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Health care workers find their role in combating human trafficking

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. – Health care workers who are on the front lines to detect human trafficking met here Tuesday learn how to identify potential victims.

Avera Medical Group, with headquarters in Sioux Falls, has adopted a protocol to screen for trafficking victims that hospital officials would like to see become a model for South Dakota.

Nearly 400 physicians, nurses, social workers and others attended the Violent Crime and Human Trafficking Conference on Tuesday, sponsored by Avera and the Department of Justice.

The conference continues today with featured speaker Elizabeth Smart-Gilmour and Thursday with Aaron Fisher, one of the victims of the Penn State football program child sex abuse case.

U.S. Attorney for the District of North Dakota Tim Purdon, one of Wednesday’s speakers, said a primary goal of the conference is to raise awareness of human trafficking in the Dakotas.

“Despite the federal indictments of both traffickers and johns seeking commercial sex with underage girls online by our office, we see some law enforcement agencies, local prosecutors, service providers and citizens in North Dakota who have a ‘this does not happen here’ or ‘this is a victimless crime,’ attitude,” Purdon said.

Brendan Johnson, U.S. Attorney for the District of South Dakota, said combating human trafficking requires a partnership between law enforcement and the community.

“Initially, many of these victims aren’t going to come out and talk about what their experience is.” Johnson said. “So we need you looking for some of those signs.”

That’s why it’s important that medical providers implement a protocol to screen for trafficking victims, he said.

“Our health care professionals really are, in many cases, the first responders,” said Johnson, whose office has prosecuted three human trafficking cases in the past four years that resulted in life sentences.

The protocol Avera is adopting includes a list of screening questions, such as “Can you leave your situation if you wanted?” and “Have you ever been forced to have sex to pay a debt or in return for food, shelter or clothing?”

If a patient under the age of 18 answers yes to any of the questions listed, the health care worker is directed to follow child abuse protocol and mandatory reporting statutes.

If the patient is over 18, the medical provider will help the patient call law enforcement. If the patient does not want to contact law enforcement, the health professional will provide information about resources, including the National Trafficking hotline, 888-373-7888.

Dr. Tad Jacobs, chief medical officer of Avera Medical Group, said he now thinks back on times in his career when he may have missed subtle clues.

“If we have that heightened awareness, then we’ll look for those clues,” Jacobs said.