Health care workers can be in a unique position to detect the signs of human trafficking, so Via Christi is training its employees on how to watch for clues that someone needs help.
“The health care setting, a lot of times, is the only place they’ll come into contact with someone from the outside,” said Nicole Ensminger, MRI technologist with Anatomi Imaging, which provides imaging services at Via Christi Health.
Ensminger and others in the Via Christi system are organizing training for health care providers and hope that the training can spread to other hospitals.
Human trafficking is not just prostitution, Marc Bennett, Sedgwick County district attorney, told Via Christi employees during a training seminar last week. It includes forced labor in a number of occupations – maids, nannies, janitors, farmers and restaurant or construction workers.
“You may be the only time they’re going to be with somebody who can ask a few questions and maybe point them in the right direction,” Bennett told the health care providers.
Bennett said they’ve worked on more than 50 cases involving human trafficking in the past two years, and, because it is on I-35, Wichita has higher rates than some other areas.
Over the past few years, there’s been a shift toward looking at people being trafficked as victims and not criminals, Bennett said. Many of the cases in Wichita involve runaways.
“No one wants to do this. No one wakes up at the age of 18 or 21 or 30 and says ‘You know, I’m kind of bored with my life. I think I’ll go have sex with strangers for money. You know, that sounds like an exiting life.’ That doesn’t happen,” Bennett said.
“These gals that end up in this as adults, almost all of them ... were trafficked, they were all abused as children. They come out of this feeling like they’re broken.”
In 2013, the Wichita Police Department identified 29 victims and charged 14 suspects with trafficking people under the age of 18. The department also identified an additional 12 possible suspects for the crime, said Capt. Jeff Weible, bureau commander for special investigations and former director of the Wichita-Sedgwick County Missing and Exploited Child Unit.
Human trafficking has always been an underground problem, Weible said.
“I don’t think the problem is getting any bigger necessarily, because it’s always been an underground problem,” he said. “I think we’re seeing more cases because of community awareness and better skills in identifying cases, which gives a more accurate picture.”
“What this boils down to is abuse,” Weible said, and most of the victims don’t self-identify and say ‘Help me, I’m a victim,’ ” Weible said.
Some of the signs to look for are fear, anxiety, avoiding eye contact, and whether the person has experienced sexual trauma or if they have a high number of sexual partners for their age, Weible said.
Health care professionals should also pay attention if the person comes in with a non-family member who speaks for them and doesn’t want to leave them alone.
The key to getting information or to letting the person know they’re safe is getting them alone.
“You have to build the rapport and gain the trust of the patient. You have to reassure them that you’re there to help them,” said Tina Peck, forensic nursing services project coordinator at Via Christi.
“You also need to tell them that if they’re from another country, they will not be deported. Some of these patients will be in complete fear they’re going to be deported. If they’re identified as a victim of human trafficking, there are special circumstances.”
Peck also instructed the health care providers on the steps to take in reporting and helping possible human trafficking victims, including increasing security for their safety and documenting everything.
Via Christi nurses perform between 300 and 350 sexual assault exams each year, Peck said.