Partnership sheds light on toll of human trafficking

St. Joseph’s and London police are working together to meet the unique needs of victims.

A novel partnership between St. Joseph’s Regional Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Treatment Program (RSADVTP) and London Police Service is shedding new light on the toll of human trafficking on victims and how best to provide care and support for these girls and young women. 

Since March 2017, the RSADVTP team has been working with London Police Service’s Human Trafficking Unit, providing initial examination, testing, and medical and psychological care for victims rescued by police. In this ongoing collaboration, the SADVTP team is the first point of care for these individuals. 

Ribbon of hopeLocated at St. Joseph’s Hospital, the RSADVTP is one of the first such treatment programs in Ontario to take on this role and recently presented their experience to date at the International Conference on Forensic Nursing Science and Practice.  

“It is very important work,” says Dr. Susan McNair, RSADVTP Medical Director. “These are individuals who are very vulnerable and have unique and very high needs, not only medical and psychological but also with regards to safety, housing, legal advocacy and the most basic necessities.” 

While human trafficking is a significant and growing problem across the province, London is known as a hub for the crime, says Detective Mike Hay with the Human Trafficking Unit.

In October 2016, London Police launched Project Equinox, a proactive investigation into human trafficking that led to sweeping arrests and shined a spotlight on the problem in London. As a result of the six-month project, a specialized unit was established. Led by Detective Hay, the unit’s main goal is to rescue victims, some of whom have been as young as 14 years old.

“The partnership with Dr. McNair and St. Joseph’s has been fantastic,” says Detective Hay. “Having a resource like the Regional Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Treatment Program as the first point of care has made it very easy for victims of human trafficking in London to have immediate access to services, whether that’s counseling, testing for sexually transmitted disease, medical care, or simply a shower.”

research poster board presentation

The RSADVTP’s conference presentation arose from the experiences the team has had caring for the victims they have seen. The presentation highlighted a survivor’s story and the response of the RSADVTP team, explored the most effective ways to provide care for this population, and proposed recommendations to improve care locally, provincially and nationally. 

The care provided by the RSADVTP to victims of human trafficking has been comprehensive while respecting the wishes of the survivors. It has included: assessment and care for medical and physical needs; the collection of forensic evidence; providing reassurance and a safe place for victims to share their story; safety planning in collaboration with the police; follow-up care; facilitating contact with families; offering support and education about human trafficking to family members of victims; and more. 

The team is currently working with London Police to use an interview space within the RSADVTP so that victims don’t have to go to the station to give their statements.

Among the challenges that have come to light since the partnership began are finding and arranging medical and psychological follow-up in the community where the victim is relocated. Linda Fischer, RSADVTP social worker, says there is a need for evidence-based psychotherapeutic options to meet the very specific needs of human trafficking patients.

Locally, the team supports efforts to create a “circle of care” – a coordinated community response for survivors. Provincially, the team would like to see the establishment of a care pathway in all Ontario sexual assault/domestic violence treatment centres. 

“Human trafficking is a unique area of care for the network of sexual assault treatment programs in Ontario and St. Joseph’s is leading the way in this work,” says Dr. McNair. 

The team also suggests a national strategy for identified survivors of human trafficking and clinical practice guidelines of care for these individuals. 

About the Regional Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Treatment Program

Serving London as well as Oxford, Elgin, Huron-Perth and Middlesex counties, the Regional Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Treatment Program located at St. Joseph’s Hospital provides care for women, children and men who have experienced sexual assault/sexual abuse and/or domestic violence. 

A team of specialized nurses, doctors and social workers are available 24/7 to provide care at the time of the assault and in the months following the incident. There are many options for care and each individual can choose what he or she wants to do. Depending on the nature of the assault and the time since the assault, numerous services are offered: 

  • emotional support/crisis intervention for the patient and significant other 
  • counseling; physical examination 
  • testing, prevention, and/or treatment of sexually transmitted infections initially and in follow-up 
  • HIV prevention medication
  • testing and/or prevention of pregnancy due to sexual assault 
  • documentation/photographs of injuries 
  • forensic evidence collection
  • safety planning 
  • referrals as needed.

The RSADVTP team also conducts research and provides education to high-risk groups, professional partners in care, and faculty and students at Western University. 

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