Report Calls Nurses’ Attention to Human Trafficking Victims

Posted on

Monday February 7, 2011

Nurses and physicians generally lack knowledge about indicators of human trafficking when they encounter victims during their shifts, according to a new report.

Published in the February edition of the American Journal of Nursing, the report suggests ways in which clinicians can recognize the signs of trafficking and intervene to help victims.

Categories of human trafficking include sex trafficking, labor trafficking — such as debt bondage, forced labor and indentured servitude — and trafficking in child soldiers.

The report cites a study by the Family Violence Prevention Fund of 21 survivors of human trafficking in the San Francisco, Los Angeles and Atlanta areas. Researchers found 28% of the survivors had come into contact with healthcare providers while in captivity, but the providers did not realize their patients were being trafficked.

“Although there has been an increase in the number of non-governmental organizations that address trafficking issues and a growing public awareness over the last decade, many people, including healthcare professionals, remain uninformed about the problem,” said the report’s author, Donna Sabella, assistant clinical professor in the College of Nursing and Health Professions at Drexel University, Philadelphia, and director of education for the National Research Consortium on Commercial Sexual Exploitation.

“As the largest group of health professionals, and therefore the ones most likely to encounter trafficking victims, nurses are in a position to help intervene at several points — from the initial encounter when we can identify the situation to the victim’s rescue and restoration to health.”

According to the report, between 600,000 and 800,000 adults and children are trafficked across international borders, including 14,500 to 17,500 into the United States. An unknown number of victims are U.S. citizens, according to the report, and the majority are women and girls.

According to the report, nurses should be aware of the following signs that indicate possible trafficking and take appropriate steps to have the matter investigated:

• The person does not speak fluent English and someone else is speaking for him or her.

• The person appears disoriented.

• The person has no identification or travel documents or someone else is holding the documents.

• The person has no spending money.

• The person appears to be under the control and supervision of someone else who never leaves the person alone.

• There are signs of malnutrition, dehydration, drug use or addiction, poor general health or poor personal hygiene.

• There are signs of physical abuse or neglect, such as scars, bruises, burns, unusual bald patches, tattoos that raise suspicion (for example, “Property of —” or gang-like symbols), or untreated medical problems.

• The person appears depressed, frightened, anxious, or otherwise distressed.

• The person’s story about what he or she is doing in this country or on the job does not make sense.

• The person lives with an employer or at the place of business and cannot give you an address.

• Those who brought the person in for treatment are resistant to letting you speak with the person alone.

“Nurses have traditionally received little training in recognizing victims and understanding how to effectively intervene,” said Maureen Shawn Kennedy, RN, MA, editor-in-chief of AJN. “It’s critical that nurses and other healthcare providers become knowledgeable in this area, because the time when a trafficking victim presents with a health problem may be one of the only chances that victim will have to get help.”

Read the full report at and listen to a podcast interview of the author as part of AJN’s “Behind the Article” series offering insight and additional information related to the report.

If you suspect that someone is a trafficking victim and are unsure how to proceed, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline: 1-888-3737-888.