Mending the Strains in our Social Fabric: Protecting and Healing Trafficking Survivors

This guest blog post is by Susie Baldwin, Co-Founder and Board President of HEAL Trafficking and TEDMED 2016 Speaker. You can watch her TEDMED talk here.

January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month in the United States. During his last weeks in office, President Obama proclaimed this month’s commemoration, noting that despite the rejection of slavery by our nation, “Today, in too many places around the world — including right here in the United States — the injustice of modern slavery and human trafficking still tears at our social fabric.”

Strains in our social fabric not only result from the injustice of human trafficking, but create the problems of human trafficking and exploitation. The conditions that frame our lives— factors known as the social determinants of health— can increase or reduce vulnerability to trafficking. These “upstream” determinants of health include: the availability of resources to meet the needs of daily life, such as safe housing and adequate nutrition; access to education, health care, employment opportunities, and transportation; and freedom from violence, discrimination, and poverty.  Relationships with other people—the presence or absence in our lives of others whom we trust, and who provide us with support or love— are also key social determinants.

cropped-heal-logo-1-e1426167334902 (1)The stories of the trafficked patients I have cared for reveal how vulnerabilities created by the social determinants underlie human trafficking. For example, Olga experienced domestic violence and left her husband. As a teacher in a country that was no longer able to pay its educators, she needed to find a way to support herself. She answered an ad for a job as a housekeeper in the U.S., and wound up a domestic servant. Jaclynn experienced child abuse and neglect at home, where her drug-addicted mom was unable to properly protect her, and found solace in the arms of a man who manipulated her and sold her to other men. Narong wanted to earn a living for his family and came to the U.S. for a job as a welder, only to be trapped working in a restaurant for long hours with barely any pay.

These survivors are the lucky ones— they escaped or were rescued from trafficking and managed to connect with services provided by my long-time partner, the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, including case management and legal services. But as I worked to help my patients cope with the physical and mental health consequences of trafficking, I learned that their struggles to rebuild their lives often hinged on social determinants. Perhaps most critical was their search for jobs and affordable housing that would allow them to achieve and sustain independence. Sometimes, they were re-victimized. Alma, for example, another patient who had escaped domestic servitude, wound up—as a free woman— working as a housekeeper for room and board, without receiving any pay.

Though it wasn’t true in Alma’s case, for many trafficking survivors, a criminal record poses a barrier to gainful employment. Trafficked people are commonly charged with offenses that burden them with criminal records for the rest of their lives, making it difficult for them to find housing and jobs, and unable to access loans and grants. These negative social determinants leave them vulnerable to being exploited and trafficked again.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. Bipartisan legislation in the new 115th Congress, called the Trafficking Survivors Relief Act of 2017, would allow courts to erase survivors’ nonviolent federal criminal convictions resulting from being trafficked. While this law only helps survivors with federal criminal records, it provides an important model for criminal justice systems in cities and states around the U.S. To learn more about this bill and express your support for it, please see:

To support trafficked people on their journey to safety and recovery, HEAL Trafficking, the organization I founded with colleagues three years ago, has just released our Protocol Toolkit for Developing a Response to Victims of Human Trafficking in Health Care Settings. This toolkit guides health professionals through the process of mobilizing interdisciplinary responses to trafficked people who present for care. It encourages cooperation with the diverse agencies and individuals who can address the social determinants that put trafficked people at risk, and which can hinder healing of the body and mind. HEAL Trafficking believes that together, we can create conditions and systems that allow survivors to thrive, and that prevent human trafficking in the first place. Please join us.

HEAL Trafficking is a network of over 800 multidisciplinary professionals dedicated to ending human trafficking and supporting its survivors. We aim to heal the world of trafficking by approaching the problem through the lens of public health and trauma-informed care. We work to expand the evidence base, enhance collaboration among multidisciplinary stakeholders, educate the broader anti-trafficking and public health community, and advocate for policies and funding streams that enhance the public health response to trafficking.