Novant Health working with Safe House Project to train team members on how to spot human trafficking

Novant Health is the first healthcare network in the nation to roll out the H.O.P.E. training.
Only around one percent of victims are identified.
Published: Nov. 1, 2022 at 7:09 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Human trafficking affects hundreds of thousands of people across the world every year.

It’s also happening in your own backyard and in most cases going unnoticed.

It’s reported that about one percent of victims are identified, but according to the national organization Safe House Project, since the start of the pandemic that number has dropped to point three percent roughly.

Safe House Project is co-founded by Kristi Wells, who lives in Charlotte.

She’s determined to help others know what to look out for, particularly in the healthcare industry.

That’s where the H.O.P.E Training comes in.

H.O.P.E stands for Healthcare Observations for the Prevention and Eradication of Human Trafficking.

It’s a series of online training modules developed by trafficking survivors and backed by the Academy of Forensic Nursing, to give people working within healthcare the tools to identify and help victims.

Novant Health is the first healthcare network in the nation to roll out the training.

“If we see something, we need to be empowered to do something about it and that’s what the training is for,” Tameka O’Neal, Vice President and Chief Provider Experience Officer for Novant Health, told WBTV.

O’Neal is teaming up with Kristi Wells, the CEO of Safe House Project, to bring training to the computer screens of every Novant Health employee.

“You’ve got familial trafficking, you’ve got grooming, you’ve got trafficker sources of control,” Wells said. “We go through labor trafficking, so we go through a variety of different scenarios that help people understand how to identify it.”

It's a series of online training modules developed by trafficking survivors and backed by the Academy of Forensic Nursing.

Related: Upstate organization working to help human trafficking survivors

Creating a safe space for patients is important to O’Neal because for her, this is personal.

“I’m a victim, I should say a survivor of sexual abuse as a child,” she said. “I was 14, and so I wanted to lean into this work just as part of my healing process, but also to stand in the gap for others.”

Trafficking survivors also had a hand in creating the program.

“I was trafficked from 14 to 18 in Southern California and again at 26 here in Southern California,” Alia Dewees, who now works with Safe House Project, said.

Dewees was introduced to sex trafficking after meeting an older man on MySpace when she was just 13 years old.

“It had been more than six months of him normalizing sex-buying behavior,” she said. “When he finally told me that this is what I was going to need to do to continue this relationship, it seemed like two bad options, either end this relationship which I could not imagine doing at that time with that level of maturity, or consent to the trafficking experience.”

It was the start of more than a decade of life in sex trafficking and exploitation.

“I had the understanding that the reason I was having so much trauma from my experiences was because I was not doing it right, which was definitely a thought that a trafficker had used in order to keep me compliant,” she said.

She wound up in the hospital several times.

“This was a time in our country in the early 2000s that people were not discussing what trafficking was and what it looked like,” she said. “If people had had the necessary information to be able to identify me, they would have been able to do it very easily and very early on.”

She says if she had been identified by a healthcare worker, it could have drastically changed her story.

“I believe that I would have been able to break those trauma bonds and those misinterpretations of the world in order to get on a path that would have saved me a lot of heartache over the next 12 years,” she said. “I ended up having children that I had while in exploitation. It would have saved them a lot of heartache.”

At 26, Alia finally made it out alive.

“The health care system was a big part of how I was able to get out,” she said. “I was able to stay in the hospital when I exited my trafficking situation for a month in order to get into a trafficking-specific safe house program.”

Now she’s using her trauma, to help others escape it.

“There are certain exams, certain language, certain procedures that could be very, very triggering for a trafficking survivor,” she said. “So we go over what those are and how to mitigate those and then finally, how do we connect a survivor with services. I can hand you a pamphlet. I can hand you a business card, or I can hold on to these, and you are welcome to come back and let me know when you want them.”

O’Neal says it’s empowering to be part of the solution.

“I really want to do more,” she said. “This is just step one for us.”

Wells is grateful Novant Health is willing to take this first step.

“North Carolina is ranked #6 in the nation for human trafficking,” Wells said. “Here’s my take. That means we’re #6 in the nation for victim identification because that simply is trafficking reports. So as crazy as it sounds, I’m on a little bit of a mission to make North Carolina #1, because if we can identify every single survivor that is being trafficked, I don’t care if that number goes up and up and up, because that means that we’re also able to help get them out, get them into restorative care, get them into healing. That means we’re effectively responding.”

Safe House Project has a goal of training one million healthcare workers in the next year.

They’re also working with the World Health Organization and the United Nations on a recommendation of a systemized process for training across all healthcare networks.

Right now it’s optional for Novant Health employees, but it will be mandatory starting in 2023.

To learn more about the training click here.