Human trafficking is something many of us think happens far away.
But it’s not far away. Sex trafficking and forced labor take place in our own communities. Nurse Karen Silva knows the signs and sees them everywhere. She sees victims of human trafficking in the airport, supermarkets, beauty parlors, and even selling candy or magazines door-to-door.
“This happens everywhere in the community, and we want everyone to know the signs.”
She also sees them weekly in the emergency room—not too surprising, as a 2014 study found 88% of sex trafficking survivors had received medical care at some point while they were being trafficked. This means hospitals and doctor’s offices can be on the front lines of identifying victims and offering help.
“It’s everywhere,” says Karen. “If we know how to recognize it, there’s a huge chance to help. This happens everywhere in the community, and we want everyone to know the signs.”
Karen and a team including a lawyer, social workers, and other nurses have trained more than 500 Cedars-Sinai staff members and hold workshops for community groups to train them in recognizing the signs of trafficking and forced labor.
Signs someone is being trafficked
These are some of the signs Karen and her team suggests people be aware of, both in healthcare settings and in the community.
- Certain injuries are telltale signals of trafficking. Jaw and neck injuries, cigarette burns, and multiple injuries in various stages of healing all may indicate abuse.
- Tattoos or brands. While tattoos are far more common, it’s not flowers, designs, or elaborate body art that is usually a sign of trafficking. Rather, names, barcodes, or phrases that may refer to their trafficker can indicate someone is being trafficked.
- Implanted chips. Healthcare workers trained to recognize trafficking will be on the lookout for small stiches or tiny, rice-grain-sized scars that might indicate a person has been microchipped.
- Inappropriate clothes for the occasion or time of day. Someone dressed scantily in cold weather or for a night club in the middle of the day may be in trouble.
- Simple illnesses that have been untreated. A small infection that has become serious or a chronic illness that has gone untreated are causes for concern to healthcare workers.
- Having someone else speak for them. People being trafficked might be accompanied by another person who talks for them or gives an inconsistent story. Trafficking victims are often reluctant to talk about their injuries or may consult with someone on the phone before sharing information.
- Other behavioral signals include not making eye contact, seeming fearful, not knowing what day or time it is, or not knowing what city they’re in.
“If we know how to recognize it, there’s a huge chance to help.”
What you can do
If you encounter someone in the community who you think might be a victim of trafficking, there are a few things you can do.
- Ask questions. If you encounter someone working and they exhibit the above signs, you might ask them when they last had a day off or a break. Labor trafficking takes many forms and happens in many industries, like construction, domestic service, factory work, and agriculture among others.
- Report suspected trafficking. Call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text at 233733.
- If they’re a minor, act immediately. Report the abuse to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. In Los Angeles, if you suspect a child is being trafficked, call the Department of Children and Family Services at 800-540-4000.
The problem is especially difficult to confront because victims of trafficking are often scared. In some cases, Karen points out, they may have ended up in their current situation because they were fleeing abuses elsewhere. In other cases, they may be working under extremely harsh conditions, but don’t necessarily think of it as trafficking themselves.
“It’s everywhere,” Karen says. “If we can start to see the problem, there’s a chance we can help.”