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Human Trafficking: What Can I Do About It?

by Allen Pelletier, MD; Clydette Powell, MD, MPH; and Gloria Halverson, MD
Today's Christian Doctor - Fall 2015

“I had just finished teaching at Grand Rounds about healthcare and human trafficking. There are so many points to make about the importance of involvement by healthcare professionals; it’s hard to get it all compressed down to one presentation. The line of questioners who came up afterwards was slowly diminishing when the next doctor in line stated what I hear after almost every lecture, ‘The signs you gave to identify a trafficked victim fit exactly with someone I saw in the ER last week. I didn’t know. I am so sorry I didn’t help.’”

Are you like this doctor who didn’t know they were treating a victim of human trafficking? Have you ignored the warning signs because you weren’t sure what you could do to help? You are not alone. For healthcare professionals, helping those who have been trafficked reflects a Christ-like response. But what do the church’s world mission and our calling as Christians have to do with a response to human trafficking? In a word, everything! Why? Because when you consider what the Lord requires of us, it is “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly…” (Micah 6:8, NIV 2011).

As a global phenomenon, trafficking in persons (TIP) is fundamentally a human rights issue driven by many complex socio-economic factors. TIP dates back at least to the time of Joseph, who was sold by his family to foreigners (Genesis 37:27-28). Today, by force, fraud or coercion, people find themselves trapped in circumstances which negatively impact their freedom and dignity. They are forced to labor in such places as factories, fields, fisheries and brothels, suffering from acute and chronic health disorders as a result of dangerous working conditions, unscrupulous employment practices and little, if any, compensation or chance to escape. Men, women and children are trafficked, not just across borders or in a developing country, but within U.S. cities and towns. As a result, TIP has been likened to “modern-day slavery.” The prevalence of TIP is likely underestimated because of its illicit nature. According to the International Labor Organization, approximately 21 million people are enslaved today throughout the world, including in our own neighborhoods here in the U.S.1

Dr. Pelletier’s Story

I served several terms as a healthcare missionary in Africa and thought I was well informed and aware of the global problem of human trafficking. But after leaving the mission field and settling into an academic medical practice in Augusta, Georgia, I lapsed into thinking, “This is a problem somewhere else, not here, so it’s really not my concern.”

I was shaken out of my complacency when the senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Augusta began working systematically through the so-called “minor prophets” of the Old Testament. One consistent theme he taught was that Yahweh—the Lord not just of Israel but all the nations—is holy and just. Unlike the gods of surrounding nations, He is not capricious or changeable. And He insists that His people—made in His image—act accordingly. To act justly and rightly is to reflect the very character of God; to act otherwise is the definition of injustice. One of the worst injustices singled out by the prophets was to treat other human beings bearing the image of God as commodities to be bought and sold.

Challenged by this line of thinking, I approached our missions pastor with an idea: Could we address human trafficking during our upcoming annual church missions conference? As it turned out, others were thinking along similar lines. With a mandate from Scripture to bring the good news of liberty in Christ to all corners of life, we began.

Step 1– A five loaves and two fish question: “What do you have?”

We didn’t have much, at first. But our missions pastor knew several people in the church with an interest and concern for local TIP awareness. Although some were already involved in education and outreach ministries, they were isolated from one another and the larger church community. We realized we could join forces for such a project.

Awareness of human trafficking is a pressing need for most healthcare professionals who care but are not trained, as they would not recognize a person who had been trafficked or even what to do if they suspected they were encountering one in the healthcare setting.2 A 2014 U.S. study reported 87.8 percent of trafficked women interviewed had seen a healthcare professional during their captivity but in no instance did that encounter contribute to them being freed.3

Augusta has a large academic medical center and other large hospitals, and many of the area’s physicians, dentists, nurses and therapists are involved in our church and other evangelical churches in the area. We are also home to an 8,000+ student state university. So we asked ourselves, “Besides the church, could we help to raise awareness about TIP and train professionals in healthcare and other relevant disciplines such as education, political science, criminal justice, counseling and others?”

Step 2 – Connecting the Dots

I began to map out these connections. Who might be interested and, equally important, who should be interested and trained? Could we leverage connections in the academic community and thereby educate healthcare providers and others in the community? Could we bring in outside speakers to raise interest?

Step 3 – Reaching Out to CMDA

CMDA has a Commission on Human Trafficking dedicated to helping members fight against human trafficking, and they have developed a set of online continuing medical education modules on TIP. These online modules are available to anyone interested. When I visited the commission’s webpage, I realized I had personal connections with several members who created the continuing education program. I reached out to Drs. Gloria Halverson and Clydette Powell: “Would you be interested in presenting a program on TIP in Augusta, Georgia?” They both responded with an enthusiastic, “Yes!”

Step 4 – Thinking Big

If we were going to bring in national experts, I thought: “Why not go all out?” I listed all the possible venues and opportunities: Grand Rounds at a local hospital; meeting with community groups; a lecture at the local university; meeting with interested faculty and students; networking with community groups already involved at a local level; lectures and workshops at our local university; and meeting with the local CMDA chapters and groups. What about publicity? It turned out that the university’s public relations department was more than willing to help!

Step 5 – From Concept to Reality

The program began taking shape with two connected areas of focus. One would center on the church missions conference and the second would focus on education and outreach to our academic community.

We featured Drs. Powell and Halverson as the guest speakers at the opening program of our church’s annual missions conference. Our missions pastor organized a lunch for them to meet and network with representatives from several community groups already active in local TIP ministries. Dr. Halverson also works closely with the House of Hope, a ministry in Nicaragua that rescues women and children from human trafficking, then disciples them. Women are trained to make jewelry they can sell to support their families. As an added touch, we arranged for a representative from the House of Hope to come and display and sell jewelry during the conference.

You can’t pull off a program like this without some last minute glitches. One appeared right at the start. At our opening banquet, Dr. Halverson pulled me aside: “You know, this material is pretty graphic, and I see a lot of young children here.” (Our church is blessed with many young families and LOTS of kids!) We had to improvise on the fly and quickly put together a separate non-TIP program for children under 12. Parents were encouraged to use their discretion for teenagers attending the TIP presentation in the larger sanctuary. With willing help (and more than a few prayers), we pulled it off, and Dr. Powell and Dr. Halverson gave their powerful presentation to a packed house of 500 church members and guests, with the central message that “the church is the answer.”

For the second part of our program, we reached out to educate faculty and students at our medical and health professional schools, as well as our undergraduate campus. I arranged a Grand Rounds on TIP through my home Department of Family Medicine. We reached out to colleagues at outlying educational and medical sites to watch a live broadcast of the Grand Rounds. And then I came up with another idea: inviting remote audience participation by Twitter! In total, 60 faculty, residents and students from several other departments attended the Grand Rounds. An unknown number watched the program live (or in archived form) via the internet and submitted live Twitter questions. Drs. Powell and Halverson also gave a two-hour lecture seminar open to all students and faculty at our undergraduate campus. This was attended by about 250 faculty and students!

Two local television stations featured these programs on their daily newscast. One local station sent a crew for media interviews. Our “hook” to the local viewing audience was that Augusta is home to a world famous golf tournament. Wherever such events happen that bring in large numbers of men, trafficking in persons is likely.

Step 6 – Assessing the Impact

More than a year later, we are still seeing the impact of these programs. Some 25 guests attended the community workshop organized by our missions pastor, resulting in networking and a grassroots interchange in our community. Our church adopted the House of Hope as an ongoing project to support, and several church members have already visited the House of Hope twice this year. Finally, our church is hosting annual training programs on TIP for local and regional law enforcement officers.

The Grand Rounds program generated great interest and exposure on our campuses, as well. Students and residents still remember the program and ask me about it, more than a year later. A sorority officer attended the undergraduate campus program and recently reached out to ask for an educational program on TIP for their members. Using materials provided from CMDA and Drs. Halverson and Powell, I gave a lecture on TIP at a national CME course for primary care physicians.

What you can do?

You may not have all the resources and connections mentioned here. But you likely have more resources and tools at your disposal than you probably realize. Raising awareness about TIP is just one part of our mission as faithful servants of Christ to bring the gospel to bear on all of life. If you stop and think about it, it’s amazing what can be accomplished by one or two individuals. Who knows the impact we might have on individuals, communities and perhaps even entire societies? “…And who knows whether you have not come… for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14, ESV).

How to Get Involved

  • Get trained. Visit www.cmda.org/tip to access the online continuing education modules about how you as a healthcare professional can make a difference in the fight against human trafficking. Attend the seminar sponsored by CMDA’s Commission on Human Trafficking on November 13-14, 2015 in Atlanta, Georgia to become more informed. For more information, visit www.cmda.org/humantrafficking.
  • Know the problem in your area. Did you know that human trafficking occurs in both large urban areas and small towns? You can find out how prevalent human trafficking is in your state by visiting the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at www.traffickingresourcecenter.org.
  • Locate resources. CMDA offers a wide variety of resources to help you get involved in the fight against human trafficking. You can also find more resources from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center and from the Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
  • Reach out. Follow the example set by Dr. Pelletier and suggest a church event, present at a Grand Rounds program, train others, volunteer with a local TIP ministry or even go on a TIP-focused healthcare missions trip with CMDA’s Global Health Outreach.

Bibliography

1 International Labor Organization, June 2012. http://www.ilo.org/global/lang-en/index.html
2 Beck ME, Lineer MM, et al. Medical providers’ understanding of sex trafficking and their experience with at-risk patients. Pediatrics. 2015; 135 (4): e895 - e902
3 Lederer L, Wetzel C. The health consequences of human trafficking and their implications for identifying victims in healthcare facilities. Annals of healthcare law. 2014; 23: 61-90


ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Allen Pelletier, MD
Clydette Powell, MD, MPH
Gloria Halverson, MD