During Human Trafficking Awareness Month, U.S. Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and U.S. Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) today reintroduced bipartisan legislation to help make sure health care providers -- including doctors, nurses, and social workers -- have the training they need to help identify and protect victims of human trafficking.
Today's reintroduction comes on the heels of a hearing in the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which Heitkamp sits on, during which leaders of Backpage.com -- a site notoriously used as a platform for trafficking -- declined to testify on the subcommittee's comprehensive report finding that the site's leaders knowingly facilitated online sex trafficking, particularly of children. Across the country, approximately 400,000 domestic minors are involved in human trafficking -- 80 percent of these victims are female. At the hearing two mothers whose daughters were trafficked discussed the need for training of medical professionals to recognize and help protect victims with critical resources.
Heitkamp and Collins' Stop, Observe, Ask and Respond (SOAR) to Health and Wellness Act would do just that by providing health care workers across the country needed training on how to recognize, report, and potentially intervene when they see patients who are possible human trafficking victims. Recent studies suggest that nearly one-third of women trafficked in America saw a health care professional while they were still captive to these crimes and that increased training of health professionals to identify red flags of human trafficking could help make sure victims receive resources and services to get the protection and care they need. By expanding on a U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) pilot program pilot program which has already trained almost 60 health workers in New Town and Williston in North Dakota, Heitkamp and Collins' bill would help provide training to a specific group of professionals who are more likely to encounter potential human trafficking victims to help get them the support they need.
"This month when I spoke with a mother whose young daughter was terrorized on a near daily basis after being trafficked for sex, I asked her what she thought needed to change going forward. Her answer was simple -- health care professionals need the training and the tools to recognize and protect victims of sex trafficking, especially children like her daughter," said Heitkamp. "Today, Senator Collins and I are reintroducing our bipartisan bill to make sure health providers -- sometimes some of the only people victims interact without their trafficker in the room -- can identify and get help for victims of sex trafficking. Our nation recognizes Human Trafficking Awareness this month -- and by training health professionals to spot potential victims -- we can expand awareness in the medical community so they are prepared to intervene and have a clear process on handling the situation. By building on the success of pilot training programs of about 60 doctors, nurses and others in Williston and New Town, we can strengthen our community and nationwide network that unmasks and effectively combats human trafficking, protects victims, and prevents these crimes from proliferating in our towns."
"Every state in America is affected by the evils of sex trafficking. Human traffickers prey upon the most vulnerable, often homeless or runaway children. Identification is the first, and frequently missed, step in helping victims and stopping these atrocities," said Collins. "This bipartisan legislation would bolster the current success of the U.S. Health and Human Services pilot program by expanding it and greatly increasing the number of our health care providers who will have the training to protect victims and expose these heinous crimes."
"In the wake of North Dakota's oil and gas boom, new crimes infiltrated our communities that we never thought we would see in our own backyard -- but we now know how dangerous, fast-spreading, and close to home human trafficking can hit," said Matt Grimshaw, president of CHI Saint Alexius Health Williston. "Now that these crimes are on our radar screens, we are working to build a comprehensive, community-wide approach to combat it. And Senator Heitkamp's SOAR Act to train medical professionals to recognize and protect victims of human trafficking is the first step in engaging the medical community in this fight. By building on the success of the pilot program many of our staff -- including doctors and nurses -- participated in here in Williston, we can boost our awareness of the tell-tale signs of trafficking, and help save potential victims. By implementing a proactive instead of a reactive approach in the medical community, Senator Heitkamp is empowering the medical community to help those in need by playing a critical role in stopping the vicious cycle of trafficking in our communities."
"Human trafficking has hidden in the shadows of our communities for years, often masked as every day crime -- but by promoting awareness on all sides, we can build a stronger coalition to fight these crimes," said Christina Sambor, coordinator at a Force to end hUman Sexual Exploitation (FUSE). "Senator Heitkamp's SOAR Act would do just that by helping doctors, nurses, and health care professionals identify and protect victims. At FUSE we've been working to empower our neighbors, law enforcement, teachers and local leaders to join in the collective battle against human trafficking, and we commend Senator Heitkamp's work to reinforce the community-wide effort necessary to unmask and eradicate these crimes."
The companion bill to Heitkamp and Collins' legislation was also introduced today in the U.S. House of Representatives by Representatives Steve Cohen (D-TN), Tony Cárdenas (D-CA), Ann Wagner (R-MO), and Adam Kinzinger (R-IL).
Click here to read additional supportive statements of the bill from HEAL Trafficking Inc., the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST), as well as local supporters.
Since September 2014 the HHS pilot program has trained health care providers to help identify and protect victims of human trafficking at six sites in five states across the country -- including North Dakota. The bill will build off the pilot program by making sure more health care and related professionals across the country get the training by: developing a national program for quality training; making sure these training efforts are adaptable, effective, and responsive to the needs of victims; and tracking these efforts nationally -- so the programs can continue to develop and improve to best serve more victims and survivors of human trafficking.
First introduced in May 2015, Heitkamp and Collins' SOAR Act would build and expand on the HHS pilot program, working to prepare medical professionals to identify, properly treat, and aid victims of human trafficking by:
Engaging Health Care Professionals to Provide Responsive Care: The bill would help guide health care professionals to identify human trafficking victims, empower and refer victims and survivors by helping them communicate with law enforcement or access social and victims' services, and provide care that is sensitive to the age, gender, or culture of the victim, as well as to circumstance and potential trauma they may have experienced.
Bringing All Sides Together: The bill would collectively engage victims, survivors, advocates as well as federal, state, local or tribal partners by making sure all sides are communicating effectively on collective and flexible training that accommodates the needs of specific communities.
Developing a National Strategy: The bill would work to provide a nationwide protocol for health care training to make sure that medical professionals have the opportunity to access the technical assistance and education they need to prepare for and respond to instances of human trafficking.
Tracking the Progress: The bill would implement required reporting and data on the facilities and providers using the training to combat human trafficking.
Heitkamp and Collins have both long worked to combat human trafficking. In 2015, Heitkamp and Collins worked to pave a bipartisan, compromise path forward for the successful passage of the bipartisan, comprehensive Justice for Victims of Human Trafficking Act. Now law, the bill will help provide stronger assistance to victims of human trafficking, increase resources to law enforcement and victims services organizations, and implement stricter punishments for perpetrators of these crimes.
Long an advocate against human trafficking, Heitkamp led an initial hearing in September 2013 to sound the alarm on the prevalence of human trafficking right in our own backyard, including in North Dakota. Since then, Heitkamp has been a leader in fighting for legislative action to fight human trafficking, playing an integral role in passing in the U.S. Senate's bipartisan legislation. Now law, the bill includes stricter punishments against traffickers who transport victims across state lines, and legal protections from her Safe Harbor bill to make sure victims are not treated as criminals. In addition to introducing bipartisan legislation to give health care providers -- including doctors, nurses, and social workers -- training to help identify and protect victims of human trafficking, Heitkamp is continuing to push the Senate protect runaway and homeless youth, some of the most susceptible targets of human traffickers, and successfully secured landmark anti-human trafficking protections for children in schools in the No Child Left Behind reform legislation.
Heitkamp is continuing to work to protect men, women and children from human trafficking online, blasting Backpage.com CEO Carl Ferrer for refusing to comply with a Senate-issued subpoena to testify on his company's refusal to provide information on its purported use of safeguards to prevent human traffickers from using the site as a platform. Her Committee vote to hold Ferrer and Backpage in civil contempt of Congress preceded the U.S. Senate's unanimous vote in March, which Heitkamp joined, to launch civil contempt proceedings against site -- the first time in 20 years the U.S. Senate has held anyone in contempt of Congress.