In the business of EMS, we get to see society at its best and worst. We see things that most other people can’t even imagine. And yet before our very own eyes, we may not be seeing something that is occurring every single day all across the United States. It is a horrific thing that we believe only happens in other countries, but it is here and it is potentially right in our own back yard. That thing is human trafficking.
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has defined human trafficking as “the use of force, fraud or coercion to exploit someone for labor or commercial sex,”1 and no one is exempt as it affects men, women and children of all ages, and nationalities.
In January 2012 in Denver, 14 people were indicted on 70 counts of operating and patronizing a human trafficking ring that involved children being used for prostitution. These crimes were occurring all over the state. Then Colorado Attorney General John Suthers stated, “Human trafficking and child prostitution are tragic crimes, from the devastating effects they have on their victims to the mere fact that the use and sale of persons persists in the world today.”2
This is not just a problem found overseas. It also isn’t relegated just to sex, as forced labor is also prevalent. It can be found in our agricultural regions, oil fields and even our major cities. It’s a very real problem in the U.S. today, but there are efforts out there to stop it. One of those efforts is DHS’s Blue Campaign.
The Blue Campaign is “the unified voice for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s efforts to combat human trafficking. Working in collaboration with law enforcement, government, non-governmental and private organizations, the Blue Campaign strives to protect the basic right of freedom and to bring those who exploit human lives to justice.”3
EMS is front and center when it comes to identifying victims of human trafficking. While we may be seeing these victims as patients, we may not be recognizing what we are seeing.
These victims may present as just another patient. From DHS, some of the signs and symptoms include, but are not limited to, the following: 4
- Bruises, open wounds or scars in various stages of healing
- Infections due to a lack of medical attention
- Sexual organ trauma from working in the sex trade
- Chronic musculoskeletal issues from forced manual labor
- Cardiac or respiratory issues from forced manual labor
- Phobias, panic attacks or mental issues as a result of mental abuse or torture
In addition to identifying these signs and symptoms, EMS personnel should ask themselves the following questions:
- Is the patient with another person who seems to be “in control” of the patient by speaking for them, physically or mentally restraining them, etc.?
- Is the patient submissive in the presence of this other person?
- Is there a language or cultural barrier that inhibits effective communication?
- Does someone else have or possess the patient’s driver’s license, ID or passport? Do they have ID?
- Are they appropriately dressed? Is personal hygiene an issue?
- What are the living/working environments like?
These victims need help, and we can train our personnel to recognize these signs and symptoms. We can intervene on their behalf just like we do with suspected abuse cases. Law enforcement isn’t always at every EMS call, so it is imperative that we make the appropriate notifications if we suspect a patient may be a victim of human trafficking.
DHS is making another push to educate first responders about this problem and there are numerous resources available on their website at http://www.dhs.gov/blue-campaign. Educate yourself, educate your personnel, and take advantage of the DHS resources. A runaway teenager and a school resource officer were responsible for bringing down the Denver ring. Your agency could bring down the next one.
To read more about this important topic, read A.J. Heightman’s report on the keynote speech from the 2016 conference of the National Association of EMS Physicians.
1. Department of Homeland Security. (2015) What is human trafficking? Retrieved Jan. 10, 2016, from http://www.dhs.gov/blue-campaign/what-human-trafficking.
2. Meyer J. (Jan. 31, 2012) Colorado AG announces indictment of 14 in child-sex ring. The Denver Post. Retrieved Jan. 10, 2016, from http://www.denverpost.com/ci_19856313.
3. Department of Homeland Security. (2015) About the Blue Campaign. Retrieved Jan. 10, 2016, from http://www.dhs.gov/blue-campaign/about-blue-campaign.
4. Department of Homeland Security. (2015). Human Trafficking 101. Retrieved Jan. 10, 2016, from http://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/bc-inf-ht101-blue-campaign-human-trafficking-101.pdf.