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Via Christi works to end human trafficking

Ascension Via Christi is training physicians, nurses and other clinicians to recognize warning signs that a patient may be a victim of human trafficking and then to provide help to the victims.

Via Christi launched its program in 2014 as part of the Catholic Health Association’s national awareness campaign to combat human trafficking and is expanding the training in 2015. New training programs for physicians, nurses, other clinicians and community stakeholders were held in April 2015 in Wichita, featuring Jeffrey Barrows, DO, a national physician authority on training clinicians to help victims of human trafficking; U.S. Attorney for Kansas Barry Grissom; and Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett.

“Via Christi is really being a pioneer by addressing all kinds of trafficking – international, domestic, labor and sex,” said Barrows, the director of U.S. Education at Hope for Justice, an organization dedicated to eradicating human trafficking worldwide. “It’s very broad, and that’s what we really need.”

After the initial training drew more than 125 clinicians last year, approximately 400 attended the recent sessions at Via Christi’s St. Francis and St. Joseph hospitals. A team of Via Christi clinicians developed a four-step protocol for frontline caregivers to follow, outlining warning signs to look for and the procedures for helping potential victims get help. An updated version of the protocol was distributed during the 2015 training sessions.

Via Christi's training program underscores a growing concern in the Wichita region and across the nation about human trafficking, particularly sex trafficking. Wichita law enforcement has worked more than 150 human trafficking cases involving minors since 2006. There were 29 cases involving 31 victims in 2014.

Each speaker addressed the importance of healthcare providers in unveiling an often-hidden crime.

“That fleeting moment when they come into your presence,” Bennett said. “That’s your opportunity.”

Tina Peck, leader of Via Christi's forensic nursing program, says it’s important for clinicians to build a rapport with patients who are potential trafficking victims and to get the patient alone for an exam, providing an opportunity for a confidential conversation about their situation.

“It’s been shown that if we as clinicians take the time to educate ourselves to understand this very complex issue, then we can identify victims and give them a voice,” Peck said.

Since its first round of training, Via Christi has identified and assisted multiple human trafficking victims. It underscores the clinicians’ role, which ultimately can lead to the prosecution and conviction of human trafficking offenders.

“It never gets to us unless that moment happens,” Grissom said. “For all the prosecutions that we do, we are only touching the tip of the iceberg.

“What I said then and what I believe even more today is that Via Christi is leading the way nationally in this very much needed area of helping to train healthcare professionals, to ask the kind of questions that unfortunately, may make the hair on the back of your neck stand up for victims be liberated from slavery.”

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