The very concept of human trafficking, the official term for human slavery, can often feel like an anachronism in the modern-day United States. Surely that’s something in the distant past, or at the very least limited to the distant corners of the globe, right?
But the fact is, humans, particularly women and children, are stripped of their freedom and exploited for profit every day in America. It often occurs in the shadows and out of sight, but it’s an everyday reality and growing epidemic in cities, suburbs and small towns across the country.
“There’s been a phenomenal rise in human trafficking, and it’s a relatively unknown problem to the average person,” confirms Dr. Alex Garvey, Senior Vice President of Mission at Bon Secours St. Francis Health System in Greenville.
Like other hospitals on the forefront of this issue, Bon Secours in Greenville is aware of the prevalence thanks to their community health needs assessment, something they were doing before the Affordable Care Act was passed and that is core to their identity as a Catholic hospital.
“Our hospital was founded by the Sisters of Bon Secours, whose ministry was founded for the care of the sick,” he affirms. “The call to heal in a religious-philosophical setting is central to our identity. When there’s a new hurt in our community, wherever the pain is, we are called to take that on.”
That call is particularly acute with human trafficking because hospitals and health systems are in contact with human trafficking victims more than other institutions. Plus, hospitals like Bon Secours in Greenville, located near both the I-85 and I-26 corridors, is in a prime area for human traffickers given their transitory nature. This is particularly true for victims who are being sexually exploited, as they often leave work areas after just a few days and often focus their movements around major sporting and entertainment events.
“We think we have a really unique opportunity to make a difference,” Garvey explains. “Due to the vulnerabilities of these victims, most of them young women, and the abuses they suffer (physical, psychological, pharmacological), up to 50 percent seek medical attention within the first 60 days of their capture.”
Bon Secours in Greenville places highest priority on educating, and all its staff undergo training to first be able to identify symptoms of trafficking and then appropriately intervene in a way that is safe for both victim and staff member.
“Some of the situations are just so horrific, our staff has had a hard time even understanding what’s going on,” he points out. That’s in part why he believes so strongly in the health system’s efforts to broaden their educational efforts to improve general public awareness of the everyday, everywhere nature of this tragedy.
“We never want to feel like the cavalry racing to save the day,” Garvey is careful to note. “We think of ourselves as more of conveners – community partners who work together with law enforcement in these efforts.”
Ultimately, Bon Secours in Greenville wants to encourage a grassroots message that can extend nationally and internationally. The key, according to Garvey, is putting so much attention and awareness around the issue that understanding it becomes almost commonplace.
“The signs of human trafficking need to be so obvious that it can be readily identified in the community at-large,” he stresses. “It should be just like domestic violence, something that your average citizen is familiar enough with to identify even with limited interaction.”
Garvey sees the long-term goal of the movement to combat human trafficking as pivoting from a reactive stance toward one of prevention.
“Early childhood trauma often leads to a sense of insecurity that makes young people the most vulnerable to being trafficked,” he explains. “A welfare system that focuses on targeted early interventions could lead a fairly rapid change towards prevention. Many of these kids are being targeted in foster care at ages of 13 or 14 and entering into this predatory system.”
Such prevention efforts require a broad approach that is well beyond the scope of the hospital, but Bon Secours in Greenville plans to drive that change. In 2017 they began their annual seminar on human trafficking, a day which brings together a variety of speaker perspectives and a diverse array of professionals who come into contact with victims of human trafficking to educate and build awareness.
This free all-day event is on Friday, August 23 this year at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena. Registration is required and is available here along with additional information.
For additional AHA resources on human trafficking and how healthcare officials can combat it, click here.