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ER doctors train to spot human trafficking victims

ER doctors are learning how to identity patients who may be victims of trafficking
Ira Gelb
Creative Commons
ER doctors are learning how to identify patients who may be victims of trafficking

So far this year, 133 cases of human trafficking have been reported in Michigan. Another 436 calls and emails referencing human trafficking Michigan have come in to the National Human Trafficking Center.

But spotting these victims can be tough: they’re often isolated, and frequently forced to move from city to city and state to state.

One placeexperts say they do show up? The emergency room.

“We know for a fact that these victims are seeking medical care while they’re being held,” says Dr. Alan Janssen. He runs the emergency department at Genesys Regional Medical Center, which just got a $50,000 state grant for a pilot program to identify human trafficking victims and connect them with resources.  

These kinds of programsare slowly being rolled outin hospitals around the country.

“There’s things we can look for: potentially an older person, an adult that comes in with a number of younger people – even an older lady who comes in with a number of younger boys or girls,” Janssen says.

“Somebody that’s really overbearing, that doesn’t let your patient answer their own questions. You can see fear sometimes in the eyes of the victims. And the other thing that’s really key, is looking for inconsistencies with what the patient tells you why they’re there….

“And as long as you do a really good history and physical exam, and you take the time to ask some questions, and you potentially interview the patient away from the person that is with them, who may be their captor, you can pick up on these folks and identify them.”

Still, Janssen says, it’s not just a matter of spotting a potential victim. Doctors need to learn how to carefully approach a tough conversation with their patients, too.

“They can’t sense that you’re being overly aggressive,” he says. “Because, they don’t trust you. They’ve been told not to trust other adults. And when you think about what they’ve gone through, why would they trust an adult?

“So you don’t come out and just start asking blatant questions. You start asking screening questions. Have you ever been to the emergency room before? What kind of injuries have you had? And then when you start getting positives, you drill down a little bit more. For example: have you had any lacerations or cuts? Yes? Well, tell me about that a little bit. Why did you run away? What did you do for food, for money?"

Yet even as doctors get more training to spot and connect with victims of trafficking, there’s still a long way to go.

“A number of the people we’ve had, I was positive they were being victimized," Janssen says. "We got them to a position where we could potentially have further discussion with them, and then some of them will recant their stories later on. They’re afraid, they don’t know what to do … and it’s tough to get them to follow through all the time.

“But if you can get them a number later that will help them, when they’re ready, maybe they’ll come back. Maybe they’ll make the call on their own. At least you’ve helped them recognize there’s more out there. And maybe you’ve just helped them realize they’re a victim; most of them don’t think of themselves as a victim.”

The larger goal here is to get these kinds of training programs in medical centers across the state, says Nick Evans, VP of funding and business development and Genesys Health Foundation.

“If everybody’s doing this in lock step across the state, then there’s no place [for the traffickers] to go,” he says.

If you think someone you know may be a victim of human trafficking, you can go here,or call this confidential help line: 1-888-373-7888 for the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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