in with an injury. Taylor Tessitore, a nurse, was just starting her shift.
“The night shift nurse mentioned that this young woman came in … with a much older male who seemed aggressive and was speaking for her regarding what happened,” Taylor said. Due to COVID-19 and hospital visitation rules, the man was not able to go into the patient’s room.
Taylor huddled with the triage nurse and the physician who had been treating the patient. They shared that the patient seemed fearful and didn’t want to talk; that her companion was speaking for her instead of letting her tell the story. From their training, the clinical team recognized two possible indicators of human trafficking.
Over the next several hours, Taylor and her colleagues would work to make sure the young woman knew she had options for where she could go when she left the hospital, putting into action the training they’d received and their commitment to the whole patient.
The story is just one example, as the U.S. marks National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, of how awareness and training for health care workers and other public-facing services can make a difference when it comes to human trafficking.
According to the International Labour Organization, an estimated 40.3 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking at any given time. The crime of human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to compel some type of labor or commercial sex act from a victim. As the U.S. Department of Homeland Security notes it can occur in any community and victims can be any age, race, gender or nationality.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline says that Florida consistently ranks third in the nation for reported cases of human trafficking, just behind California and Texas. Since January 2020, Tampa Bay law enforcement have shown a heightened awareness of human trafficking, having formed the Tampa Bay Human Trafficking Task Force.
But Taylor’s story also shows the impact of professional continuing education courses for health care workers, who frequently meet people when they are most vulnerable. This month, the American Hospital Association is also highlighting the importance of raising awareness among health care workers to spot potential human trafficking victims.
That day at St. Anthony’s, Taylor began to chat with the patient to get her to open up. The patient had breakfast and Taylor continued to check in with her.
“She was extremely guarded, but I kept trying to make a connection and build a relationship,” Taylor said. Once the patient shared how she was injured, the emergency center team asked the police to talk with the patient.
Police officers arrived at her room and then called in officers from their human trafficking team. “I remained at the bedside as much as possible to ensure the patient had a female presence in the room and knew that I was there to help her in any way I could,” Taylor said. The patient was eventually discharged to a safe place with her family.
“I’m so proud of Taylor and the emergency center team for recognizing the signs of human trafficking,” said Laurie Duchamp, a St. Anthony’s director of patient services who oversees the nurses in the emergency center. “Using the training that they receive to identify the signs of human trafficking may have saved this young woman’s life.”
The Florida Board of Medicine requires all medical doctors and osteopaths to complete one hour of human trafficking continuing education each year. BayCare partnered with the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking to make a presentation last year for physicians to help meet that continuing education goal. The Tampa-based institute’s presentation also was recorded for those physicians who could not attend in person.
Nurses also have required continuing education, a two-hour human trafficking course every two years as part of their licensure renewal. The course encompasses a diversity of information, including data on the types of human trafficking, such as labor and sex, and the extent of human trafficking; factors that place a person at greater risk of being a victim of human trafficking; and public and private social services available for rescue, food, clothing, and shelter referrals.
Healthcare workers are primed to help. “At BayCare, we strive to take care of the whole patient and to do that, we need to be aware that a patient could be asking for help with more than the complaint that brought them to our emergency department or urgent care location,” said David Ball, DO, St. Anthony’s Hospital emergency center medical director and chairman of the BayCare Emergency Department Collaborative.
“Human trafficking often occurs in plain sight and being aware of it is the first step…It is important to create a safe space to help identify any indications of human trafficking and try to assist the patient,” Ball said. “Not all patients will be comfortable disclosing their situation but as a medical provider, we have a unique opportunity to provide human trafficking victims with options.”
Taylor left work that day knowing she’d made a difference. “Nursing has been the most rewarding aspect in my life and has blessed me in so many ways,” Taylor said. “I’m just glad that I could help the patient get back home.”
Signs of Human Trafficking
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS.gov), there are many indicators to recognize if a person is a victim of human trafficking. Here are some common indicators to help recognize human trafficking.
- Does the person appear disconnected from family, friends, community organizations, or houses of worship?
- Is the person disoriented or confused, or showing signs of mental or physical abuse?
- Does the person have bruises in various stages of healing?
- Is the person fearful, timid or submissive?
- Does the person show signs of having been denied food, water, sleep or medical care?
- Is the person in the company of someone to whom he or she defers? Or someone who seems to be in control of the situation, e.g., where they go or who they talk to?
- Does the person appear to be coached on what to say?
To report human trafficking, contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline toll free 1-888-373-7888.