Modern Day Slavery: Human Trafficking in America

When we think about slavery, our mind usually goes to a dark piece of American history.  Emaciated men, women, and children on overcrowded, disease-infested ships, snaking their way up rivers to plantations growing tobacco and cotton; masters flogging their human possessions in grandiose acts of retribution for the slightest defiance.  Fast forward 150 years.  America still isn’t the Land of the Free for everyone.  

According to Stop Trafficking Now, there are more slaves today than at any other time in the history of the world.  More than when slaves built the pyramids.  Slavery predates written records and has existed in numerous cultures and locations around the world for centuries.  But despite all of our modern technology and evolving morality, human slavery is on the rise.  Human trafficking is the second largest, yet fastest growing, criminal enterprise in the world.  Second only to illegal drugs.  But while cocaine and heroin are sold and then consumed, a human can be sold over and over again.  An estimated 27 million people are considered slaves with the average victim being between 12 and 14 years of age. Approximately 80% are females.  The criminal industry of human trafficking generates approximately $150 billion annually. But the average cost of a slave is around $90. Ninety dollars.  Apparently, that is what a human life is worth.

                Meet Lisa Rhodes. Lisa is on the frontline of efforts to end human trafficking. Lisa is a nurse practitioner who has devoted a large portion of her personal time serving on the North Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force in order to fight injustice and to make the world a better place.  Lisa is motivated to do something to improve the lives of all people but especially those that have been forgotten or disregarded.  She reminds us that, “As health care providers, we come into contact with those who are trafficked. These people are our friends and neighbors.  We need protocols, procedures, and aligned resources to not only identify those that are trafficked but to have an infrastructure in place to promote recovery.” Just because the torturous nightmare of being trafficked is over, doesn’t mean the work is done. “These people need food, shelter, medical/psychological treatment, and education”.

               Lisa is haunted by one story in particular. Twenty-five years ago, she worked in a critical care unit at UAB.  A young Caucasian woman around the age of 15 came in after attempting suicide. As they were scrubbing the activated charcoal used to induce vomiting after an overdose, she came across an explicit tattoo that said “F*** Me” across her lower abdomen.  Years later, Lisa realized the young woman was probably being trafficked. Human trafficking education programs and protocols were not yet in place.  To this day, Lisa thinks about her and wonders how her story turned out. 

               Lisa looks back on another encounter that she feels may have been an instance of trafficking.  She recalls being at home one afternoon when she heard a knock at the door.  A young African American male around the age of 16 stood on her doorstep. He was selling magazines.  Lisa remembers an expression on his face that has stuck with her to this day.  She ordered a National Geographic subscription then watched the young man get into a van and drive away.  She never received her magazine subscription.  Knowing what she knows today, she suspects the young man was a victim of labor trafficking.  Young men and women are lured in with the promises of a better life, travel, and money only to be reduced to reside in poor living conditions with minimal pay.  Threats, drugs, and lack of places to go force many to stay.

But things are changing.  Strides are being made on the human trafficking forefront.  But there are still many obstacles to overcome.  Lisa says, “Resource collaboration remains the biggest hurdle.  There are only a few hundred clinical beds in the U.S. available for those that have been trafficked. This is just the healthcare component.  We all also need to be trauma informed and use victim/survivor centered care.  Human trafficking and trauma were not mentioned in my health care curriculum.” She recommends education on trauma and its connection and dynamics of the intersection of human trafficking, domestic violence, child abuse, pornography, substance abuse, rape and suicide. “Not only do we need to be aware of these traumatic experiences, but we need to know what to do and who to call just like when a patient suffers a stroke or heart attack”. She also notes another barrier is difficulty eliminating the “buyer”. “We need tougher legal ramifications”, she says, but that “this is in process statewide and nationally”. Those convicted are now placed on the sex-offender registry.

               While the statistics are staggering, Lisa will tell you that one person trafficked is too many.  Most that are involved in sex trafficking are U.S. citizens.  Most of those involved in labor trafficking are from other countries. Human trafficking is happening in our own backyard.  Lisa is on the Board of Safe Harbor Youth.  In the last 4 years she has met dozens of kids that have been trafficked right here in the Tennessee Valley.  She has met several adults. She explains that the statistics are hard to nail down because many cases and investigations are ongoing.

What would make a difference?  Lisa recommends mandatory training for all health care providers while in school and then continuing education credits while in practices. Educating all ER personnel is critical including custodians, security officers, and maintenance workers in addition to medical personnel. Education should then be expanded to clinics, urgent care centers, and public health departments. It is imperative to identify those at risk. Lisa says that anyone can be a victim or a trafficker.  This includes those in vulnerable populations: runaways, homeless, substance abusers, and immigrants. In her words, “those marginalized by society.” Health Care Providers can suggest to their managers, coworkers, school professors, and politicians that Human Trafficking education is a MUST.  She recommends that everyone in our community helps.  “If you see something, SAY SOMETHING.” Attend awareness events, take online classes, volunteer with a Human Trafficking Task Force or shelter, give financially if you are able and volunteer your time if you are not.  “It brings Stranger Danger to a new level. Reinforce with children how to treat one another with love and understanding.  They are constantly bombarded with images in gaming, TV, videos that normalize violence against others”.

The Office of Trafficking in Persons offers SOAR training to identify and report trafficking. After attending SOAR training, attendees are able to:

  • Stop – Describe the scope of human trafficking in the United States.
  • Observe – Recognize the verbal and non-verbal indicators of human trafficking.
  • Ask – Identify and interact with individuals who have experienced trafficking using a victim-centered and trauma-informed approach.
  • Respond – Respond effectively to potential human trafficking in your community by identifying needs and available resources to provide critical support and assistance.

Slavery is a stain on the American Flag and the American Soul.  But not just the dark chapter predating the Civil War.  Slavery is an ongoing problem, bigger than ever before in the history of humankind.  Human trafficking is slavery.  It is happening where you and your loved ones live.  It is happening to people just like you.  Armed with the proper information and resources we can stop human trafficking in our lifetime.

How to Identify Victims

The following are some indicators which raise a red flag that a person may be the victim of human trafficking:

  1. Appear to be under someone else’s control and watched at all times.
  1. All or most contacts with family and friends are controlled or monitored.
  1. Inability or fear to make eye contact.
  • Chronic runaway or homeless youth.
  • Talks about an older “boyfriend” who is controlling or sex with an older man.
  • Shows evidence or signs of abuse, such as physical injuries, scars, cuts, bruises, or burns.
  • May have significant gaps in schooling.
  • May have tattoos of “Daddy”, “$”, bar codes, or a man’s name.
  • Seductive behavior/clothing for a child.
  • May show signs of drug abuse. Victims are often given drugs to keep them dependent.
  1. Are not in control of their own travel or identification documents.
  • Live with multiple people in very cramped space.
  • Have little privacy or are rarely alone.
  • Have untreated illnesses or infections and may be in poor health.
  • Exhibit emotional distress, anxiety, depression, etc.

If you suspect someone is a victim of human trafficking or sex slavery, DO NOT attempt to rescue the victim yourself.  This could severely endanger you and the victim.

CALL your local Police Department, FBI, or the National Hotline – 1-888-373-7888

Or Text: HELP to BeFree (233733).

For more information contact:   

North Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force

Phone: 256-656-8527


Website: STNOW.ORG

Join Stop Trafficking Now!

The North Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force meets the 1st Tuesday of the month at 2 p.m. at the National Children’s Advocacy Center located at 210 Pratt Avenue, Huntsville, AL.

This article was written by Kari Kingsley, CRNP in collaboration with Lisa Rhodes CRNP.

human trafficking

References for this article include,,, and

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