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Md. hospitals at the front lines of human trafficking response

Maryland’s hospitals are often one of the first places human trafficking victims can turn to for help, and the hospitals are adapting new guidelines this month to help them identify and care for these patients.

Those who are trafficked can often be kept in seclusion from the outside world. The few interactions they have with outsiders are often with health care providers, especially through hospital emergency departments.

New guidelines developed by the Maryland Hospital Association, Maryland’s Human Trafficking Task Force, the University of Maryland Support, Advocacy, Freedom, and Empowerment (SAFE) Center for Human Trafficking Survivors and other stakeholders were released this month.

The guidelines, an update from 2015 guidance, are designed to help hospitals and employees recognize patients who may be trafficked and to help make those providers aware of resources with which they can connect their patients.

“Hospitals are this vital point of intervention in disrupting human trafficking,” said Sophie Aron, research and program coordinator at the SAFE Center. “What (the guidelines are), hopefully, is a resource to help a provider guide a victim through the hospital process and out into the community for support.”

Maryland and the Washington area can be considered a hot spot for trafficking, Aron said, given the presence of major highways like Interstate 95, three major airports and a relatively affluent community.

One problem hospitals hope the new guidelines will address is to help hospital staff better identify trafficking victims.

“There are a variety of screenings that our front-line staff are doing,” said Nicole Stallings, vice president for government affairs and policy at the Maryland Hospital Association. “It’s all about understanding the unique circumstances that your patient may be in,” and then being able to do something about it.

Raising awareness about what to be aware of when it comes to potential trafficking victims does not just apply to doctors and nurses. All hospital staff could be the person a victim confides in, including custodial and environmental staff.

Once a potential victim is identified, the next step is connecting that person with resources. That can be easier said than done. There is no reporting requirement, except for minors, and victims are often accompanied by their trafficker.

One key is to create a network of resources around the hospital, Aron said.

“We’re putting the charge on hospitals to create their own community network of providers,” she said. “It’s about knowing the options for survivors or knowing who in your community you can call who can come in and tell survivors what their options might be.”

When it comes time for the providers to treat these patients, they must do it with an understanding of the patients’ trauma, Aron said.

The key is making sure patients know the hospital is a place of safety, a place where they can return for help.

“More than anything, this is about telling the patient, the victim, the survivor, in that moment that the hospital is a safe place,” she said.

It comes back to the idea that hospitals are one of the few contacts victims may have with the outside world. 

In addition to the guidelines, the SAFE Center is also in the early stages of developing training for hospitals and their employees.

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