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Bakersfield hospitals try to help human trafficking victims

Memorial Hospital in Bakersfield, Calif., is seen Tuesday, April 18, 2017. (KBAK/KBFX photo/Carol Ferguson)

Three hospitals in Bakersfield are trying to fight human trafficking by watching for possible victims among their patients.

The Dignity Health hospital chain is training all its staff on warning signs, officials say. At Memorial Hospital, seven victims have already been identified.

"We, as health care providers, are the first line of defense that they come in contact with, and so we are the first line of protection," Jenny Wilson told Eyewitness News. She's the director of nursing operations at Memorial, and she said it's important that health care workers have the education to spot the warning signs and red flags.

"At Memorial Hospital, we identified currently seven victims of human trafficking, ranging from 12 years of age through their early twenties," Wilson said.

She said patients are now screened for warning signs in the Emergency Department.

"Maybe we notice some tattoos, we may notice branding," Wilson described. She said there are 10 warning signs in all.

The others include things like homelessness, a discrepancy between the reported age of the patient and the apparent age, and not having ID.

Another red flag is a patient coming in to the hospital with someone who is controlling or domineering.

"Their partner was speaking for them, (the patient) didn't make eye contact a lot of times with the nurse when being asked questions," Wilson said. The nurse may also notice the patient looking frightened or defensive.

Wilson said victims of trafficking may feel helpless and trapped.

"And, the majority of these are babies," she continued. "They're 12, and 13, and 14 years old, who ran away to be models or they ran away to be stars or famous. And, they start getting kidnapped, and they get tortured and they're told if they leave, 'I'm gong to kill your mom, I'm going to kill your dad.'"

Wilson said hospital staff also watch for signs of human trafficking among women who come in to have babies. In fact, she said about half the victims identified at Memorial have been pregnant women.

She said they often spot trouble signs when they get the woman separated from the person who brought them in. If the woman is identified as a victim, the hospital responds in a number of ways.

"We'll put a security guard outside their door, and at that point, the security director is notified, who notifies law enforcement," Wilson said. The hospital staff will also contact local agencies and organizations who help human trafficking victims.

She said all the victims they've identified have been girls and women.

It's heart-breaking when some others aren't ready for help, and she remembers one of those cases.

"We saw all the flags, we knew that she needed help. But until the victim is ready to seek that help, and say -- 'Yes, I need help' -- there's nothing we can do for them," Wilson said.

She said the local Dignity hospitals are also on the lookout for victims of labor trafficking. Her hospital hasn't spotted any of those, all their patients have been sex trafficking victims.

The screenings are now being done at Memorial, and the two Mercy Hospitals in Bakersfield. And, Wilson said the goal of health care providers is to respond to any crisis.

Wilson said in about a year of screenings at Memorial, the best case was a 22-year-old woman who had run away from her family as a teenager, and who had been lured into sex trafficking when she was about 16.

She was pregnant when she ended up at Memorial.

"After her baby was born, we were able to re-unite her with her family back up in Oregon," Wilson said. "That's what we want every story to end like."

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