Milwaukee is hub of sex trafficking trade; doctors being trained to identify & help victims

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- An effort is being made in the medical community to break the paralyzing effect of sex trafficking in what is known as the hub of the trade: Milwaukee. Victims can be so afraid of their trafficker that they do not seek help or never seem to get the opportunity to do so. Some doctors are trying to change that.

Sex trafficking victims are trapped in a web of force, fraud, coercion, deception and threats. For victims, opportunities to escape may seem few and far between. The answer could lie with their doctors, if those doctors know how to spot the signs their patient is trapped in that web.

A team of medical researchers led by Dr. Angela Rabbitt, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Medical College of Wisconsin and a child abuse prevention pediatrician at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin, is bringing to light the doctor's role when it comes to helping sex trafficking victims.

"First of all, medical providers need to educate themselves on what a victim of trafficking looks like. We know from research that victims of trafficking, about 50% of them will see a medical provider at some point during their victimization. And we know from interviews with them that sometimes that is one of the only periods of time when they're separated from their trafficker. So medical providers are in a unique position to take advantage of that and screen for trafficking and provide services to victims," Dr. Rabbitt said.

Sex trafficking survivor Laura Johnson was forced into the trade at age 14 and did not break free until she was 17.

"There was no questions ever asked as far as was I ever being trafficked at any point when I was being trafficked," Johnson said.

Johnson even had a baby during that time, but she says no one asked if she was sexually abused even though she was underage.

The problem is doctors are not aware of the power they possess. As part of research highlighted in the Journal Pediatrics, Dr. Rabbitt's team surveyed medical providers and found that many did not know the definition of sex trafficking. Many thought victims were brought to the U.S. from other countries and forced into sex trafficking. But the fact is -- 80% of child sex trafficking victims in Milwaukee County were born in Wisconsin.

Rabbitt says more than 95% of the surveyed doctors recognized that they needed more education and they really wanted to recieve that.

Rabbitt says doctors have to open the door of communication so the patient can walk through. She usually starts by asking the adult accompanying the child to leave the room. She then tells the patient she will ask some questions, and invites the patient to share whatever they would like. She tells her patients she may be able to help them, but lets them know that she has to report any abuse.

"Teenagers that maybe are homeless, that don't have a place to stay or who are looking for food or money to buy things that they need -- one way that they do that is by having sex with someone or doing sexual things with someone in order to get what they need," Rabbitt said.

Rabbitt asks her patients general questions about school and home. If she feels there is a risk, she will ask more sensitive questions. If a patient tells her they are being trafficked, she tells them she will report it, but she also tells them she'll do everything she can to help keep them safe. She also tells them they are brave for divulging this information.

Johnson says she wishes the doctors she came in contact with would have had that conversation with her.

"I probably would have gotten the help and the escape route out of being trafficked way before 17," Johnson said.

Rabbitt says there are efforts underway at the Medical College of Wisconsin to teach aspiring doctors the best way to ask these questions, and how to recognize when these questions should be asked of their patients.