Dozens of physician assistant (PA) students at DeSales University are learning first-hand about human trafficking and how to recognize it.
Nani Cuadrado (above at podium), assistant professor in the PA program, recently hosted a lecture about human trafficking in the United States. But this wasn’t your typical college class. Students got an eye-opening lesson about the prevalence of trafficking in the Lehigh Valley and were able to put a face to the epidemic thanks to Cat Rojas, a local sex-trafficking survivor who shared her story.
Cuadrado began the lecture with a list of staggering statistics that most people don’t realize. There are more slaves in the world today than at any other point in history and human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal industry worldwide. “Human trafficking is the second largest criminal industry in the world,” Cuadrado told her students. “It is horrible and horrific because of the ability for humans to be used over and over again.”
Combatting human trafficking and raising awareness is a passion for Cuadrado. A passion born, in part, from extreme guilt. Cuadrado believes human-trafficking recognition training would have helped her identify victims in her work as a physician assistant in the emergency department. “I had someone come to our church from VAST (Valley Against Sex Trafficking),” she said. “I thought she was going to speak about trafficking in Thailand or Cambodia. I had no idea it was actually happening here in the Lehigh Valley.”
Not only is trafficking happening here, it is so prevalent that Stefanie Snyder, a special agent with the Department of Homeland Security, has a permanent desk at the Allentown Police Department. The valley’s position in between New York City and Washington, D.C. makes it a prime location for traffickers. Sadly, DeSales is not immune — one of Snyder’s earliest cases in the area involved a graduate student at the University.
Drug abuse, homelessness, and prior sexual abuse are all major risk factors for trafficking. Rojas’ parents were Colombian immigrants and her mother was a sex worker in Colombia. “The very first person that trafficked me was my mother. I was very young; I was still in grade school.”
Despite her difficult upbringing, Rojas attended college. While in college, she became pregnant. Circumstances changed dramatically when her boyfriend was busted for drug trafficking and went to jail. Without a dual income, Rojas was forced to quit school and get a job. It was through this job that she got mixed up with the wrong people. “I had always wanted to be a model and was taken to Washington, D.C.,” she said. “Instead of going on a photo shoot, I ended up being taken out in the middle of downtown D.C. Basically, I was told to work with this other girl and go to this man's house. I was really scared. I thought he was going to kill me. That was the very first trick I turned.”
Rojas also told students of her countless trips to emergency rooms. None of her providers suspected trafficking. “I was treated pretty badly by medical staff. These were major cities where ERs are packed to capacity and there's a lack of empathy.”
Much of the problem with our society recognizing human trafficking has to do with understanding prostitution. “We believe the prostitute is choosing this lifestyle,” Cuadrado said. “When, in reality, it's really a small percentage of women who actually choose this way of life.”
Cuadrado told students that 80 to 85 percent of prostitution is pimp- controlled, making it trafficking. The majority of people, even victims, don’t realize it. “Many of our survivors, until they're in therapy, admit they have never thought of themselves as victims of human trafficking.”
The entire time that Rojas was being trafficked, her family never knew. She finally reached her turning point after her pimp beat and raped her.
She contacted Special Agent Snyder. Despite fearing for her life, Rojas, together with Agent Snyder, was part of a team to develop a case against her pimp and helped to secure him a lengthy prison sentence. She’s been out of the life for five years now and works to help others in the same situation. “Five years ago, I was running from people. I had such a difficulty reaching out for help or accepting help. With a lot of love and tenderness from people, it's allowed me to open myself up.”
Changing the thought process around prostitution and trafficking and teaching students compassion, kindness, and sensitivity are priorities for Cuadrado. While she may have missed the warning signs of human trafficking early in her career, she’s making sure her students know what to look for right from the start. “When we see a woman who comes in with multiple STDs, she's got some kind of interesting tattoos, or the stories don't make sense, it smacks of something other than what it appears to be. The fact that you guys now know, I hope will change the way you look at your patients.”
Not only do PA students now know, they are also working to help trafficking survivors. They’re hosting a “Box Out Human Trafficking in the Lehigh Valley” event Saturday, November 19 from 1:00-3:00 p.m. at the Trexlertown Title Boxing Club. The event will raise money for VAST and WINGS, a local survivor-led support group, which Rojas and another survivor initiated. For more information, contact Chelsea Clemens at email@example.com or visit https://www.facebook.com/events/261423160926229/?active_tab=about.
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