Charlotte, NC (WBTV) – Human trafficking affects hundreds of thousands of people worldwide each year.

It also happens in your backyard and in most cases goes unnoticed.

It is reported that about one percent of the victims have been identified, but according to the national organization Safe House Project, since the beginning of the epidemic, this number has decreased to about three percent.

safe house project It was co-founded by Kristi Wells, who lives in Charlotte.

She is determined to help others know what to look for, especially in the field of healthcare.

This is where HOPE training comes in.

HOPE stands for Healthcare Notes to Prevent and Eliminate Trafficking in Persons.

It is a series of online training modules developed by trafficking survivors and supported by the Academy of Forensic Nursing, to give people working in health care the tools to identify and assist victims.

Novant Health is the first healthcare network in the country to implement training.

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

O’Neal is partnering with Kristi Wells, CEO of the Safe House Project, to deliver computer screen training to every Novant Health employee.

“You have family trafficking, you have sponsorship, you have the resources to control human traffickers,” Wells said. “We are exposed to labor trafficking, so we go through a variety of different scenarios that help people understand how to identify it.”

Related: North Organization working to help survivors of human trafficking

Creating a safe space for patients is important to O’Neill because it is so personal to her.

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

Trafficking survivors also had a hand in creating the programme.

“I’ve been trafficked from 14 to 18 in Southern California and again at 26 here in Southern California,” said Alia Dewes, who is now with the Save House Project.

Dewes became aware of sex trafficking after meeting an older man on MySpace when she was just 13 years old.

“It’s been more than six months since he normalized his sex-buying behavior,” she said. “When he finally told me that this was what I would need to do to continue this relationship, it seemed like two bad choices, either end this relationship which I could not imagine doing at the time with this level of maturity, or agree to experience trafficking.”

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

“I understood that the reason I had so much trauma from my experience was because I didn’t do it right, which is definitely an idea the store used to keep me compliant,” she said.

She ended up in the hospital several times.

“This was a time in our country in the early 2000s when people weren’t discussing what trafficking was and what it looked like,” she said. “If people had the information needed to be able to identify me, they could have done so very easily and very sooner.”

She says had she been identified by a health care worker, that could have radically changed her story.

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

At 26, Alia finally made it out alive.

“The healthcare system was a big part of the way I was able to get out,” she said. “I was able to stay in hospital when I got out of my trafficking status for a month in order to enter the Trafficking Safe Home Program.”

Now she is using her trauma to help others escape from it.

“There are certain exams, certain language, certain procedures that can be very motivating for survivors of human trafficking,” she said. “So we go over what these are and how to mitigate them, and then finally, how do we connect the survivor to services. I can hand you a brochure. I can give you a business card, or I can hold on to it, and you’re welcome to come back and tell me when you want it.”

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

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

Wells is grateful for Novant Health’s willingness to take this first step.

“North Carolina is ranked sixth in the country for human trafficking,” Wells said. “That’s my opinion. It means we’re No. 6 in the state for victim identification because that’s simply the trafficking reports. So as crazy as it sounds, I’m on a small mission to make North Carolina No. 1, because if we can identify every trafficked survivor I don’t care if that number goes up and up, because that means we’re also able to help get them out, get them into restorative care, get them into recovery. It means we’re responding effectively.”

The Safe House Project aims to train 1 million healthcare workers next year.

They are also working with the World Health Organization and the United Nations on the recommendation of a systematic process for training across all health care networks.

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

Learn more about training click here.

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