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Opinion: Police rely on partners to stop human trafficking

Human trafficking is estimated to impact nearly 25 million people around the world. And while human trafficking seems like a crime that occurs “over there,” in reality, it is a crime that occurs across the United States and “right here” in Missouri. 

Human trafficking includes the heinous crime of sexual exploitation of minors as well as the crime of forced labor on farms and in households. Human trafficking may include the actual movement of a victim from one location to another across state or national borders, or it may occur locally. Victims of human trafficking often know their criminal captor, and all too often it is a family member or former romantic partner.

Victims of human trafficking often are coerced into participating in criminal acts themselves, and captors use psychological abuse to convince their victims that the police can’t help. For police, it can be a challenge to identify the difference between a victim of trafficking coerced into a criminal behavior versus an individual committing a crime. And this is where nurses can assist police in partnering with communities.

Nursing is a trusted profession, and we can leverage that trust to help to end human trafficking. At the bedside, nurses can use open-ended questions combined with a physical assessment to identify possible victims. In the community, nurses can raise awareness and share resources to support victims to get in touch with police. Nurses are natural partners with police to stop human trafficking.

In Missouri, the late state Rep. Cloria Brown introduced HB 1246. This combats human trafficking by requiring the placement of posters containing resources to assist human trafficking victims. Since March 1, 2019, the “Missouri Stop Human Trafficking” poster has been displayed in a conspicuous place in or near the bathrooms or the entrance to a variety of establishments including: airports, bus and train stations, truck stops and roadside rest areas, emergency rooms, urgent care centers, and pregnancy resource centers. The poster, created by the Missouri Department of Public Safety, includes the phone number of the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. 

Nurses, through their professional training, can partner with police by helping to identify “red flags,” build rapport with our patients, and educate the community on available resources to get help from the police. Signs of possible human trafficking may include a suspected victim who shares what seems to be a scripted story or who is not aware of their current location, the date, or the time. Suspected captors may be unwilling to allow the victim to communicate freely with others, may control access to identification and money, or may demonstrate excessive concern about pleasing a victim. Identifying “red flags” of human trafficking relies upon the awareness of an overall pattern of behaviors that support your suspicions, and the appropriate response is to help make the suspected victim aware of the resources that are available.

Examples of the types of open-ended screening questions that may be useful to identify an overall pattern of behavior suggesting human trafficking, include asking the suspected victim: 1) Are you able to leave the place where you live or work? 2) What do you think would happen if you left your current situation? And 3) Is your communication with others restricted or monitored?

In 2019, a total of 233 human trafficking cases were reported in Missouri via the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline. This represents a steady increase in reports from 70 in 2015; 140 in 2016; 146 in 2017; and 179 in 2018. The economic hardships and the social isolation brought on by COVID-19 are likely to create an even greater likelihood of human trafficking in 2020. So we need to respond with a redoubled effort to partner with police to stop human trafficking.

Raising awareness of how to spot “red flags,” sharing resources such as the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline, and reminding individuals who are being trafficked that they are not criminals but rather victims of crime are essential steps we can each take to partner with the police.

There is no place in Missouri, in America, or around the world where human trafficking should be tolerated. Modern slavery, in every form, is unacceptable – from child prostitution to coerced labor by undocumented immigrants. Personal liberty demands that the scourge of human trafficking be eliminated, and our police need communities to partner with them to stop human trafficking.