Human Trafficking in Our Own Backyards

by, Leith Merrow Mullaly, RN, MSN, IBCLC

Learn more about AWHONN’s position on this critical topic.

Slim and obese, tall and short, strikingly beautiful and very plain, black, Asian and white…literally the girls who live next door.  These are the young women I support and with whom I work.  They are all victims of sex trafficking right here in the “good ole U.S.A.”

Most of us think of sex trafficking as something that occurs in Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Russia or South America.  Unfortunately it is estimated that there are almost 300,000 women, children and even men who are trafficked for sexual purposes in our own country.  I have been told by multiple young women that there is not a single hotel or motel in the United States where a prostitute cannot be obtained!  This includes the most expensive and elegant big city hotel to the most humble rural establishment.

Prostitution is much more lucrative than drug dealing.  A single pimp can earn more than $1.5 million every six months with 6 women or children in their “stable”.  The chances of being apprehended are fairly small and there is often no one to testify against the pimp.  I have worked closely with a young woman who finally agreed to testify against her pimp only when the F.B.I. put her into hiding.  Two previous potential witnesses had “disappeared” and are assumed to have been killed.  (It is most distressing to learn that this pimp is a husband and father with children in an elite private school.  He is a highly respected businessman who owns several companies and is known for his charitable giving!)

My husband and I serve on one of the few Foundation Boards in our nation that is providing real hands-on help to these young women.  This sheltered home, provided by  the county and located in a small city,  offers not only a safe escape away from their dangerous traffickers/pimps but most importantly, individual and group trauma-based counseling  because many of our residents are suffering from PTSD, dissociative and other personality disorders.  Most of our residents were on the street by age 14!   Many of our young women are pretty badly damaged and not easy to handle initially. They are combative and angry and extremely defensive.  They cannot TRUST!  They express profound shame and state “I feel so dirty”. We take them to free clinics to treat their STDs and obtain medications for their anxiety disorders, which are often severe.  We help them finish their GED certification and work closely with our community college on educational opportunities.  We offer classes on body image.  We try to introduce them to what a healthy male-female relationship should be via “Pizza Night”. One or two married couples, who really care, bring pizza and spend the evening eating and visiting.  Sadly, for some of our young women, this is a totally new experience. Things that you and I accept as common and expected, these women have never known.  We held the very first birthday party for a twenty year old!

One day a young woman decided she really wanted to move forward.  She asked if we thought there was a “thrift shop for prostitutes” where she could donate all her clothes “because some of these outfits were very expensive”! Instead, we had a big bon fire!  Today she is in college, hoping to become a nurse.  As nurses, we have seen and experienced so many facets of life.  We know about child sexual abuse.  Yet, have we really considered what happens to them long term?  Certainly many children receive help, counseling and appropriate adult love and support.   I must confess that I had not consciously made the direct connection between abused children and victims of sex trafficking.  Men in prison have bragged that they can spot a vulnerable young person in less than 2 minutes!  I was truly ignorant about the scope and size of sex trafficking…right here in our own backyard.  This is the impact and outcome for many victims of childhood physical and sexual abuse.  I sincerely hope that I may open your eyes and hearts so that when you see a prostitute, you see a victim and not a criminal.

When you see a young woman “on the street” or in your clinic, L&D or E.D. be alert to signs and indicators of possible human trafficking.  While not all signs prove human sexual trafficking, some of the following should be “red flags”:

  • No stable address & no family, community connections
  • Very unclear past history
  • An overbearing male companion
  • A “beaten-up” body, often with healing scars
  • A number tattoo (pimp’ s ID)
  • Emaciated, starved appearance
  • STD (almost 100%)
  • Scanty clothes (often 2 sizes too small & often animal prints)

When you encounter these kinds of signs we need to at least think “sex traffic victim”.  Yes, victim!  Most, if not all young women and to a lesser degree, young men, end up on the street because they are victims of repeated child sexual abuse at home.  Pimps brag that they can spot a “vulnerable prospect” in 2 to 10 minutes!

As nurses we need to grasp the pervasive nature of this problem…NOT in some far off country, but rather, right here at home…in our own backyards.  I was naïve about all this until I became involved with one of the very few homes in the United States offering a safe haven for these young women.  We work with the state police, the F.B.I. and Homeland Security to get sex- trafficked women off the street.  It is estimated that there are only 100 beds nationally for sex trafficked women over the age of 18 and only another 100 beds for those less than 18 years old.

I’ll be writing more about this topic and what we can all do to help these victims in upcoming AWHONN Connections blogs.

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AWHONN believes Nurses are ideally positioned to screen, identify, care for, provide referral services for, and support victims of human trafficking. Therefore, the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses (AWHONN) supports improved education and awareness for nurses regarding human trafficking. Learn more about AWHONN’s position on this critical topic.

leithLeith Merrow Mullaly, RN, MSN, IBCLC
Leith Mullaly is a past president of AWHONN and has served at all levels of the organization. Leith has a passion for both nursing and the specialty of Women’s Health and Newborn care. Her focus within AWHONN has always been to mentor future leaders and encourage nurses’ participation in their professional association. She has experience as a Staff Nurse, Staff Educator, MCH Director, Clinical Faculty Member, Certified Lactation Consultant and Author. She is a nationally ranked speaker on topics such as Postpartum Depression, Breastfeeding, the Image of Nursing, Service Excellence, Perinatal Loss and Bereavement, Mature Primiparas. Her interest in care for Victims of Human Sex Trafficking has been a major focus for the past several years.

One thought on “Human Trafficking in Our Own Backyards

  1. Hannah Moore says:

    I would like to contact Mrs. Mullaly, or someone who could point me in the right direction. I am currently an RN, about halfway through my DNP studies. I love in a relatively small town in South Georgia. Trafficking is huge in this area, and there are absolutely no resources for these girls. I would love to initiate the establishment of resources for victims of sex trafficking in this area, and would love some feedback. Thanks so much!

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