How EMS providers can identify a victim of human trafficking

Rebecca Bender, a trafficking victim and advocate, describes indicators for evaluating if an EMS patient is a victim of human trafficking


SAN DIEGO — Mention the term human trafficking, and most of us will conjure up images of victims huddled in a corner of an inner city apartment, a menacing character keeping them in chains, and the victim making a mad dash for freedom.

Sadly this is not the accurate view of what happens in trafficking in the United States, according to Rebecca Bender, a human trafficking victims advocate and opening presenter for the National Association of EMS Physicians 2016 Annual Meeting. 

A trafficking survivor herself, Bender detailed the challenges in identifying trafficking victims whose ages range from 2 to 12 years. Males and females are preyed upon by traffickers. Trafficking occurs across the country, from rural to urban settings.

Rebecca Bender at the National Association of EMS Physicians 2016 Annual Meeting. (Instagram photo)
Rebecca Bender at the National Association of EMS Physicians 2016 Annual Meeting. (Instagram photo)

Bender shared that victims are "groomed" by their traffickers, often wooed over a period of months by promises of romance, support and a way out of an unwanted life. Unfortunately the subsequent life is usually far worse, filed with coercion, physical beatings, and sexual slavery.

Key takeaways: Indicators of a victim of human trafficking
Bender provided several indicators to look for when evaluating whether a patient may be a victim of human trafficking. The list included the following:

  • Many victims are tattooed by their traffickers, often with the trafficker's name, dollar signs or phrases that hint at prostitution.
  • Payment for medical care is likely provided in cash rather than through medical insurance or credit card.
  • There may be a "boyfriend" present who is significantly older than the victim.
  • A common ED visit complaint is a tampon that needs to be removed by emergency department staff. This is due to the string of the tampon being deliberately cut so that the victim can continue to be sold for sex during menstruation.
  • Interactions between EMS providers and trafficking victims can range from submissive to confrontational.

EMS providers can identify environmental situations that may indicate trafficking is occurring. For example, a possible scenario is a young female assault victim who is found in a motel room with direct access to the parking lot, located near a restaurant where the trafficker can watch who goes in and out of the motel room.

EMS providers can intervene through the identification of possible trafficking victims. Bender cautioned that it is not likely that victims will answer direct questions about their situation; consider asking questions that tease out information about financial status or housing arrangements. 

For a known or suspected victim of human trafficking contact local task forces on trafficking, or reach out to the National Human Trafficking Hotline (888-373-7888). 

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