Several years ago, one of our oral surgery assistants was treating a new patient and noticed some mouth scarring that could have been a warning sign of sex trafficking. As it turns out, there was a good explanation for the patient’s condition, who was not, in fact, being trafficked. But the experience made us realize something important: as oral health professionals, we’re in an ideal position to see warning signs in a way that the general public isn’t. We’re in a unique position to help eradicate the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world.
According to the International Labour Organization, human trafficking had nearly 50 million victims living in “modern slavery” in 2021—and those numbers are growing. At its most basic, human trafficking is defined as “any time a person is forced, tricked, or manipulated into providing labor or sexual service for someone else’s financial gain. Or, anytime a child is involved in a commercial sex act, whether or not there is someone directly forcing them to do so,” as defined by Unbound Now, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to extinguishing human trafficking and igniting hope.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
Dental professionals are in a unique position to help because several warning signs can be found inside the mouth, such as a torn lingual frenulum and bruising of the palate. Other indicators may include bruising on the floor and roof of the mouth, visible scars or injuries in the mouth that can’t be easily explained by the patient, and/or signs of drug abuse or malnutrition such as swollen or bleeding gums or tooth decay.
If you find any of the above, ask the patient how he or she was injured, but don’t push. If the patient seems afraid, evasive, or the answer doesn’t make sense with the injury/scar present, then it may be a cause for concern. Ask questions, but be subtle. You don’t want to tip off the victim’s handler, putting the victim and everyone in your office in further danger.
Other indicators to look for are outside of the mouth. They may include cigarette burns, visible bruising on the face, legs, or arms, or evidence of untreated medical needs. Patients may also appear younger than the age they are claiming to be, have unusual tattoos—like barcodes, money symbols, emoticons, or names—or appear unusually anxious or hypervigilant. Most of them will be accompanied by a companion, who handles all the paperwork and financial obligations and does most of, if not all of, the talking.
KEEP IN MIND:
Each case is different. Even the same person can inflict different injuries on different people. In addition, victims may feel ashamed or afraid to speak up about what’s happening to them. When asked about their personal or medical histories, the companion may answer for them, or if the patient is allowed to respond, what is said may sound scripted or rehearsed.
It’s important to note that if you do find one or more of these warning signs, that doesn’t necessarily mean the person is a victim of human trafficking, but it is a cause for concern. Use your best judgment and trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right, contact the authorities and let them sort it out—it could save lives. The authorities can provide you with the real-time, inconspicuous support you need.
“If something feels ‘off’ to you, there’s usually a reason. You know what’s ‘normal’ in your office. If it’s a parent with a young child, then it makes sense that the parent might handle the paperwork and the finances and maybe even stay with them throughout the exam, but if they’re older or an adult, that might be a red flag. The bottom line is, if someone seems ‘off’ to you, then they probably are. Trust your instincts and seek help,” says Liz Griffin, executive director of Unbound Now Austin.
Griffin suggests that you seek help from 911 and/or your local human trafficking organization. “There is a national human trafficking hotline, but if you have a local organization, they can usually help you sooner because they’re closer to where you are. Find the number for the organization that’s closest to you and keep that number in a hidden and easy-to-access place so that everyone in your office can access it if needed without putting themselves or anyone else in danger.”
To find an organization near you, visit the National Human Trafficking website at https://humantraffickinghotline.org/en.
They have an online referral directory of anti-trafficking organizations and programs that is searchable by city, state, and zip code.
MAKE A PLAN:
Griffin adds that one of the best things you can do for a situation like this is to make a plan ahead of time and practice it as a group. “Decide today how you’re going to handle a situation like this so that you’ll be ready if the time comes, and practice it together so that everything will be as smooth as possible if you ever have to put the plan into action.”
Agree on a code word that everyone in the office can use to notify each other of the situation without alerting the companion. Assign responsibilities. Each person in the office should be responsible for something specific, and agree on backups in case the original person is out that day or unable to safely carry out those duties. Program the local trafficking hotline number into your phones for easy access and keep paper or electronic backups. These should be accessible to your team at all times, but don’t post them where a predator can see them.
Have someone discreetly note the vehicle’s license plate number, make, model, and color, as well as distinguishing characteristics of the victim and the companion. Note eye and hair color, hair length, height, weight, clothing, and any distinguishing marks like scars, tattoos, or piercings.
When making your plan, look for additional training that is specific to the dental community. Unbound Now has free, on-demand training sessions available online at https://learn.unboundnow.org/. These sessions provide continuing education credits and are tailored to specific professional groups so that the training can be easily applied in your unique workplace. In-person training sessions may also be available in certain geographic areas.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Renee Dixon is the marketing director of Austin Oral Surgery, an oral and maxillofacial practice with 12 locations across Central Texas. Since 2016, Dixon and her team have helped train more than 2,500 dental professionals about the warning signs of human trafficking. For more information, visit www.bethe1educate1save1.com.
FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: serato/shutterstock.com.