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Child sex trafficking victims pose identification challenges among health care providers

March 18, 2015

A new study published in the journal Pediatrics by a team of researchers from Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) has found that the majority of health care providers do not feel confident in their ability to identify children who are victims of sex trafficking.

According to a study in the April 2015 Pediatrics, “Medical Providers’ Understanding of Sex Trafficking and Their Experience With At-Risk Patients,” 28 to 50 percent of victims have been seen by health care providers, yet go unrecognized as sex trafficking victims.

Researchers, led by Angela L. Rabbitt, DO, FAAP, assistant professor of pediatrics at MCW; Child Abuse Pediatrician and Associate Director, Child Advocacy and Protection Fellowship, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin; believe that with adequate training medical providers can serve as the first line of defense in identifying victims of sex trafficking and connecting them with appropriate services.

“The number of adolescents who report a history of trafficking rivals many of the medical and social conditions we commonly screen for in routine patient care. Considering the significant health risks associated with victimization, human trafficking is an issue that medical providers need to pay attention to,” said Rabbitt.

It is estimated 100,000 to 300,000 youth are at risk annually from child sex trafficking in the United States. The majority of child sex trafficking victims are exposed to severe physical and sexual violence that can last well past the time they are victims. Many victims neglect to inform the provider due to shame and fear of their trafficker and/or law enforcement. The study uncovered 63 percent of responding physicians, nurses, physician assistants, social workers and patient and family advocates haven’t received the training needed to properly identify sex trafficking victims. The greatest barriers to correctly identifying sex trafficking victims are a lack of training (34 percent) and awareness of sex trafficking (22 percent).

This is a preliminary study to assess the educational needs of providers who care for this population. Future projects include the assessment and validation of an on-line resource for medical education about the identification and assessment of sex trafficking victims. The research was funded by the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin Research Institute, the Wisconsin Medical Society Foundation, Inc., and Clinical & Translational Science Institute of Southeast Wisconsin.

About Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin
Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin is the region’s only independent health care system dedicated solely to the health and well-being of children. The hospital, with locations in Milwaukee and Neenah, Wis., is recognized as one of the leading pediatric health care centers in the United States. It is ranked No. 4 in the nation by Parents magazine and ranked in all 10 specialty areas in U.S. News & World Report’s 2014-15 Best Children’s Hospitals report. Children’s provides primary care, specialty care, urgent care, emergency care, community health services, foster and adoption services, child and family counseling, child advocacy services and family resource centers. In 2013, Children’s invested more than $105 million in the community to improve the health status of children through medical care, advocacy, education and pediatric medical research. Children’s achieves its mission in part through donations from individuals, corporations and foundations and is proud to be a member of Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals. For more information, visit the website at

About the Medical College of Wisconsin
The Medical College of Wisconsin is the state’s only private medical school and health sciences graduate school.  Founded in 1893, it is dedicated to leadership and excellence in education, patient care, research and community engagement.  More than 1,200 students are enrolled in MCW’s medical school and graduate school programs in Milwaukee.  New regional medical education campuses are scheduled to open in Green Bay in 2015, and in Central Wisconsin in 2016, with each recruiting initial classes of 20-25 students.  A major national research center, MCW is the largest research institution in the Milwaukee metro area and second largest in Wisconsin.  In FY 2013-14, faculty received approximately $154 million in external support for research, teaching, training and related purposes, of which approximately $138 million is for research.  This total includes highly competitive research and training awards from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  Annually, MCW faculty direct or collaborate on more than 2,000 research studies, including clinical trials. Additionally, more than 1,350 physicians provide care in virtually every specialty of medicine for more than 425,000 patients annually.
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