Identifying and Helping Victims of Human Trafficking

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A person’s hands tied together with rope.

In 2020, the Migration Data Portal tracked 108,613 individual cases of human trafficking around the globe. The victims came from 164 countries and represented 175 different nationalities. These appalling numbers point to an estimated $150 billion industry built on forced labor, sexual exploitation and other forms of abuse. Due to its black-market nature and ties to shadow economies, human trafficking’s actual number of victims is thought to be substantially higher.

Prior to the pandemic, it was estimated that 88% of human trafficking victims needed medical attention during their captivity, according to the Rural Health Information Hub. Sadly, many victims go unnoticed because health care workers struggle to identify them. To combat this issue, victim advocacy groups and professional nursing associations nationwide are calling for better training in identifying these victims for health care practitioners, including nurses who work in direct patient care.

Forensic nurses are particularly well equipped with the training and education necessary for helping victims of human trafficking. By using their skills to identify and support these victims, they can help them find safety and may aid in ultimately upending the underground criminal enterprise.

The Role of the Nurse in Combating Human Trafficking

The role of the nurse in combating human trafficking is often right at the front lines, partially due to the nature of human trafficking. Victims are often forced to endure harsh, abusive conditions, which can result in their requiring health care services. These services are sought out in a wide range of clinical environments, such as emergency rooms, family planning clinics, abortion clinics, and community centers.

During these visits, nurses are often the first health care providers victims encounter, which may provide nurses with the opportunity to identify these victims and help them take the first step toward extricating themselves from their situations. Because of this, it’s important for nurses to take any sign of potential trafficking seriously, however small that sign may appear.

Improving Human Trafficking Screening and Assessment Tools

In 2017, the Allegheny Health Network in southwestern Pennsylvania conducted a pilot program to identify potential human trafficking victims. The results, which were published in the Journal of Emergency Nursing, showed that 38 patients were identified as possible human trafficking victims at the hospital during the five-month program. After further examination, one of the patients was confirmed as a victim of trafficking.

The hospital, which previously had no procedures in place to identify victims, changed its procedures to begin screenings at the registration desk. When patients didn’t have identification or insurance, paid in cash, or were with another person who appeared to be in control, the desk clerk flagged the patient’s electronic health record. Patients were also able to alert hospital personnel to their situation by applying a blue dot on their urine sample cups.

Once the possible victim was identified, doctors, nurses, social workers and hospital security personnel huddled to determine the next step. The possible victims were privately interviewed. Children were referred to child protective services, and adults were given the option of intervention.

The noted improvements that come as a result of increased training have propelled local and state agencies to mandate trafficking education for health care workers. Despite the successes, however, there has been a call for more consistent messaging across the nation.

Human Trafficking and Healthcare: The Need for Mandatory Training

To date, human trafficking awareness programs and training mandates have been patchworked across states. Medical experts suggest the best way to combat these inconsistencies is to standardize health care providers’ education through mandatory training on the relationship between human trafficking and health care. A 2021 report published by the Journal of Medical Education and Curricular Development indicated that accredited training programs lead to short-term gains in understanding human trafficking. The report also concluded that training provides a sustained improvement in human trafficking awareness.

There are several ways nurses can benefit from mandatory training, from learning how to help victims of human trafficking make their way through the health care system to gaining the skills to advocate for more services for victims. While all nurses are trained to help sick and injured patients, forensic nurses are specifically trained to assist victims of human trafficking with a broad-based education that crosses the medical and legal landscapes and prepares them to be certified as sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs). Forensic nurses work side by side with law enforcement and social service organizations for victim justice. They collect and preserve evidence, take photos for use in court and ensure facts are properly documented.

Help Initiate and Ensure Patients’ Safety

Nurses who are trained to identify victims of human trafficking can do more than administer care to patients in need. They can help victims break free of an insidious underground industry, which could ultimately help them get their lives back. This makes the ability to identify relevant warning signs of human trafficking one of the most valuable skills a nurse can possess.

Duquesne University’s online Post-Master’s Nursing Certificates program can provide you with the opportunity to learn from some of the nation’s leading forensic nurse educators. With well-rounded courses such as Criminal Law and the Courts, and Forensic Science and the Legal System, a post-master’s nursing certificate can equip you with the skills you’ll need to help patients through a variety of issues. Explore the curriculum and help advocate for patient safety in your career.

Recommended Reading

Forensic Nurses’ Role in Legal Proceedings

Forensic Nurses Working in Violence Prevention and Social Justice

Forensic Nursing: An Emerging Field


Annals of Health Law, “The Health Consequences of Sex Trafficking and Their Implications for Identifying Victims in Healthcare Facilities”

Anti-Trafficking Review, “Human Trafficking Education for Emergency Department Providers”

CNN, “Covid-19 Pandemic Increased Number of People at Risk of Human Trafficking, State Department Report Says”

Journal of Emergency Nursing, “Implementation of Human Trafficking Education and Treatment Algorithm in the Emergency Department”

Journal of Medical Education and Curricular Development, “The Impact of Human Trafficking Training on Healthcare Professionals’ Knowlege and Attitudes”

Migration Data Portal, Human Trafficking

National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Center, “Core Competencies for Human Trafficking Response in Health Care and Behavioral Health Systems”

Nurselabs, “Human Trafficking in the Health Care Setting: Red Flags Nurses Need to Know”

Polaris, Myths, Facts, and Statistics

Polaris, Recognizing Human Trafficking

Rural Health Information Hub, “‘It’s on Us’: Healthcare’s Unique Position in the Response to Human Trafficking”

U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, “Fighting Human Trafficking Is a Global and Local Issue”