INDIANAPOLIS — “Even to this day, I wake up with nightmares sweating."
Eric Harris says he was very young when he began being sex trafficked by his own mother, who was struggling with a mental illness and opiate addiction.
“She would have coworkers that would come over and they would cross my personal boundaries, call me by girl names, try to kiss me on the lips,” said Harris.
His mother’s boyfriend at the time, Harris says, would later become his pimp.
“Because there was such dysfunction between me and my mother, I did not know what appropriate and healthy boundaries were,” he said. “So it made it more easier for him to catch me in compromising positions, walk in the bathroom when I was taking a shower, or be hovering over my bed late at night staring at me.”
One night, Harris’ mother and her boyfriend got in a fight and she left, Harris described. But he stayed.
“And after DCS came through and made sure all of their checks and balances were in place, pretty much about a week after that, I was taken to what was called the trap house,” said Harris. “And that’s where I was exploited by a different man every night for about a period of six months.”
Six months he endured physical and sexual abuse. Eventually, he escaped. But the immense trauma and pain followed for years. He says it wasn’t just child services that failed to notice the signs of abuse, but the health care system, too.
“I would always constantly feel like I’m being judged regardless if I was going to be vulnerable and open up about my exploitation or why the hell am I in there with a concussion,” Harris said.
Every time he would go to the hospital with an injury, he says, his symptoms of abuse were either undetected or ignored.
“It’s really kind of hard to trust a system that’s made to protect you or keep you healthy when it’s failed you so many multiple times.”
“Trafficking is a taxing experience,” said Kate Kimmer, Indiana’s statewide anti-trafficking coordinator. “It’s a violent experience. It’s an exhausting experience. So things are going to happen to your body. Folks are being brought into hospitals, they’re being brought into emergency rooms, they’re being brought in even potentially for a sexual assault exam.”
Kimmer says human trafficking victims often come in contact with the health care system, but the treatment they receive can be poor and demeaning, making it difficult for these victims to articulate their abuse and feel ashamed because of it.
“Whether it’s, ‘I don’t believe what you’re saying happened,’ I get a lot of disbelief from my clients that, ‘they’re trying to manipulate us,’ ‘they want to get this out of us or they want to get that out of us.’ Or whether it’s just completely dismissive,” said Kimmer.
The repercussions, Kimmer says, can be deadly.
“Just our own biases as healthcare givers is an ongoing thing that we struggle with because we are human beings like everyone else,” said Lori Hardie, Franciscan Health educator and manager of simulation.
Gathered around a table are a nurse, a survivor, an advocate, and healthcare leaders trying to identify ways hospitals can improve their care.
“I want to do better and I know my co-workers, we want to do better, but we don’t know what we don’t know,” said Amanda Gill, Franciscan Health education and simulation outreach coordinator.
What they want healthcare professionals to begin learning is “trauma-informed care.”
“I’ve worked in labor and delivery for 20 years and I have no education on trauma-informed care,” said Gill.
This kind of training includes not just knowing how to identify trafficking victims or someone who’s been sexually assaulted, but how to talk to them, how to properly treat them so they feel comfortable opening up.
“Just so much as when you walk in the room, introduce your name before you touch the person,” said Kimmer. “If I’m a person who’s been harmed physically and sexually many times, it’s going to be very daunting for somebody to just reach forward even with a stethoscope and start taking my heart rate.”
“Then, what to do next. If you can identify someone, then what? Now what?” asked Lori Hardie.
“Welcome to the dream house, right? This is a place for people to dream,” said Stefanie Jeffers.
At “Dream House” on the near east side of Indianapolis, Jeffers and her team give women who have engaged in sex work or been exploited through sex trafficking a place to dream again.
“We do believe recovery begins the moment someone walks in the door,” said Jeffers.
They offer classes where women learn about self-identity, how to build healthy relationships, and simply lend an ear without judgment.
A former sex worker herself, “there were years where I felt there were places I didn’t belong and places that I couldn’t go, and I could never tell my story because of the judgments that would be placed upon me,” said Jeffers.
Jeffers now partners with Franciscan Health, Eskenazi and Community Health Network locally so providers have somewhere to send potential victims if they’re ready and want the help.
“They know what we offer, then they will reach out to us and say I have someone potentially who might want to talk with you and then we can take it from there,” said Jeffers.
In 2019, the National Human Trafficking Hotline was contacted by 327 potential human trafficking victims in Indiana, with a total of 157 statewide human trafficking cases reported that year.
With nurses often responsible to pick up on clues themselves, healthcare professionals are asking for more training to better meet the needs of survivors, before it’s too late.
“If someone isn’t able to access care until they walk off the street and go someplace and get clean, people are going to die! And that’s not okay. That’s not okay that people die by themselves in an alley in the cold, without ever knowing that they were worth more,” Jeffers said.
Franciscan Health just received a statewide grant to begin trauma-informed care training this year. They will be conducting several in-person courses throughout 2021 for all Franciscan employees on how to better treat patients who present as trauma victims. They are also stocking all of their emergency departments with “hygiene and self-care kits” for potential survivors or victims of trauma.
If you suspect human trafficking, call the Department of Child Services hotline immediately at 1-800-800-5556 or the national hotline for human trafficking at 1-888-373-7888 and report it.