Medical community puts new emphasis on addressing trafficking victims

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as seen on Inside NoVA January 24, 2020.

Author: Scott McCaffrey for the Sun Gazette Newspapers

The medical community could – and perhaps should – be on the front lines in helping to combat sexual-based human trafficking, especially of young people, but few in the profession have the specific knowledge to ask the right questions and follow up appropriately.

A recent forum sponsored by the Arlington County Medical Society attempted to rectify that.

Only 3 percent of medical providers are properly trained to assess trafficking situations, said Dr. Swati Shirali, who represented the Just Ask Prevention Project, a McLean-based advocacy and training organization, at the Jan. 15 event held at Washington Golf & Country Club.

“It’s happening in our area, in our back yard,” said Shirali, noting that human trafficking soon will exceed drug trafficking as the biggest worldwide criminal enterprise.

At first glance, medical professionals “may not recognize that [patients] are being trafficked,” said Shirali, an orthopedic surgeon with privileges at Virginia Hospital Center. And unlike stereotypes, the typical sex-trafficking victim lives at home and engages in forced-sexual activity when left unsupervised.

“A lot of these teens are manipulated – they don’t know they should go for help,” she said. “They feel trapped; they can’t get out. Some of them have no one to turn to, and just give up.”

The vast majority – 90 percent – of human-trafficking victims access health-care facilities and personnel at some point during their exploitation. Too often, victims find themselves feeling judged or discriminated against, in part because of a lack of understanding of the issues involved by those in the medical profession.

In her presentation, Shirali ran through a number of real-world incidents, where red flags popped up but were missed or ignored by health-care workers.

“You need to look one step beyond,” she said of the patient relationships. “We really need to talk to them on their level, be very non-judgmental. We’re all rushed . . . [but] take that extra moment.”

Despite advances in awareness, medical professionals still have a learning curve to address and peppered Shirali with questions at the forum.

One physician recalled the story of a pregnant 14-year-old patient who she suspected might be at risk, but “I didn’t know what to do or who to talk to.”

Read the rest of the story at Inside NoVA

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