No Excuses – We Now Know Better!

Don’t get me wrong. I am not some sheltered upper middleclass woman that was protected from the evils of this world. I practiced medicine for decades, traveled and provided medical care in some of the poorest areas in the world but it was my experience as the Medical Director of the Juvenile Justice Department during the 1980s-1990s in Michigan where I saw ignorant miscarriage of justice in young victims-the victims of human trafficking. In the 1980s we had just started learning about HIV and AIDS. The data was pretty plain at that time that male-male sex and IV drug use were the two main high-risk behaviors. It soon became clear to me that many females were soon going to be at risk even if they were not using IV drugs.

Around 1987 a 16 year old female was remanded to a correctional facility for committing a “crime” when the health clinic staff found her to be infected with three sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). She was tested subsequently for HIV and found to be positive for her 4thSTD. This child now had a death sentence as no treatment was available at that time. Now, the real story of her “crime” – prostitution – was ascertained!  Her story was sad but not uncommon then or even now. Her “boyfriend” – who was twice her age and bi-sexual – had trafficked her and was the likely source of her HIV infection. This story began to be repeated as we saw other HIV positive females. They were young and always with older “boyfriends” and some young males were being trafficked as well.

But it’s 2015 and we know better and do better now than we did in 1987. Those under 18 years of age are juveniles, children, and they are understood to be victims. Right? So, we don’t lock them up in jails and prisons anymore. I hope. They do not have felonies and misdemeanors relating to being trafficked put on their records forever anymore. Right? They get multi-modality and specialized treatment for their health, mental health, and addiction issues by trained professionals. They get individualized education, employment training, appropriate housing, and mentoring services. Yes? Clearly, we have made some progress in the last 30 years. Recent Michigan legislation is having an immediate impact on what is happening in the courts.  Courts are now viewing these children as victims even though the youth do not see themselves as being victimized. This is a great accomplishment but more needs to be done.

We need more effort in the prevention arena and that must be done at home and reinforced in the schools. Many parents need help in effective parenting and information about the easy access predators have to their children through internet sites like “backpage”. Sadly though, many of the youngest victims are trafficked by a relative. While we say that any youth is at risk, the data is clear that runaways, foster care youth and gay/ bi-sexual and transgender youth are more at risk. All the factors that may lead to the higher risk of LGBT youth are not clear to me but many are without stable housing and more easily preyed upon.

The laws in Michigan are being quickly updated and police officers are being trained but much remains to be done in prevention, detection (especially by healthcare personnel) and the treatment of our traumatized youth. My personal crusade is that all health care providers be trained to recognize the victims! No excuses for missing the victims that come into ERs and clinics. I am working to develop a screening tool that may “flag” likely trafficking victims when they seek health care. No excuses! We know that we need more safe houses for victims. The perpetrators are ruthless and have been known to track down their “property” across the country. No excuses! As we become better at detection, we need appropriate supportive services in place to ensure healing for victims.

Take Action: During your next health care visit ask your health care professional to post the national human trafficking resource hotline number in the office (1-888-373-7888 or text HELP to BEFREE (233733). Invite them to attend a human trafficking training geared toward health professionals so that they can learn the warning signs of trafficking.  

Dr. LaClaire Bouknight M.D., is the director of Eaglevision Ministries and the International Dreamcenter of Lansing. She heads the Capital Area Anti-Trafficking Alliance, a part of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force. Dr. Bouknight who practiced for several years adult and adolescent Medicine for the Juvenile Justice system for the State of Michigan, is certificed in Addiction Medicine and in the last ten years has administered employment services for youth /adults with barriers to employment.