The woman arrived at the emergency department at Huntington Hospital on New York's Long Island after she was hit by her boyfriend during an argument. Her situation raised concerns among the medical staff, which had recently been trained to be on the lookout for signs of sex trafficking.
An undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, she worked at a local cantina frequented by immigrants. Her job was to get patrons drinks and to dance with them, but many workers in those jobs are expected to offer sex, too. Her boyfriend didn't want her to work there, and that led to the fight, one doctor recalled.
As part of the intake process, the emergency staff asked the 36-year-old woman a series of questions about whether she'd ever had sex for money, or whether she had to give someone else part of what she earns, among other things. The screening questions were part of a new program at Northwell Health, a 23-hospital system in the New York metro area that includes Huntington Hospital, to train staff and provide them with tools to identify and support victims of human trafficking.
There are few hard figures for how many people are harmed by human trafficking, the term used when individuals are forced to work or have sex for someone else's commercial benefit. Polaris, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for these people and runs help lines for them, says calls and texts to its national hotlines have steadily ticked up in recent years, increasing the number of cases 13 percent to 8,759 between 2016 and 2017.
But health care providers frequently fail to recognize these patients' situation. According to a 2014 survey of about 100 survivors of sex trafficking, 88 percent said that while they were being trafficked they had contact with a health care provider, typically someone in an emergency department.