Hanni Stoklosa, MD, MPH, an attending physician in the Department of Emergency Medicine and faculty member of the Division of Women’s Health, first heard about human trafficking while she was attending a conference as a medical student. She was shocked to discover it was occurring in the U.S., and even Boston, and realized that she was probably caring for human trafficking victims in the Emergency Department (ED) without recognizing them as such.
That’s when Stoklosa decided to devote her career to caring for victims of human trafficking, which is defined as the recruitment, acquisition, harboring or transporting of adults or children by improper means such as force, fraud or deception, with the aim of exploiting them for profit. Today, Stoklosa remains deeply committed to improving the detection and care of human trafficking victims through her clinical care, national advocacy and international research. She has worked with populations in Boston and the U.S., as well as around the globe, including in South America, Central Asia, India and Thailand. Stoklosa advises the Department of Health and Human Services and Institute of Medicine on human trafficking issues.
On Feb. 12, Stoklosa and a panel of BWH staff came together to discuss approaches to trauma, violence and human trafficking. The event was held in honor of V-Day—a global movement dedicated to ending violence against women and girls. Stoklosa spoke of her local efforts at the Brigham—and in the greater Boston area—to coordinate protocol development in trauma-informed care for trafficking victims. Of the 21 million victims of human trafficking around the world, up to 88 percent report having interfaced with a health care provider during the time they were being trafficked.
“Human trafficking victims present in many clinical settings, including emergency medicine, OB/GYN, psychiatry, and primary and urgent care,” Stoklosa said. “Health systems need to develop frameworks to better care for this highly vulnerable population. As we formalize, it’s also important to develop national protocols. Only 20 to 30 U.S. health organizations have protocols in place related to trafficking. As much as possible, we need to establish those standards of care.”
For the past two years, Stoklosa has been involved in several research projects, one of which has focused on developing an evaluation framework for anti-trafficking programs in India. As part of this work, Stoklosa led focus groups and interviewed human trafficking survivors and stakeholders from anti-trafficking organizations in India to begin to conceptualize the complexities of human trafficking and anti-trafficking efforts in the country. Based on their findings, she and her team created a framework for understanding and evaluating the effectiveness of individual anti-trafficking organizations in India. Some of the themes that emerged as indicators included organizations’ ability to prevent re-trafficking after a victim is rescued, as well as the importance of education.
“You would hope that once a person is rescued from human trafficking, that’s the end of it, but the reality is that the same systemic problems and structural issues that made him or her vulnerable to being trafficked in first place still exist,” said Stoklosa.
For example, children are sometimes sold by their parents to work in factories in bigger cities in India, Stoklosa says. Parents may be approached by an agent who shows up at their home and says he can give one of the children a job and three meals a day, as well as send money back to the family. To parents who have several children, whom they may barely be able to feed, this may sound better than their current situation.
“When children are rescued and placed back with their family, there is often some restitution money, but that doesn’t fix the underlying problem,” said Stoklosa. “We learned that there needs to be a coordinated response among law enforcement and the local NGOs. They need to educate the community about agents’ presence and the importance of solidarity in fighting corruption.”
In addition to her research, Stoklosa has testified as an expert witness, trained clinicians and presented on human trafficking and ways to improve health system responses at local, national and international conferences and symposia. As a way to connect people in the field, Stoklosa founded the international organization HEAL Trafficking, which brings together social workers, physicians, nurses, attorneys, psychologists, counselors, public health workers and others across North America to share resources and best practices in the fight to end human trafficking.
“Hanni is dedicating her academic career to fighting human trafficking and has emerged as a powerful and articulate advocate for a largely invisible, unspeakably exploited population,” said BWHC Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Ron M. Walls, MD, former chair of Emergency Medicine at BWH.
Outside of her day job, Stoklosa directs her time to nature and photography, which provide a creative outlet for what can be mentally taxing work.
“My photography, which captures moments of natural mystique, helps balance me, as it takes me far away from the darkness of human trafficking,” she said. “My hope is that when folks view my photos, they feel something wonderful—whether it’s joy, peace or calm—and that it transports them to a better place.”
As for what inspires her, Stoklosa says it’s the “wonderful gems of people who are resilient, who despite all odds make it through and not only survive, but thrive.”
She added: “Seeing those beacons of light inspires me. Through this work, I have to acknowledge the darkest part of human nature, which is hard sometimes. But I hope my work is fixing different pieces of the problem and that it has a ripple effect. And I hope the broader work can create larger systemic changes, so that ultimately fewer people will be vulnerable.”