Forum Focuses on Making Human Trafficking a Public Health Priority

Human trafficking for sex and labor is a serious, chronic problem in South Florida and throughout the U.S. But rather than treat victims and punish the criminals, a comprehensive preventive strategy is needed to address the root causes of modern-day slavery, according to José Szapocznik, Ph.D., professor and Chair of the Department of Public Health Sciences, Director of the Center for Family Studies and Director of the Miami Clinical and Translational Science Institute.

“We need to frame human trafficking as a public health priority,” said Szapocznik, who is also professor of architecture, psychology, and educational research and counseling psychology. He was the keynote speaker at a December 8 public forum at the University of Miami’s Newman Alumni Center hosted by the Department of Public Health Sciences and organized in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Trafficking in Persons and Office on Women’s Health, the Lovelight Foundation and the Florida Institute for Health Innovation.

Several regional and national panelists also spoke about the importance of taking a fresh look at human trafficking, including increasing national awareness and engaging the courageous men and women who have broken away from sexual or forced-labor slavery.

“Preventing human trafficking requires a national strategy that includes identifying the issues that drive this social problem and engaging the key stakeholders,” said Sharon Ricks, Acting Regional Health Administrator for Region IV in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Katherine Chon, Director of the Office on Trafficking in Persons in the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, emphasized the complexity of this global problem.

“Sex trafficking is different from forced labor in the agricultural industry,” she said. “We need to collect data and develop evidence-driven prevention strategies.”

In his keynote address, Szapocznik said both traditional medicine and law enforcement take a reactive approach that focuses on individuals — treating and rehabilitating victims, or arresting and punishing perpetrators.

“However, public health takes a broader approach that looks at upstream risk and protective factors with the goal of preventing children and adolescents from being recruited as traffickers or being trafficked,” he said. “That means taking a multi-level look at individuals, families, communities and policies at the local, state and national level.”

Szapocznik cited several local, national and international examples of public health interventions that tackle public health problems requiring multi-sectoral interventions. One was the Malaria Amazon Initiative, which has led to more effective anti-disease practices, such as families sleeping under mosquito-repellent nets, dumping standing water in villages and eliminating “reservoirs” where mosquitoes go to rest. He also cited the success of the Miami Coalition for a Safe, Healthy and Drug Free Community, formed in 1981 to find a solution to the high levels of drug trafficking, addiction and violence.

“By bringing all the stakeholders together, this initiative turned Miami from ‘paradise lost’ to ‘paradise found,’” he said. “While things are still not perfect, our community is much better off than it was 30 years ago.”

In searching for solutions to prevent human trafficking, Szapocznik noted that researchers have identified social cohesion as a deterrent for gang violence, child abuse and teenage pregnancy.

“This may well be an important variable in trafficking as well,” he said. “We should also look closely at the common protective factors for adolescents, such as good parent-child communication, and monitoring of adolescent activities.”

Szapocznik joined other forum participants in calling for an integrated approach to the problem of human trafficking.

“We can’t solve this issue by working in silos,” he said. “We need to involve schools, communities and policy makers, as well as the medical community and law enforcement. Most of all, we need to empower change leaders from inside the trafficking culture in order to be successful.”

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