While policy and health care practices have progressed to better identify and care for victims of sex trafficking, there is still a long way to go.
As the country and world grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, a time during which marginalized communities and vulnerable individuals continue to be at risk for human trafficking, it is vital to remain focused on improving care, continuing education and advocating for victims, said UAB School of Nursing Professor and Associate Dean for Graduate Clinical Education Ashley Hodges, PhD, CRNP, WHNP-BC, FAANP, FAAN.
“It’s important to keep this in the forefront of the public’s mind—we’ve had so much happen this year with COVID-19 and the presidential election, and it’s important to make sure we keep these men and women in mind and keep advocating for them,” Hodges said. “Sex trafficking hasn’t stopped, and now it may be more difficult to identify.”
According to an article recently published in JAMA, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to circumstances that can make it more difficult to identify individuals who are trafficked and may increase the risk of trafficking due to the pandemic’s economic impact.
Hodges, nationally known for her work in trauma-informed care for victims of violence, has received the National Association of Nurse Practitioners in Women's Health (NPWH) 2020 Inspiration in Women’s Health Award for her demonstrated inspirational and innovative contributions to policy work in women’s health. The Inspiration in Policy award recognizes a women’s health nurse practitioner who has uniquely contributed to policy, leadership, and advocacy that positively impacts the care of women and/or WHNPs policy and advocacy work. The recognition goes past her work, Hodges said, and helps shine a spotlight on this important issue.
“NPWH is an organization that advocates for women’s health and women’s health providers, so to be recognized by this organization, and to be recognized for the work that I’m doing, really does mean a lot,” Hodges said. “Everything NPWH does advocates for women, and this recognition not only acknowledges work that is extremely important, but this award brings more awareness to the number of people in health care with a mission of helping victims of sex trafficking.”
And while the NPWH Award mentions policy, Hodges said that is only one part of the fight.
“It’s not just about policy—it’s also about advocacy. Advocacy not only impacts policy at the local level, at your hospital and at your clinic, but it also impacts state level and national policy. It’s advocating for the services for these women,” she said. “If we just focus on one aspect of it, we miss the needs of the women who are currently being victimized.”
Advocating for current victims and women who have recently been rescued from sex trafficking is a topic near and dear to Hodges’ heart. Since 2016, Hodges has overseen the UAB Clinic at The WellHouse, which provides free, onsite care to the residents of The WellHouse, which provides a safe residential environment to women who are survivors of human trafficking. She provides evidence-based, trauma-informed primary and women’s health care, integrated with behavioral health, and has developed partnerships across the University of Alabama at Birmingham to also provide specialty services.
“As we continue to advocate and lobby and bring this issue to the policy makers’ attention, it’s important that we don’t look the other way and that we continue to work to improve the lives of these individuals who have been and are still being victimized,” Hodges said. “We need continued advocacy for those who are suffering from trafficking.”
This includes advocating for health care provider education that includes screening, identification and intervention practices—tools to help health care providers know what to do and know how to help victims. It also includes understanding trauma-informed care, which works to avoid retraumatizing patients by acknowledging that each patient comes with their own history, their own challenges and their own needs. Trauma-informed care includes taking time to understand that patient’s history in order to approach their care in a way that feels comfortable and safe.
“By employing the principles of trauma informed care, you’re respecting the unique experience of each individual,” Hodges said. “There’s no hierarchy of trauma — these are principles that are really beneficial to employ across the board.”
Advocacy also includes working toward interprofessional training for law enforcement officers who encounter and rescue sex trafficking victims and building a transition to trauma-informed services for victims and ensure there are no lapses in service and support. It also includes creating a space in curriculum for student education.
“When we look at next steps, education on screening and identification of victims of sex trafficking needs to be brought to our students,” Hodges said. “We teach them about domestic violence or intimate partner violence, we teach them about mandatory reporting, and sexual exploitation and sex trafficking needs to be taught right in line with that.”
No matter what the next steps are, Hodges said, the overarching goal is to keep talking and keep pressing forward.
“I would love to say that we have hit a huge milestone in turning the corner on health care’s response to sex trafficking, but we have so much more work to do,” she said. “It’s critical to continue to make sure this message gets out there. We’ve made progress and we can’t stop; we’ll keep reinforcing and improving what we know, always working to increase knowledge and improve outcomes.”
Hodges is a two-time graduate of the UAB School of Nursing, earning her MSN in 1997 and her PhD in 2008.