Why Human Trafficking is a Public Health Problem

By Margeaux Gray
Published on July 11, 2016 by The CNN Freedom Project

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You might think that when a trafficking victim escapes, their life is saved. In reality, though, survival is much more complicated.

My journey of survival began nearly 20 years ago, and continues to this day.

It is marked by hurdles, as well as by surprising gifts like losing my sight, discovering art and receiving life-changing, holistic, trauma-informed care. It has also been marked by our nation’s failure to call trafficking what it is: a public health problem.

Road to recovery

Just last week, the State Department released the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which ranks countries based on whether and how well they are addressing modern slavery. While now is a prime time to talk about the survivor’s journey to recover from the horror of being held captive physically and emotionally, this key issue will likely be left out of most conversations.

Instead, most discussions will focus on law enforcement issues like how well countries, including the United States, track down and prosecute traffickers, and how to use threat of prosecution as a deterrent.

While law enforcement is important, so is providing adequate support for trafficking victims’ recovery. And, in that regard, we are failing. We are failing because we have not identified human trafficking as the public health issue it is. You see, trafficking is not a short-term affliction—it affects a survivor’s whole life, families and even entire communities.

That failure has negatively affected my life (and the lives of countless others) time and again, while I was repeatedly trafficked as a young child, and in the years since becoming physically free from trauma. The primary failure occurred during my ordeal. Though I often visited the doctor for numerous unexplained, very grown-up health problems, not one asked whether I was being abused.

Later, I struggled with the physical and psychological wounds resulting from more than a decade of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of my trafficker.

Blindness was just one of the costs. I have also struggled with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), an eating disorder, peripheral neuropathy and adrenal insufficiency. While I eventually received beneficial health services, it was largely because of my blindness.

Reemerging into the world

For example, blindness brought me Junebug, my guide dog for the blind. Even after I was technically “free” from my trafficking situation, PTSD left me feeling incredibly anxious and unsafe in public.

After losing my eyesight, I felt even more vulnerable, and didn’t want to leave my house. The trusting bond I developed with Junebug changed my life, and allowed me to reemerge into the world.

My blindness also brought me to Louisville, Kentucky, where I could access tremendous health and psychological services that the government provides for vision-impaired people. I didn’t realize until recently how truly fortunate I am to have ended up here.

I have been receiving therapy from a professional trained in trauma-informed care for the first time. Trauma-informed caregivers are trained to understand, recognize and respond to the effects of all types of trauma and help survivors heal physical, psychological and emotional wounds, and rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.

Most other trafficking survivors do not receive even a fraction of the critical support and care I’ve received, but looking at trafficking through a public health lens could change that.

Later this year, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is planning to launch training courses for health care and social services providers. SOAR (Stop. Observe. Ask. Respond to Human Trafficking) is designed to educate professionals on how to recognize and respond to human trafficking in a health care or social services setting.

I, along with other trafficking survivors and health care professionals, have been part of a national technical working group advising HHS on the training content, and I am hopeful about this public health-focused approach to stopping and preventing trafficking. At the same time, I know the program will have limited impact unless our policymakers prioritize and commit resources to take this program to scale.

Looking at trafficking through a public health lens could also help health practitioners and policy makers recognize the critical need to invest in long-term, trauma-informed care for survivors.

Today, funding shortfalls mean that hundreds if not thousands of trafficking victims in the United States must wait to receive basic emergency services like a bed, health care and psychological support that are so immediately important. And most who do receive emergency services are left without the long-term care and support they desperately need.

‘Victims can thrive’

Every survivor should have access to trauma informed care, but trained professionals and funding for such services are scarce, and many survivors – particularly those living in small towns and rural areas where healthcare services are generally less available – often don’t even receive basic services.

When survivors do get proper treatment, as I have, they will have a chance to live fulfilling, productive lives. Without it, the possible consequences are dire.

Today, I am an artist, a public speaker and an anti-trafficking advocate. I am living proof that victims can thrive — but only if they receive the care they need and deserve. As a country that gives itself the TIP report’s highest ranking, the United States must admit that it can and should do more to prevent human trafficking and support trafficking survivors with long-term, holistic trauma informed care. The first step is recognizing trafficking as a public health issue.