'Sex trafficking is here. It's real. You can help.'
That's what around 400 Avera health care workers heard during the first day or a three-day sex trafficking conference in Sioux Falls.
"From a law enforcement perspective, we're often there at the back end,” South Dakota U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson said. “The people who are attending this conference who are here today, they have the opportunity to affect change in their community on the front end.”
During the opening day of the U.S. Attorney's Violent Crime and Human Trafficking Conference on Tuesday, Brendan Johnson said nurses, social workers and doctors may come in contact with sex trafficking victims before a detective or police officer ever gets a chance to talk to that person.
"So for both health care professionals and law enforcement, the key is knowing what questions to ask," Johnson said.
That's why Avera is unveiling a new protocol to its employees as it tries to identify victims who may come to the emergency room or clinic.
"When a red flag comes up, this protocol comes into existence so we have the appropriate questions to ask," Avera Senior Vice President of Public Policy Deb Fischer-Clemens said.
A few of the warning signs include a patient who is hesitant to give details of their condition, someone who has visible signs of physical and sexual abuse, and a patient who doesn't know which city they currently are in.
"It's how are they responding. Are they actually responding to you? Do they keep their eyes down? Do they look at you?" Fischer-Clemens said.
Avera is integrating the protocol, along with a sex trafficking hotline, into its electronic records system so health care providers can spot the early warning signs.
"So progress is being made but the key lesson is there is still work that needs to be done," Johnson said.
Work that is bringing more awareness to the community - and medical professionals - about the sex trafficking problem in South Dakota.
Elizabeth Smart Gilmour, who was abducted and held captive for nine months, will speak at the conference Wednesday.
‘Penn State Victim #1’ is scheduled to speak on Thursday.