By Jolyne Kaar, MD

Dr. Kaar

It is likely that if you’ve watched the news, read articles online, or even seen a documentary over the past several months, you may have learned a thing or two about human trafficking. Human trafficking is the exploitation of a person by force, fraud, or coercion for the gain of forced labor or commercial sexual acts. It affects a shocking number of people worldwide — around 21 million.

But it’s typically only a problem overseas, right?

It is difficult to wrap our minds around this, but the fact is that this form of modern-day slavery is happening right beside us. It isn’t just a problem in other countries. In 2017, there were 10,615 documented individual victims of human trafficking here in the US–and likely many more cases were present but went unreported. It is estimated in the US 55% of human trafficking victims are actually US citizens.

Ok, I probably know what to look for. Trafficking victims are likely struggling with poverty and may be involved in substance abuse.

False. Human trafficking doesn’t discriminate! While poverty, substance abuse, being in the foster care system, or being a victim of childhood abuse are all risk factors, so are conditions like low self-esteem and access to the internet, meaning trafficking could happen to a wealthy suburban teen or a college grad.

All interesting, but probably not something that I will see in my career as a physician.

Sadly, many physicians aren’t aware that human trafficking is even happening. Most haven’t been trained on warning signs. Furthermore, they are not knowledgeable about how to help. Some studies showed that between 28% and 50% of victims entered the healthcare system at some point while being exploited, but none were freed as a result.

Needless to say, there exists a number of misconceptions about human trafficking, and I wanted to know more about what is happening in central Illinois. To get more informed, I decided to connect with Sara Sefried at the Center for Prevention of Abuse in Peoria to find out what is happening locally.

Sara Sefried

Sara Sefried

Hi, Sara! Tell us a bit about yourself in general, and also how you got involved in the fight against human trafficking.

Sara: Hi there. Thanks for inviting me to weigh in! I have been employed at the Center for Prevention of Abuse for 15 years, mostly working with survivors of domestic violence. Approximately five years ago, the Center received our first federal grant to work with survivors of human trafficking. I couldn’t believe how prevalent this crime was. I was astonished to learn how many people were being victimized right here in our community. I believe all people deserve to live free of abuse and should be empowered to live their best lives.

What is your current role at the Center for Prevention of Abuse?

Sara: I am currently the Director of Human Trafficking Services. I was fortunate to spearhead the development of this department from its inception! I am responsible for all aspects of the department, including oversight of our victim services; community outreach and education; training for law enforcement, medical providers, etc.; grant management; and staff supervision.

We hear a lot about human trafficking in the media and articles online. How does this affect us in central Illinois?

Sara: Surprisingly, Illinois currently ranks in the top 10 for reports to the National Human Trafficking Hotline. There are many misconceptions and myths surrounding this crime, many of which are perpetuated by the images the media uses. Sex and labor trafficking occurs all across Illinois, in both rural and urban communities. Peoria is situated directly between intersecting interstates to Chicago and St. Louis, which really makes us a prime spot for trafficking to occur.

What is your advice of what to DO if a patient reveals they are a current victim of trafficking?

Sara: It’s difficult. Victims of trafficking generally do not often disclose their situation. Every situation of human trafficking is unique, and it is important for health care providers to use a victim-centered response. Many victims do not self-identify as victims of human trafficking, nor do they disclose their victimization. It is important for physicians to create safe spaces for disclosure and to develop protocols and procedures. Not all victims of trafficking will be ready to seek assistance, so it’s important that physicians are prepared to provide options and resources in a non-judgmental way.

Sometimes we are most impacted by real-life stories. Can you, while protecting the victims’ privacy, give us some of examples of trafficking cases in our area?

Sara: A while ago, we worked with a 21-year-old woman who began chatting with a man in an online chat room. After three days of communicating with each other, she felt safe enough to meet him in person. As soon as she got in his car, she was beaten, raped, and forced into a five-week cycle of forced prostitution.

Another victim, a 26-year-old male, came to the hospital with dehydration and malnutrition. It turns out that he was a victim of labor trafficking, in a traveling sales crew. He had been frequently denied food and water as a means of control.
In another case, a 12-year-old girl was “provided” by her mother to their landlord in exchange for cheaper rent and alcohol. The majority of the human trafficking victims we see are female and have been coerced by a boyfriend or husband.

Are there any controversies happening with the legislature in our area?

Sara: Good question. I am not sure if most people are aware, but there are a number of “massage parlors” illicitly involved in the business of trafficking. They provide commercial sex acts under the guise of “Asian bodyworks.” We are currently supporting legislation to sunset the Asian Bodyworks Exemption in our Massage Licensing Act. This would require all providers of “Asian bodyworks” to be licensed by the state and undergo inspections.

What are some ways we can help?

Sara: Absolutely, here are a few ideas:

  • Attend training on the subject.
  • Develop internal protocols for handling suspected/confirmed cases.
  • Become an informed consumer. Buy fair-trade, slave-free products.
  • Assist a non-profit with free medical services for victims and support fundraising efforts.

Thanks so much, Sara. very eye-opening! We are very fortunate to have you as a resource here in Peoria.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said “Our lives begin to end when we are silent about the things that matter.”

This applies to human trafficking as well as every other injustice, discrimination, oppression, slavery. So be informed and be aware! Ask permission to ask the difficult questions. Be comfortable with silence, and be able to wait. Be patient and empathetic in the responses. Respect the victims’ decisions. Know your resources.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline is a national anti-trafficking hotline serving victims and survivors of human trafficking and the anti-trafficking community in the United States. The toll-free hotline is available to answer calls from anywhere in the country, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every day of the year in more than 200 languages. 1-888-373-7888

About the Author

Dr. Jolyne Kaar is a Clinical Assistant Professor the Department of Family and Community Medicine.