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Human trafficking initiative

A systematic approach to recognizing the signs of sex trafficking

Via Christi Health is training physicians, nurses and other clinicians to recognize warning signs that a patient may be a victim of human trafficking.

Via Christi launched its program as part of the Catholic Health Association’s national awareness campaign to combat human trafficking.

More than 125 clinicians attended training in late February 2014 at Via Christi Hospital St. Joseph and Via Christi Hospital St. Francis. A team of Via Christi clinicians developed a four-step protocol for frontline caregivers to follow, outlining warning signs to look for and the procedures for helping potential victims get help.

“I think this goes right to the heart of Via Christi, and who we are,” said Robert Stangl, MD, medical director of Emergency Medicine for Via Christi. “This is helping people who need to be helped, and doing it for all the right reasons.”

The meetings highlighted a growing concern in the Wichita region and across the nation about human trafficking, particularly sex trafficking.

Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett, one of the guest speakers for the training program, called the sex trade “another form of child abuse” and “a form of slavery” that is a multi-billion-dollar industry nationally. In 2013, the Wichita police identified 29 victims of human trafficking and charged 14 suspects with trafficking people under the age of 18.

In Wichita, Bennett said, young women typically are victims of human trafficking and any interaction they have with health care providers may be an opportunity to help them escape the sex trade. Though there is no “cookie-cutter definition,” he noted that very few of the girls or women “interact with the rest of society” and they often don’t want to be helped – or are too fearful to seek help.

Bennett thanked Via Christi for developing the training program and the protocol. He said he hopes the program will be adopted by other health care systems throughout Kansas and the nation.

Tina Peck, leader of Via Christi's forensic nursing program, says it’s important for clinicians to build a rapport with patients who are potential trafficking victims and to get the patient alone for an exam, providing an opportunity for a confidential conversation about their situation.

Dr. Stangl urged the clinicians to raise questions if they have any suspicions. “If something doesn’t seem right, it’s usually because it’s not right,” he said. “If we can help just one person, we can make a difference.”