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Human Trafficking: Raising Awareness through Education

Healthcare workers can play an important rolein the fight against human trafficking

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Ten years ago in my role as a psychiatric mental health nurse I met with clients for individual and group sessions at several drop-in centers in Philadelphia. The centers were open to all who wanted some support, human contact, education and, yes, even fun. A large variety of activities took place at the centers to help those with mental health issues get back on track. Over time I got to know some of the regulars quite well, including Arlyn, a woman in her mid-40s.

Arlyn had shared with me her long struggle with depression and addiction, as well as her having been sexually abused as a child. However, I could never shake the feeling that there was something else not being shared with me until one day Arlyn presented with some bruises and a black eye, and said her "Daddy" had gotten angry with her. I knew that her father was dead and as that sunk in, so did the realization that she wasn't talking about her father. Her "Daddy" was her pimp.

In my Eureka moment, I realized that Arlyn was involved in prostitution and that quite possibly it was to help her get the drugs she was addicted to. I also started to wonder if some of the other women who frequented the centers might also have turned to prostitution as a means to an end - either for drugs or financial needs. 

Scarce Resources
That was the first question. The next question was: What was I going to do about it? I knew that until and unless Arlyn could start to address this aspect of her life, she could not be the woman she was meant to be.  In Philadelphia we had resources for addiction and for mental health, but in my experience, we had little at the time to offer prostituted women for treatment.

stop human traffickingAside from the scarcity of resources, I knew we had few healthcare professionals, including nurses, who were trained to be aware of this population, much less know how to work with someone who had been sexually exploited. I connected with DIGNITY, a program in Phoenix started by Kathleen Mitchell, who herself had been prostituted and whose help and wisdom were invaluable to me. I spent time there doing research and brought back information that was very helpful to Dawn's Place, a residential program in Philadelphia for prostituted and trafficked women founded by a group of dedicated nuns, lawyers from the Defenders Association, and funded by wonderful and generous donors. I developed the programming and was the first program director. But even then, there was more to be done as the need for trained professionals who had experience and knowledge in working with trafficked and exploited individuals was undeniable.

Invisible Victims
Human trafficking (HT) essentially involves placing individuals in exploitative situations through force, fraud and /or coercion. According to government reports, trafficking in persons is a rapidly growing criminal industry and one of the most lucrative forms of criminal activity as well. Whereas a drug can be used only once, human beings can be exploited over and over again, thereby making the selling and buying of human beings an extremely profitable endeavor for those doing the selling. According to government figures, which many agree are questionable owing to the covert nature of human trafficking, approximately 600,000 to 800,000 victims are trafficked yearly across international borders worldwide, with approximately 15,000 to 18,000 of them ending up trafficked into the U.S.  

Aside from international trafficking, domestic trafficking exists whereby American nationals, mainly girls and women, are moved from town to town and/or across state lines where they are forced into sexual exploitation and/or domestic servitude. According to a number of sources, of particular concern is the increase in the sex trafficking of domestic minors in this country. Those working in the healthcare field, especially nurses, and in the human services fields, including social workers and psychologists, and those involved in the criminal justice fields need to be aware of what trafficking is, the extent to which trafficking occurs and how to identify, support and treat trafficking victims. The odds are likely that at some point many of us in nursing will come across trafficking victims, many of whom are often hidden right in front of us in plain sight. Unfortunately one study revealed that more often than not healthcare professionals treating victims were not aware that they were doing so and thus the opportunity to intervene was lost.

Educating Healthcare Workers
Two questions down, and a few more to go. How could people learn about the phenomena of sexual exploitation and human trafficking?  And how could they be informed about appropriate and therapeutic interventions and care to help individuals heal and recover?  It was clear that the time had come to take an active role in educating ourselves about human trafficking, also referred to as modern day slavery, the universal phenomenon of enslaving and exploiting men, woman and children.

To inform healthcare professionals and others, I was fortunate to be allowed to offer an online course on the basics of human trafficking at Kutztown University, when I was faculty in the nursing program. When the nursing program there closed and I took a position at Drexel University, I was fortunate to be able to continue offering courses. Eventually I developed and offered a certificate in human trafficking there.

This June I left Drexel to assume the Seedworks Endowed Professorship in Social Justice at UMass Amherst where I teach an online upper level course on human trafficking as I work on  developing a certificate program there. UMass Amherst recognizes the importance of educating healthcare professionals as well as anyone who wishes to be better informed about this topic, its victims, victimizers, interventions, laws, policies and resources. While a course or certificate per se is not typically the means to a fulltime job in HT, taking a course or completing a certificate -both of which at UMass will be geared toward an interdisciplinary perspective-will provide students with information about various aspects of human trafficking both here and abroad, and enables them, regardless of their discipline, to directly apply what they have learned in their own field as well as understand the focus, goals and objectives  of other disciplines working to combat HT. 

As the move towards requiring professionals to have some knowledge and training about this universal phenomenon gains momentum, we can expect to see more schools and programs include this as part of their curriculum - which is a very good thing. I commend those in the process of doing so and heartily applaud the likes of Drexel and UMass for being leaders in the field. Anyone wishing information about the HT course at UMass Amherst  may contact me at

Donna Sabella is the Seedworks Endowed Associate Professor for Nursing and Social Justice  at  UMass Amherst College of Nursing. Anyone wishing information about the HT course at UMass Amherst  may contact her at

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