THE MORNING STARTED LIKE ANY OTHER. Our front-office staff members were greeting patients, answering phones, and taking care of the paperwork, and the clinicians were busy treating patients. One of our dental hygienists was treating a new patient who had visible scarring in her mouth, which can be a warning sign of sex trafficking.
Our clinical staff had gone over possible indicators of sex trafficking as part of their ongoing training, so the hygienist knew how to handle what could have been a hazardous situation. As it turned out, there was a good explanation for the patient’s condition. She was not being harmed, and we were all relieved to know that she was OK. However, if that had not been the case, as a dental team, we were in a good position to recognize the warning signs and provide help without putting the victim, ourselves, or our other patients in danger. At the time, I remember thinking to myself:
What if that had been my daughter?
According to a study (1) by the University of Texas at Austin, School of Social Work, child sex trafficking is the fastest-growing crime globally, with 79,000 young people being victims of sex trafficking in Texas alone. As dental professionals, we are in a unique position to make a big difference in reducing those statistics and saving lives, one patient at a time.
Unfortunately, many dental professionals say they don’t know what to look for or how to help. With this in mind, we want to share some tips on what to look for in hopes that dental professionals everywhere will join the fight to end child sex trafficking.
The most significant warning signs of sex trafficking include the presence of visible injuries or scars in the mouth—particularly bruising on the floor and roof of the mouth—and/or a torn lingual frenulum that results from repetitive and/or forced oral sex. The lingual frenulum is the small fold of tissue that extends from the floor of the mouth to the midline of the underside of the tongue.
“If you have a child in your care with other warning signs of trafficking and visible injuries or scars in her mouth, then you can be pretty certain she is being trafficked, especially if she has a torn lingual frenulum,” notes Steven “Flyer” Phenix of The Refuge for Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (DMST). “Call the hotline and 911 as quickly and covertly as possible.”
How to report a problem
Being covert is key. Victims and their companions panic easily and may make a run for it, putting the victim in even more danger. If you’re thinking about questioning a patient about an injury and are worried that you’ll be too invasive, then don’t mention it. Instead, find a way to call 911 or contact The National Human Trafficking Resource Help Center without being observed. Save the help hotline number as a contact in your cell phone so that you can call it as quickly and unobtrusively as possible. Call (888) 373-7888, or text HELP or INFO to 233733. Ensure everyone on your staff has access to these numbers at all times, but don’t post them where a predator might see them.