A new partnership is aiming to expand training for medical professionals on how to identify and assist victims of human trafficking.
Global Strategic Operatives for the Eradication of Human Trafficking (Global Strategic Operatives) announced a new collaboration and partnership with the Selah Way Foundation, a global network of leading anti-sexual exploitation service providers at a press conference on Thursday, Jan. 30 in Washington, D.C.
Deb O’Hara-Rusckowski, one of the co-founders of Global Strategic Operatives, told CNA that the organization decided to go into the medical field because studies have shown that about 88% of victims of human trafficking seek medical treatment at some point while they are being trafficked.
As a member of the Order of Malta, a lay Catholic religious order, O’Hara-Rusckowski said she considers her work in combating human trafficking to be an ideal way to live out the three charisms of the order: caring for the sick, caring for the poor, and defending the faith.
“My whole life right now is living out my faith,” she said. “I can’t think of any better way of taking those charisms and really combining them to live out my faith.”
A pilot program has already begun at six hospital systems located around the country--Baptist Health in Florida, Advocate Aurora Health in Illinois, Hackensack Meridian Health in New Jersey, Harris Health System in Texas, Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, RWJ Barnabas Health in New Jersey, and Northwell Health in New York. These locations were chosen due to higher-than-average rates of human trafficking in their areas.
Staff members at hospitals in these healthcare systems have been trained to spot signs that a person may be a victim of human trafficking.
Representatives from each of the six hospital systems, Homeland Security Investigations (a branch of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security), as well as Congressmen Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Ross Spano (R-FL), spoke at the press conference in praise of Global Strategic Operatives.
Karen Stanford, the manager of the emergency department at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, IL, told CNA that the reality of human trafficking was brought home to her after her daughter was approached by a potential trafficker two years ago. Her hospital is part of the Advocate Aurora Health system.
“We live in a gated community, and so it was a bit of a shock,” she said. The experience prompted her to reach out to Paula Besler, vice president of Selah Freedom, looking to bring some sort of educational program to Lutheran General to better identify survivors of human trafficking.
“Then we had this awesome opportunity to partner with CommonSpirit Health, who brought some of their tools forward. And then we were able to fly in survivors to provide us with education and disbanding some of the [misconceptions] that were barriers to identifying,” said Stanford.
CommonSpirit Health is a Catholic health system that received a grant in 2019 to help combat human trafficking. It partners with Global Strategic Operatives.
As a healthcare professional, Stanford told CNA that there is a tendency to be “non-judgmental,” which has resulted in some red flags going unnoticed.
“If somebody comes in [to the emergency room] who we are suspecting is using drugs or prostituting, we’re oftentimes thinking that it is a choice, when the reality is, and what we’ve learned so very much around here, is that’s not necessarily true. It’s because they’re being forced into it,” said Stanford.
Since the training was put in place at her hospital, Stanford said that there have been increased identifications of people who were trafficked, and next month, the entire health system will launch a task force to further expand the program to 25 additional sites.
“I’m really excited to help that move forward,” said Stanford. “Now that there’s this recognition, there’s a great amount of momentum in emergency medicine to start the education and planning.”