L-R Dave McCleary, Alveda King, Renee Unterman, Laura Lederer, Julianna McConnell, Karla Jacobs
L-R Dave McCleary, Alveda King, Renee Unterman, Laura Lederer, Julianna McConnell, Karla Jacobs

One of the challenges in getting human trafficking victims the help they need is finding them to begin with.  Many trafficked women and children are hiding in plain sight and just need someone to ask the right questions to identify them.  Georgia Cares, the statewide organization coordinating care and services for child victims, reports that 90 percent of the children referred to them for services are enrolled in school.  In a study by Global Centurion, a non-profit focused on disrupting the demand side of human trafficking, 88 percent of survivors reported seeing a health care professional during the time they were being trafficked.

Global Centurion president and founder, Laura Lederer, joined Georgia lawmakers and local advocates for a lunch and learn hosted by Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols in early July.  Ms. Lederer gave a presentation focused on the toll human trafficking takes on the health of women and girls who are exploited and highlighted the unique role healthcare professionals can play in identifying victims and referring them to support services.

Substance abuse, violence, and reproductive health issues are closely entwined in the trafficking experience and often send victims into the path of healthcare professionals.  Survivors reported receiving care in hospital emergency rooms, Planned Parenthood clinics, urgent care clinics, women’s health clinics, and private doctors.

These points of contact provide an opportunity to identify trafficking victims and to refer them to the help they need, but first healthcare professionals need training in how to look for the critical signals—injuries from physical violence particularly head or facial injuries, signs of PTSD, multiple STDs, substance abuse, and multiple abortions, especially in younger patients.  A coercive and controlling “boyfriend” on the scene is also a warning sign.  Ms. Lederer recommends this training start in the professional schools and continue through certification.

Once healthcare providers identify a sex trafficking victim, they need to know the guidelines and protocols for referring victims to proper anti-trafficking organizations to coordinate their care.  These women and girls need the basics of food, clothing, and shelter, but they also may need specialized medical assistance, substance abuse programs, legal assistance, law enforcement assistance, and translation services.  In Georgia, we are fortunate to have a robust safety net that is working well, but we need to ensure that our healthcare providers know how to access it.

The health consequences of human trafficking continue for decades after girls and women leave the life, and we need more research into how to help survivors as they reintegrate into society and put their lives back together.  We need to better understand the unique challenges for the children who are born to these women during the time they are trafficked.  We need to address the ongoing psychological problems experienced by these women.  More than 80 percent report depression after trafficking; more than 60 percent show symptoms of PTSD.  We need research-driven best practices for helping women who have experienced the traumas of trafficking, and we need to continue to practice trauma informed care in helping survivors recover from their experience.

I told a friend recently that working on the issue of human trafficking often feels like we are trying to bail out the Titanic with a teacup.  There are things each of us can do, though, to help victims become survivors.  Talk to your friends who are healthcare professionals and ask them if they have received training on identifying and treating trafficking victims.  Talk to your doctors and ask them if they have provided training for their staffs.  Encourage them to learn more.

This year, 2016, offers all Georgia voters an opportunity to be part of the solution.  The November ballot will have a proposed constitutional amendment called Safe Harbor, and children being trafficked in our state need for you to vote “Yes.”  This amendment will create a fund to provide rehabilitation services for child victims and a commission to oversee the funding.  The money for the fund will come from fines assessed to those convicted of trafficking offenses as well as a tax on adult entertainment establishments.  To insulate it from politics, the fund will be separate from the state budget.  That is why it is set up as a state constitutional amendment that voters must approve.

Healthcare professionals can truly be the first responders in the fight against human trafficking.  Encourage the ones in your life to learn how, and join me in voting Safe Harbor Yes in November.  Together we can #EndIt.

You can find a summary of the study results in the Beazley Insititute for Health Law and Policy Annals of Health Law, Winter 2014.


Karla Jacobs is the chair of the Georgia Commission on Women and a member of the CJCC Statewide Human Trafficking Task Force.  She lives in Marietta with her husband, two kids, a dog, and some fish.