Susie B. Baldwin, David P. Eisenman, Jennifer N. Sayles, Gery Ryan, Kenneth S. Chuang
Health and Human Rights 13/1
Published June 2011
An estimated 18,000 individuals are trafficked into the United States each year from all over the world, and are forced into hard labor or commercial sex work. Despite their invisibility, some victims are known to have received medical care while under traffickers’ control. Our project aimed to characterize trafficking victims’ encounters in US health care settings.
The study consisted of semi-structured interviews with six Key Informants who work closely with trafficking victims (Phase I) and 12 female trafficking survivors (Phase II). All survivors were recruited through the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, an NGO in Los Angeles, and all were trafficked into Los Angeles. Interviews were conducted in English and six other languages, with the assistance of professional interpreters. Using a framework analysis approach that focused on victims’ encounters in health care settings, we assessed interview transcript content and coded for themes. We used an exploratory pile-sorting technique to aggregate similar ideas and identify overarching domains.
The survivors came from 10 countries. Eight had experienced domestic servitude, three had survived sex trafficking, and one had experienced both. Half the survivors reported that they had visited a physician while in their traffickers’ control, and another worked in a health care facility. All Key Informants described other victims who had received medical care. For domestic servants, medical visits were triggered by injury and respiratory or systemic illness, while sex trafficking victims were seen by health professionals for sexually transmitted infections and abortion. Trafficking victims were prevented from disclosing their status to health care providers by fear, shame, language barriers, and limited interaction with medical personnel, among other obstacles.
This exploration of survivors’ experiences in health care settings supports anecdotal reports that US health care providers may unwittingly encounter human trafficking victims. Increasing awareness of human trafficking, and modifying practice to facilitate disclosure, could improve victim identification.