Bolstering a Line of Defense in the Battle Against Sex Trafficking

Llena Chavis, Ph.D. | Assistant Professor of Social Work

Michigan has the sixth-most reported cases of human trafficking in the United States. Dr. Llena Chavis is teaching people on the front lines how to recognize the signs of trafficking — and how to intervene.

In 2016, when one of her students was doing research about trafficking, Chavis and the student learned that health professionals are often the first line of defense against sex trafficking. “Trafficked individuals will be brought in either injured or sick, and will face a health professional who could be the ‘make or break’ in getting them help,” Chavis says.

But when she and her student, Ashley Krause ’17, looked at data regarding who reported incidents of sex trafficking in the Grand Rapids area, it wasn’t health professionals.

“We were curious about that gap,” Chavis says.

“If groups are saying ‘health professionals are the ones,’ why are they not?”

Chavis and Krause wanted to know whether health professionals felt able to recognize and respond to sex-trafficked individuals. Krause interviewed 12 local medical professionals — physicians, psychiatrists and dentists — to gauge their preparedness.

“Unless they had actually come face-to-face with a sex trafficking victim, they felt very incompetent,” Chavis says. “They knew what to do medically, but not what to do in terms of resources.”

The researchers realized they could apply their social work expertise to the problem. Funded by a Hope College Nyenhuis grant, they developed a training module based on a step-by-step process called the “generalist intervention model.” Over three hours, trainees become acquainted with data about trafficking in their region and learn best practices: how to assess whether patients may be victims of sex trafficking, how to show empathy and how to intervene effectively. Together, Chavis says, these steps can “turn pain into power.”

She has conducted training sessions three times in West Michigan so far and will present another this spring. They enable health professionals to earn continuing education units that count toward renewal of their state licensure, and are open to others, too. Krause has made presentations at three conferences about the training module, which she and Chavis hope others will use elsewhere.

“We often think of trafficking as being this international problem, when that’s not always the case,” Chavis says. “It’s eye-opening for people to realize this is happening in their own backyard. But I think — and hope — it’s becoming less of a secret.”

View Dr. Chavis’ lecture about her research