Hanni Stoklosa, 35, is an emergency medicine doctor at Brigham and Women’s Hospital — and a national expert on human trafficking, a form of modern-day slavery in which people are forced into sex or labor by threats of violence or other forms of coercion. She founded the grassroots group HEAL Trafficking to help health professionals identify and support trafficking victims. I caught up with her at a coffee shop along her bicycle route to work.
How did you get interested in human trafficking?
At a conference during medical school at the University of Pittsburgh. “I was just flabbergasted,” she said. “I didn’t know it existed in the US at all.” It turns out up to 88 percent of trafficking survivors have intersected with the health care system, but most health professionals aren’t trained to spot the signs and help them, Stoklosa said.
What kind of human trafficking goes on around Boston?
Women who are addicted to opioids get lured by men who will give them drugs for sex. A lot of times, they aren’t even getting high — they’re “just trying to avoid the horrors of dope sickness,” Stoklosa said. Immigrants who work in massage parlors, nail salons, or as housecleaners may end up in debt-bondage situations with their employers, who keep their passports and threaten to deport them if they speak up about unfair wages or abuse.
Tell me about a case that stuck with you.
A few months ago, Stoklosa said, a 20-year-old woman came into the Brigham to report that she had been raped and wanted to detox from heroin. The patient said she had met a man who promised to give her heroin. The man locked her in a hotel room, where she said she was forced to have sex with over 200 men in one week. Brigham staff looked for a bed in a treatment facility for heroin withdrawal and depression. They couldn’t find one. The patient walked out of the emergency department, presumably in search of drugs, at risk of being trafficked again.
“It’s the ultimate failure of the system,” Stoklosa said. “It kills my soul. And the sad thing is, it also doesn’t surprise me. It’s so hard to get people into the treatment they need for detox and mental illness.”
How do you identify trafficking cases in the hospital?
Some women come in with signs similar to domestic violence — bruises in different stages of healing and stories that don’t match the physical harm. Others may show up for frequent STD visits and pregnancy checks, or may have multiple abortions. If the patient comes in with a “minder,” Stoklosa said, she tries to speak with the patient alone. The most important thing, she said, is to “be present and show that you actually care” — instead of just checking off the box on the medical record that says, “Are you safe at home?”
For resources on how to help human trafficking victims, visit HEAL Trafficking.