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Supporting victims of modern slavery through healthcare services

International Day for the abolition of slavery: how health and care professionals can help tackle modern slavery and support victims.

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The UK continues to play an important part in the effort to tackle modern slavery and support victims. The Modern Slavery Act 2015 is the second piece of anti-slavery legislation in 200 years. The Act gives law enforcement the tools to fight modern slavery, ensures perpetrators receive suitably severe punishments for these appalling crimes, and enhances support and protection for victims.

As we mark the UN International Day for the Abolition of Slavery on 2 December, there are a number of important developments that the Department of Health (DH) would like to share with staff in health and adult social care services.

The PROTECT (Provider Responses, Treatment and Care for Trafficked People) research project recently published its independent findings in the ‘British Medical Journal Open’ journal. Sponsored by DH, the research shows that up to 1 in 8 NHS professionals reported having contact with a patient they suspected may have been trafficked.

Further findings published by the Lancet Psychiatry show that hospital mental health services are seeing trafficked people with a range of diagnoses, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia.

Many trafficking survivors talk of experiencing physical violence and psychological abuse. Research evidence shows they have poor mental health and many, especially women, are sexually abused and may acquire sexually transmitted infections as well as having to cope with unwanted pregnancies and abortions.

Those who present in healthcare settings may have little or no engagement with any other services. NHS professionals therefore have an important role to play in identifying and caring for trafficked people and in referring them for further support and by being able to support them to report to the appropriate authorities.

The UK government has a scheme of assessment and support for trafficked people. Last year, the UK Human Trafficking Centre received referrals for over 2,300 people identified as potential victims of trafficking, including over 600 children. Individuals from 112 different countries were referred to support services. In 2013, the Home Office estimated there were between 10,000 and 13,000 victims of trafficking in the UK.

The research highlights how important it is that the health system has an understanding of modern slavery and the need for training tools to support health professionals in identifying and providing support for victims. The DH e-learning tool for staff on identifying and responding to modern slavery has been updated and is available on the largest e-learning portal for NHS staff: e-Learning for Healthcare.

Staff who suspect that a patient may have been trafficked can contact the 24-hour confidential helpline, run by the Salvation Army, for professional advice and support on 0300 303 8151. Staff should follow child protection guidelines when child trafficking is suspected, and speak to their designated lead for child protection: out-of-hours staff should contact their local Children’s Social Services or Police, specifically highlighting their concerns about child trafficking.

On 1 November 2015, a provision of the Act came into force for public authorities to notify the Home Office when they encounter a potential victim of modern slavery. This is to help build the picture of modern slavery in the UK and improve the response from all public services. Doctors, GPs, nurses and other healthcare workers are not bound by this duty. They are, nevertheless, encouraged to make a voluntary notification. Notifications must be limited in how much information they divulge if the victim is an adult who has not consented to it, so that they cannot be identified personally. Any notification made is in accordance with the regulations and must not breach any obligation of confidence owed in relation to that information.

Read guidance on how to notify the Home Office.

The Minister for Public Health, Jane Ellison said:

The NHS may be the one public agency to which a victim can turn for assistance not only to address their health needs, but also to seek care and protection from this abhorrent practice.

Dr Hilary Garratt, Director of Nursing - Nursing Division of NHS England, said:

Frontline practitioners across the NHS have a critical role in identifying, supporting and caring for these vulnerable individuals and this is at the heart of our safeguarding leadership role.

Published 2 December 2015