Shannon Holcombe

Sex trafficking survivor Shannon Holcombe addresses the crowd at a seminar titled "Human Trafficking Meets Healthcare: An Opportunity for Intervention" at Georgia Northwestern Technical College Friday, Jan. 26, 2018. (Spencer Lahr /

When most people think of human trafficking, the image of a child being kidnapped and shipped overseas to be sold for sex comes to mind, said Shannon Holcombe, a sex trafficking survivor. But for her, it all started in Bartow County.

“We want the world to know it’s a real thing here,” said Holcombe, who now works as an intake coordinator for Abba House, a residential ministry for women that she was in following her getting out of the sex trade in fall 2014.

“We fail to realize that a doctor, judge, nurse or lawyer could do it,” the 26-year-old said, adding, however, that the majority of instances of sexual exploitation involve relatives of victims.

Holcombe spoke at a seminar Friday titled “Human Trafficking Meets Healthcare: An Opportunity for Intervention” that was attended by over 50 health and behavioral professionals along with law enforcement and social services representatives. The event was aimed at increasing the awareness health professionals have of human trafficking and how they can be intervening forces in victims’ lives.

Keynote speaker Dr. Jordan Greenbaum, who works for a number of organizations aimed at ending human trafficking, said current statistics on human trafficking likely represent “the tip of the iceberg” and there are likely more cases, which haven’t reached the light of day due to the criminal nature therein.

In the U.S., the two main types of human trafficking are sex and labor trafficking, Greenbaum said. Commercial sex acts are the exchange of something of perceived value — such as drugs, money or food — but sex trafficking doesn’t always come in the form of a pimp prostituting someone, she added. It can come in the form of a child who has been abandoned and lives on the streets, with circumstances, rather than a pimp, driving them toward survival sex.

Referring to labor trafficking, Greenbaum called on audience members to think of those who clean rooms at hotels or wash dishes in the back of restaurants. But she added there is variety in the type of labor trafficking occupations, it doesn’t just pertain to, as commonly thought, migrant farm workers.

The intersection of healthcare and sex and labor trafficking comes when victims need medical care. These visits aren’t specific to emergency rooms, but can take place at clinics, Planned Parenthood sites or pediatricians’ offices, Greenbaum said. And it isn’t likely that victims will confess their exploitation, especially when they can be accompanied by their traffickers, who are set on making sure they don’t do it.

Additionally, traffickers purposefully instill guilt in victims, making them feel ashamed for being in the positions they are in, demeaning them to a point of self-abasement.

For Holcombe, this feeling of worthlessness began when she was just a 4-year-old, when she was molested by a teenage cousin, and continued as she was prostituted by a controlling mistress, who bounded her by feeding her drug addiction, in her 20s. It wasn’t until she was aided by representatives of the Atlanta-based ministry Out of Darkness that she finally saw the value in herself, she said.

If a health professional suspects a patient is being trafficked — by picking up on certain indicators such as overdoses, suicide attempts, numerous abortions or sexually transmitted infections — it is important for them to proceed carefully in asking questions of the patient in a safe, one-on-one situation, Greenbaum said. Victims can display edgy or aggressive behavior, which they utilize in the harsh conditions they live under, and often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, she added.

Health professionals must avoid re-traumatizing a victim where they become unresponsive to any assistance, Greenbaum explained. Ultimately, providing resources leading to a way out of their situations is the intervention health professionals can provide for trafficked individuals.

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