San Antonio is one of the largest metroplexes in the U.S.A., yet most residents there have no idea it sits within one of the nation’s busiest sex trafficking regions. Not only San Antonio, but Houston, and Dallas-Fort Worth, as well. In fact, much of the I-35 corridor. But nurse educator Laurie Charles does. In fact, over the last six years, Laurie has made her mission as a nurse educator to make sure that others, especially those in healthcare don’t make the same mistake of denial that she once did.
Every year in America over 200,000 young women and men are victims of human trafficking, many of those sex trafficking (Polaris Project, 2022). That is truly a stunning number. These sprawling Texas cities aren’t special. Any large metroplex with professional sports teams or major Interstate freeways is vulnerable. The commercial sexual exploitation of minors, even young children is a major public health issue (Goldberg & Moore, 2018). Hard to believe, but one of the busiest sex trafficking days during the year is the NFL Superbowl. That was shocking to Laura, who believed herself to be a football fan and supporter. Other frequent sites of organization of sex trafficking occur in the most innocuous places. For example, nail salons, truck stops, especially those long busy interstate freeways, and roadside parks. Sadly, some people are trafficked in their own homes, by their family members, Many times, organizers plant mules in high schools or junior high schools who are paid to recruit victims. Before a family knows it, their young son or daughter is gone.
Laurie has worked as a forensic nurse practitioner for over 24 years. In addition to her RN license, she is certified as a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner. That is a nurse who is specially trained to guide a victim post-sexual assault. Not only providing comfort, but collecting the precious forensic evidence that could lead to a conviction of the perpetrator. If only tracking down sex traffickers was that scientific. Laurie became aware of just how vulnerable these victims are in the emergency department. People who are victimized by traffickers often interact with healthcare professionals frequently while they are being trafficked. She recalls a young female patient for whom she cared for in the emergency department. Concerned about the circumstances the young girl experiencing and her physical condition, Laurie reported the case to Child Protective services (CPS). By the time they arrived, the patient was long gone. The CPS worker was dismayed, as they had been tracking this young girl as a possible victim of sex trafficking. It was devastating to Laurie who wanted to know how she was to recognize that in a patient? She made it her mission to find out.
Laurie Charles, began her career as a nurse when she graduated from the Royal Alexandra Hospital School of Nursing in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Not finding the job nor pay she wanted, she took a chance and moved to the United States, taking an emergency room position in Refugio, TX. The small 20 bed hospital had a busy trauma population. So Laura quickly became a jack of all trades, especially in trauma. Next, she worked in Beeville, TX in another small, critical access hospital, which served as a triage hospital for the federal and state prison systems where she continued to hone her assessment skills. In addition, she taught Advanced Cardiac Life Support, Pediatric Life Support, Neonatal Resuscitation, and the Trauma Nursing Core Course. It was in San Antonio, TX that Laurie began her work as a forensic nurse, a new position in nursing. By then, she was certified in Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner and truly felt her calling. During a moment of self-reflection regarding her now expansive career in caring for abuse victims, a light bulb went off. What she truly wanted to do was impact change, through teaching students about the importance of forensic nursing.
Laurie now knows that often victims are in plain sight, with many health care professionals and first responders missing the subtle cues of victimization and trafficking. Researchers now know from survivor reports that over 88% of sex trafficking victims sought healthcare at least once to an emergency room seeking treatment for various ailments, with providers missing the clues that they were being trafficked (Lederer and Wetzel, 2014). Victims of sex trafficking suffer wounds to their self-esteem, some believing they deserve this treatment(Moore et al., 2020). They suffer anxiety, depression, and often substance abuse. Although the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Prevention Act of 2000 made sex trafficking a federal crime, the numbers continue to climb. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that during 2022, there are expected to be over 10,000 victims of sex trafficking in the U.S. alone. Many health care workers still lack appropriate training to help them recognize the cues to identify victims (Lutz, 2018; Moore et al., 2020).
Laurie has taken on the mission to educate others on this crime, even being appointed to work on the Texas Human Trafficking Task Force a special team endorsed and established by Governor Gregg Abbott. Laurie teaches that when young patients report having multiple sex partners over a short amount of time, show up for treatment with a non-relative who refuses to leave the bedside, or are experiencing homelessness, first responders should pay attention. Those may be key signs that the individual may be being trafficked. It isn’t always about physical violence, but also emotional manipulation and exploitation.
So back to school! Laurie obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Nursing in 2014 and went on to achieve her Master of Science in Nursing from Western Governor’s University in 2015. Furthering her education and expanding her knowledge on SANE nursing and trafficking, she is now working on her Doctorate of Nursing Practice degree. Laurie Charles MSN, RN, CA-CPSANE, SANE-A, SANE-P, CHSE, AFN-C, DF-AFN currently serves as a Clinical Assistant Professor for the Center of Excellence in Forensic Nursing which is part of the School of Nursing at Texas A&M University. Recently, she was recognized as a Distinguished Fellow of the Academy of Forensic Nursing. She teaches several human trafficking courses, from a graduate Human Trafficking elective in the Texas A&M University, School of Nursing, Master’s in Forensic Nursing curriculum, to an online continuing education courses. The emergency department is not an easy place to work for a nurse, but Laurie’s stamina and resilience saw her shine within that environment. She truly became a nurse advocate for her patients, especially those abused or trafficked. For this reason and many others, AgeView Press is proud to celebrate the work of Laurie Charles as Belle of Steel # 19.
Goldberg, A., & Moore, J. (2018). Domestic minor sex trafficking. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 27(1), 77. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chc.2017.08.008
Lederer, L. J., & Wetzel, C. A. (2014). The health consequences of sex trafficking and their implications for identifying victims in healthcare facilities. Annals of Health Law, 23(1), 61.
Lutz, R. M. (2018). Human trafficking education for nurse practitioners: Integration into standard curriculum. Nurse Education Today, 61, 66-69. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nedt.2017.11.015
Moore, J. L., Houck, C., Hirway, P., Barron, C. E., & Goldberg, A. P. (2020). Trafficking experiences and psychosocial features of domestic minor sex trafficking victims. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 35(15-16), 3148-3163. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260517703373