Pediatricians Offer Guidance on Child Exploitation, Trafficking

In a new updated report, the American Academy of Pediatrics urges pediatricians to understand signs of exploitation and labor/sex trafficking and learn how to support children and adolescents who are targeted.

“It’s incredibly scary when you encounter someone you worry is a victim, and you don’t know how to help them, and they’re not saying what’s going on,” pediatrician and report coauthor Dana Kaplan, MD, of Staten Island (NY) University Hospital, said in an interview. “Every case is so unique and different: There’s no algorithm of ‘If A, then B, then C.’ You have to approach each person as an individual, and it takes time to make sure you’re thinking things through about how to provide what’s needed.”

The AAP published the clinical report, which is intended to provide guidance to pediatricians, in the January 2023 issue of Pediatrics. The organization previously tackled this topic in a 2017 clinical report, and Kaplan said the new report includes updated recommendations.

As the new report notes, there aren’t reliable estimates of exploited children in the United States, although millions are thought to be trafficked and subjected to forced labor around the world. “By virtue of their young age, children and adolescents are vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation, because they have limited life experiences, a need for attachment and acceptance, an immature prefrontal cortex…and limited options for action,” the report says.

Kaplan puts it this way: “By the nature of being a child, you’re vulnerable.”

Still, healthcare professionals often aren’t trained in regard to human trafficking, the report says, even though it’s clear that they “must remain alert for the possibility.”

Kaplan, who has special training in child abuse and often sees children at risk, cautioned that children usually don’t directly say that they need help. “That’s generally not the case. They don’t articulate what’s going on around them as unsafe, or concerning, or dangerous. If you go and see a doctor for 10 minutes, are you going to tell them everything?

Instead, clinicians must often rely on their own observations. The report lists multiple possible signs of exploitation.

  • The patient is accompanied by a domineering adult who does not allow the child to answer questions or accompanied by an unrelated adult. Inconsistent information is provided by the patient or companion. There’s a delay in seeking medical care.

  • The patient has multiple sexually transmitted infections, previous pregnancy or termination, and/or frequent visits for emergency contraception. There are signs of prior sexual abuse, assault, or other maltreatment.

  • The patient is withdrawn, fearful, hostile, or has a suspicious demeanor. The patient is constantly checking his or her phone and appears anxious or afraid.

What should clinicians do if they suspect exploitation? The report recommends that healthcare organizations develop guidelines for workers to follow. For her part, Kaplan advises colleagues to let patients lead conversations and not dig too deeply into their lives.

“Don’t turn into an investigator. This is not [Law & Order] SVU,” she said. “Stay focused on what you’re trained to do — provide healthcare.”

That doesn’t mean clinicians should ignore signs of trouble. It’s crucial to develop trust with the patient over time, she said, and turn to a specialist in your community or institution if you have suspicions.

And be careful to not portray victims as perpetrators. The new report emphasizes that “it’s important for healthcare providers to emphasize to authorities that the patient is a victim of exploitation who needs services rather than a juvenile offender.”

The report also highlights the importance of creating an environment that supports clinicians themselves: “Self-care for the clinician is critical in preventing and addressing secondary traumatic stress. A work environment that fosters peer support, encourages open discussion of work-related stress, and implements reasonable work-life balance policies can help protect providers from secondary stress and its consequences.”

Resources for clinicians include the National Human Trafficking Hotline, the federal Office of Trafficking in Persons, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s domestic refugee screening guidelines.

The study has no external funding. The authors report no disclosures.

This article originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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