Behind Closed Doors: Forensic Nurses Play Key Role in Combatting Human Trafficking (Podcast)

Forensic nurses provide trauma-informed care for victims of crime and educate the community on abuse

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In a study that interviewed survivors of human trafficking, 88% of respondents disclosed they had seen or sought out medical care while actively being trafficked. That’s one reason why the trauma-informed care provided by forensic nurses is so critical.

Forensic nurses care not only for victims of human trafficking, but victims of all crimes – intimate partner abuse, domestic violence, child abuse and elder abuse.

“The forensic nurse is doing the medical, the clinical and then blending it with our legal teams,” says Michele Reali-Sorrell, DNP, RN, forensic nurse manager for the Cleveland Clinic Health System. “But we’re also doing education and training, and we’re trying to talk to people about safe relationships or other things that relate to their health and wellness.”

In a recent episode of Cleveland Clinic’s Nurse Essentials podcast, Reali-Sorrell discusses the field of forensic nursing. She covers:

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  • Common misconceptions about human trafficking and other abuse
  • Warning signs that someone may be a victim of abuse
  • Interventions forensic nurses put in place beyond evidence collection
  • The importance of non-judgmental, trauma-informed care
  • Resources available to nurses to help patients and their community

Click the podcast player above to listen to the episode now, or read on for a short edited excerpt. Check out more Nurse Essentials episodes at or wherever you get your podcasts.

Podcast excerpt

Podcast host Carol Pehotsky, DNP, RN, NEA-BC: As a nurse, are there other things I should be assessing for that may tell me that something else is going on, especially in that instance where maybe the patient doesn’t even recognize that they’re being trafficked?

Reali-Sorrell: So, there are definitely some red flags that we can see in human trafficking. I think one of the things that, if I look back at it, they want their medical care because they’re uncomfortable, they’re sick, so that’s making that the priority – making their medical concern the priority. But then it’s going back and looking at, are they presenting very scripted? Or are they looking to the person who’s with them kind of for like, “Can I answer this or not?”

If their injury or the reason that they’re there just doesn’t match up – they said they fell through a window, and you would think that the cut would be clean and well approximated, but it looks like it’s ragged and they might’ve been drugged from somewhere. You know, so the injury and the reason for that injury don’t match up. If they don’t have the medications that they need for chronic disease, and that could be something simple, right? But they’re not allowed to go to the doctors. So, they’re not getting the care that they [need].

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I think some other things would be if they’re coming in for frequent STDs. And we look at that as perhaps that person is just having, you know, an unsafe lifestyle, but it could often be that it wasn’t their choice. And so, I think that just looking at that and not judging the patient. Looking for one red flag can mean nothing. It’s when they start to all add up.

I think another thing for us to look at is patients that have drug or alcohol concerns. And we could say that they have addiction issues, however, why were they started? Sometimes the trafficker will start a person on drugs to control them, and so now they’ve become a drug addict, so not only are they being trafficked, but even if you were to get them out of that lifestyle, they now have an addiction issue. So, it’s a big issue. Why is someone addicted to alcohol, drugs?

Again, one time, one flag is not [necessarily a warning] but just to kind of look through the chart, see what other kind of red flags they may have.