Emergency rooms help create safety net for human trafficking victims

One of the biggest myths about human trafficking—whether it be sex, labour or organ trafficking—is that it’s only a problem in countries outside of Canada. The reality is human trafficking is indeed a problem in Canada—and statistics suggest most victims are Canadian.

Human trafficking is the act of exploiting an individual for personal gain through force, coercion or deceit.

Karah Rowson, Interim Executive Director for ACT Alberta

Eleanor Stewart, Clinical Ethicist with Covenant Health, says that although statistics on human trafficking are difficult to gather, current evidence shows victims of human trafficking are likely to have contact with the healthcare system during the time they are trafficked. 

Eleanor Stewart, Clinical Ethicist, Covenant Health

“Between 28 per cent and 88 per cent of survivors say they have had some contact with the health system,” Eleanor says. 

Karah says this is because of the volatile environments victims may face. “Their risk of having injuries is higher than the average person's,” she says. “They are likely to be in unsafe work environments and tend to experience violence or sexual assault.”

ACT Alberta

Covenant Health began working with ACT Alberta last year to identify ways it could respond to victims who may come through its emergency room doors. Together, they developed education for staff and leaders to help them understand how human trafficking intersects with emergency care. This work included education for nurses and updates to the assessment form used for all patients who visit the Misericordia and Grey Nuns emergency rooms.

“We took the opportunity to look at human trafficking and built screening questions into our protocol,” says Tana Fish, Program Manager for the Misericordia’s Emergency department.

Jean Harsch, Clinical Nurse Educator at the Grey Nuns, says the screening questions help nurses start conversations with patients when they sense something is not right.

“Sometimes they feel that something is wrong but can’t put a finger on it,” says Jean. “The screening questions heighten their observations to identify specific behaviours rather than feelings.” 

Tana Fish, Program Manager at the Misericordia’s Emergency department, reviews an assessment form with an ER nurse.

Ensuring emergency room staff are aware of warning signs and how to respond could make all the difference in a victim’s life.

“If healthcare providers can identify and respond to victims, they can potentially help them exit the situation,” Karah says.

Human trafficking infographic 1.jpg

The protocol for responding to a victim of trafficking depends on the person’s wishes and comfort level, and the person’s safety is the utmost priority. Staff may involve protective services, call the police or even connect the person with ACT Alberta.

But many people in trafficking situations don’t want help when it’s initially offered. They are often terrified of their traffickers, who may threaten to harm them or their families. And in many cases, victims don’t recognize they are being trafficked. Even if a victim does not want help, knowing that someone recognized their situation could mean they know where to turn in the future.

“It reaffirms that we’re a place that can help you,” says Tana. “It plants a seed in the patient’s mind.” 

“People might feel they have a place to go—even if it’s not today, they could come back another time. One of the most important things for victims is knowing that someone noticed you.”

Jean Harsch, Clinical Nurse Educator

Human trafficking infographic 1.jpg

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