Texas is an epicenter for human trafficking. Recently, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton established a new unit of attorneys and investigators focused on combating human trafficking. Each year, thousands of adults and children are trafficked through the state and many end up living in cities like Dallas and Houston. It turns out some victims are walking into hospitals, and some doctors believe these visits are a window of opportunity to help them escape.
Dr. Melinda Lopez didn’t learn about human trafficking during medical school.
She wishes she had.
“I think that’s a big problem nationwide,” she said. “I know the country is starting to get better about that and more medical schools are incorporating that into the curriculum. But I think we have a long way to go in terms of educating physicians that are in training, as well as [those] already out there and making them comfortable with asking questions that might uncover a history of trafficking.”
Lopez, an OB/GYN in Austin and one of the Texas Medical Association’s representatives on the state’s Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force spoke with KERA about the opportunity for doctors to help identify and assist victims of human trafficking.
Who are the victims of human trafficking in Texas?
“There’s a mixture of patients. We see patients that come from Central America as well as Mexico. The other category of patients we see are domestic-born victims of trafficking, and traditionally those are younger patients, minors, and they have a different set of social circumstances that have led them to the situation.”
Why do you think doctors are in a unique position to help victims of trafficking and sexual slavery?
“I think we’re in a unique situation because we’re some of the few professionals that these patients often have access to. They lead lives outside of the normal realm of social interactions and if they do encounter law enforcement it can often be for criminal behavior and the trafficking doesn’t always go addressed. When we see the patients, in a hospital or clinic setting, it’s in a different environment, an environment that’s hopefully a little less threatening to the patients and we have a little more time on our hands depending on the acuity of their complaints.”
What kind of care are these men and women coming to the doctors for?
“If you look at most of the literature, the things that are listed are psychiatric complaints. Things like pretty severe depression or anxiety to more mild forms like headaches or sleep abnormalities as well as sexually transmitted diseases or recurrent unwanted pregnancies.”
The Texas Medical Association has highlighted potential signs of trouble for physicians to look out for:
- A history of unintended pregnancies or sexually transmitted diseases;
- A pattern of bruises or evidence of trauma the patient can’t adequately explain;
- A tattoo of a bar code or of a street name somewhere on the body, especially on the neck;
- The presence of a chaperone or other person accompanying the patient who seems to control the patient’s dialogue or around whom the patient seems especially guarded; and
- Large amounts of cash on hand.
If you, or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking please contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center or your local law enforcement.