Deb O’Hara-Rusckowski

Healthcare providers in emergency rooms, clinics, and private practice have the rare opportunity to identify and rescue sex trafficked women and children — an opportunity often missed because of a lack of awareness and training. This reality is what Deb O’Hara-Rusckowski, founder of the Global Strategic Operatives to Eradicate Human Trafficking (GSO), plans to remedy with the help of allies such as the Catholic Medical Association.

O’Hara-Rusckowski presented to the CMA Board in January at the invitation of President Dr. Michael Parker and Media and Communications Committee Chair Dr. Paul Braaton, who both know her through their membership in the Order of Malta.

At the board meeting she explained her goal of providing human trafficking training to every Catholic hospital healthcare system throughout the country — a goal she hopes the CMA will assist her in.

“We first talked about the human trafficking issue in 2019 and at that time it became apparent that the CMA should collaborate with Deb on this exciting program she has developed,” said Dr. Braaton. “This program raises awareness of human trafficking, which is important to the healthcare community. Healthcare professionals must be committed to stopping it at all costs.”

As she explained, according to a 2014 study by Laura J. Lederer and Christopher A. Wetzel, the sad reality is that 88% of women and children who are trafficked into prostitution have sought out medical care during their time of being trafficked, but their healthcare providers unknowingly or without understanding the reality of prostitution, released them to their pimps or traffickers after treatment.

This is particularly devastating because a health exam is a rare opportunity when the trafficker is not with the victim, giving healthcare professionals a chance to provide help.

According to the study’s authors, “It illustrates how our healthcare system is failing trafficked women and children… [by] failing to identify them, thereby unwittingly contributing to continuing criminal activity and exacerbating both public and private physical and mental health problems for this segment of the population.”

It was this study that was the impetus for the founding of GSO, after a high-level meeting sponsored jointly by the Permanent Observer of the Sovereign Order of Malta Mission to the UN and the Permanent Observer Mission to the Holy See. The meeting convened at the UN in 2018 led by O’Hara-Rusckowski, who is the Delegate for the Order of Malta Mission to the UN, and Kevin Hyland, a former UK Anti-Slavery Commissioner under then Prime Minister Theresa May.

“It was decided that the need was greatest to conduct training on human trafficking to those within the healthcare sector because of this study. This presents a huge opportunity for the healthcare sector to collaborate closely with other NGOs, governmental agencies, law enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations and the FBI,” she explained. “Therefore, GSO embarked on a comprehensive pilot study to provide training to healthcare professionals in a dozen U.S. and international sites to identify trafficking victims and take appropriate action.”

Data was collected to determine the effectiveness of the training sessions and then used to establish policy and protocols in each training site with the ultimate goal of proposing a “universal policy” to the World Health Organization for distribution as a human trafficking policy for healthcare providers worldwide. Currently one does not exist.

O’Hara-Rusckowski reports that preliminary research results from the U.S. sites are very positive, and she expects similar results from the international healthcare sites as well once completed. The pilot study findings will be published in medical journals and shared at a U.N. meeting in June in the hopes of providing incentives for other healthcare systems worldwide to request this necessary and invaluable training.

Although the pandemic initially slowed the work down, GSO took that opportunity to revise and update its website and training materials, and to develop a completely virtual training program run by six clinicians and seven survivors. The program is now set up to take training requests from all over the world, and several events are already lined up for the coming months.

The work of freeing victims and then providing for the unique needs of survivors is multifaceted, which is why O’Hara-Rusckowski has been building a coalition that will help meet each need. Among them is the CMA, where she will offer a GSO training at the Annual Educational Conference in Orlando, October 7–9.

“At this year’s Annual Educational Conference, make it a point to attend Deborah O’Hara-Rusckowski’s training session on human trafficking,” President Dr. Parker said. “We can impact human trafficking by being able to identify trafficking victims and take action to get these innocents to safety. Every Catholic healthcare system in the United States needs a human trafficking protocol. Be the one who makes a difference by encouraging administrators to engage in training frontline workers.”