Novant Health works with the Safe House Project to train team members on how to recognize human trafficking

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) – Human trafficking affects hundreds of thousands of people around the world every year.

It also happens in your own backyard and in most cases it goes unnoticed.

About one percent of victims have reportedly been identified, but that number has dropped to about three percent since the start of the pandemic, according to the national organization Safe House Project.

Safe House Project is co-founded by Christy Wells, who lives in Charlotte.

She is determined to help others know what to look out for, especially in the healthcare industry.

This is where HOPE training comes in.

HOPE stands for Health Surveillance to Prevent and Eradicate Human Trafficking.

This is a series of online training modules developed by survivors of trafficking and supported by the Academy of Forensic Nursing to give healthcare professionals the tools to identify and support victims.

Novant Health is the first health network in the nation to introduce the training.

“If we see something, we need to be empowered to do something about it, and that’s what the training is all about,” Tameka O’Neill, vice president and chief provider experience officer for Novant Health, told WBTV.

O’Neill partnered with Christy Wells, CEO of the Safe House Project, to bring training to the computer screens of every Novant Health employee.

“You have family trafficking, you have care, you have sources of control from traffickers,” Wells said. “We go through labor trafficking, so we go through different scenarios that help people understand how to identify it.”

Connected: An upstate organization working to support survivors of human trafficking

Creating a safe space for patients is important to O’Neill because it’s personal to her.

“I’m a victim, I must say, a survivor of sexual abuse as a child,” she said. “I was 14 and so I wanted to lean into this work just as part of my healing process, but also to stand in the gap for others.”

Trafficking survivors also had a hand in creating the program.

“I was trafficked from age 14 to 18 in Southern California and again at age 26 here in Southern California,” said Alia Dewis, who now works with the Safe House Project.

Dewis was introduced to sex trafficking after meeting an older man on MySpace when she was just 13 years old.

“It took more than six months for him to normalize his sex-buying behavior,” she said. “When he finally told me that this is what I would have to do to continue this relationship, it seemed like two bad options, or end this relationship, which I couldn’t imagine doing at that time with this level of maturity, or consent to the experience of trafficking.’

It was the beginning of more than a decade of living in sex trafficking and exploitation.

“I realized that the reason I had so much trauma from my experiences was because I wasn’t doing it right, which was definitely a thought that a trafficker had used to make me comply,” she said.

She was hospitalized several times.

“It was a time in our country in the early 2000s when people didn’t discuss what trafficking was and what it looked like,” she said. “If people had the information they needed to be able to identify me, they would have done it very easily and very early.”

She says if she had been identified by a health care worker, it could have drastically changed her story.

“I believe that I would have been able to break through these traumatic relationships and these misinterpretations of the world to go down a path that would have saved me a lot of heartache over the next 12 years,” she said. “I ended up having kids that I had while I was in the service. It would have saved them a lot of grief.”

At the age of 26, Alia finally made it out alive.

“The health care system was a big part of how I got out,” she said. “I was able to stay in the hospital when I got out of the traffic situation for a month to get into a traffic-specific safe house program.”

Now she uses her trauma to help others escape it.

“There are certain exams, certain language, certain procedures that can be very, very triggering for a trafficking victim,” she said. “So we’re looking at what those are and how to mitigate them and ultimately how to connect a survivor to services.” I can give you a brochure. I can give you a business card or I can keep those and you can come back and let me know when you want them.

O’Neill says it’s empowering to be part of the solution.

“I really want to do more,” she said. “This is just a first step for us.”

Wells is grateful that Novant Health is willing to take this first step.

“North Carolina ranks sixth in the nation for human trafficking,” Wells said. “Here’s my take. That means we’re number 6 in the nation in identifying victims because these are just traffic reports. As crazy as it sounds, I’m on a little mission to make North Carolina #1 because if we can identify every single survivor who is a victim of trafficking, I don’t care if that number goes up and up and up because that means that we are also able to help get them out, get them into rehabilitative care, get them to heal. This means we are responding effectively.”

The Safe House Project aims to train one million health workers in the next year.

They are also working with the World Health Organization and the United Nations to recommend a systematic training process across all health networks.

It is not currently mandatory for Novant Health employees, but will be mandatory starting in 2023.

To learn more about the training Press here.

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