A specialist nurse has told how joining arms with the police in a series of covert operations has helped vulnerable women who have been sex trafficked into the country get vital health support that they would not otherwise receive.
For the past 15 months, the nursing safeguarding team at West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust has been working with police to help identify and care for vulnerable women who are victims of modern slavery and human trafficking.
“We were able to identify victims within the first operation and engage those vulnerable ladies”
Three nurses from the trust have participated in 10 missions in what is believed to be the first link-up of its kind between police and health services in the UK and has enabled around 40 women to access support.
During the operations, the team gives vulnerable women advice on domestic violence, victim support and rape crisis charities, as well as how to access sexual health support and emergency services.
The nurses also give short physical examinations and supply the women with condoms and pregnancy tests as part of the programme, which has this week earned them a prestigious national award.
Safeguarding clinical nurse specialist at the trust, Bonnie Sparkes, who leads work on the project, told Nursing Times that her team got involved after it emerged that vulnerable women were finding it difficult to engage with police officers.
As part of her safeguarding role, Ms Sparkes met with the police to discuss their operational direction in tackling modern slavery and human trafficking.
She was told that the women were not engaging with officers as they saw them as having a “crime-first agenda”.
“I then made some suggestions about the possibility of involving nurses and over the process of time it was felt by the police that it might be a good collaboration,” said Ms Sparkes, who qualified as a nurse 20 years ago.
It was then agreed that the nursing safeguarding team would join the police on a trial programme.
“For victims that are trafficked here from other countries, the moment they see a nurse in uniform you can almost see the relaxation in their face”
“Then we went on our first operation and the engagement was so good that we have carried on,” she told Nursing Times.
“We were able to identify victims within the first operation and engage those vulnerable ladies and provide them with access to help.
“The team and I realised very quickly that we were not going to be able to access these women by sitting here in the hospital and waiting for them to come to us.
“So, we had to think about how we could drive the process by where we could engage them and actively seek them out.”
Ms Sparkes said she felt that nurses were best placed to approach these women about their health because of the “universal profile” the profession holds.
“When you think about a nurse universally, the profile is caring, they are trustworthy, and they are seen as a confidante and as safety net,” she explained.
The specialist nurse said it was these qualities and skills of nursing which had helped the team to engage with the vulnerable women so well.
Although she does not always wear a uniform at work, Ms Sparkes said it was important to wear it on the police operations to help identify to potential victims that they were there to help.
“For people that aren’t born here in this country, for victims that are trafficked here from other countries, the moment they see a nurse in uniform they recognise what a nurse is, and you can almost see the relaxation in their face,” she told Nursing Times.
“We’re thinking really differently and we’re getting really fantastic results and that’s the reason I became a nurse”
“You can see them thinking ‘oh, it’s a nurse, I can speak to this person’, because it is a universal sign, a uniform of comfort and care.”
Ms Sparkes said that when they meet a potential victim it could possibly be the first time they have had contact with someone from a health setting.
“I therefore have a golden opportunity to engage them, build a trusting relationship and give them really important advice,” she said.
“If they are not willing to accept the safeguarding there and then, they can leave with a full set of information knowing that there are services out there that they can access and that are available to them, if and when they decide to accept the help.”
West Hertfordhsire Hospital NHS Trust nursing safeguarding team
Following the success of the project, the team is looking to recruit more nurses on board and to extend the service to other areas within the trust.
The safeguarding team has also used the covert operations to inform training for other nurses and health professionals across the trust.
“Our staff are now actively thinking about modern slavery and human trafficking which is great,” noted Ms Sparkes.
However, Ms Sparkes said the team had faced some backlash and negativity online by certain groups who were concerned about the ”criminality side” of the police involvement in the operations.
“My challenge back to that is that our focus from the safeguarding side of things and health safeguarding side of things, is about health equality,” Ms Sparkes told Nursing Times.
“We partner with the police, we challenge what their purpose of the operation is, and I personally feel by actively choosing to engage in these operations we can affect change.
“We can raise awareness of modern slavery and we want our participation to be particularly health focussed.
“That is what we are there to do, we are there to safeguard and engage and raise awareness for hard to reach groups about how to access healthcare that otherwise may not be afforded to them.”
Ms Sparkes said that she became a nurse 20 years ago because she wanted to “make a difference” and she felt that by doing this work she was achieving that.
“It’s such an emotional high for me to get something really positive by doing something really ‘out there’,” she explained.
“We’re thinking really differently and we’re getting really fantastic results and that’s the reason I became a nurse to help people and this is a really amazing way of achieving that.”
This week the nursing safeguarding team at the trust was recognised in the NHS Parliamentary Awards as a joint winner in the Health Equalities Award category for its work on this project.
Ms Sparkes said she and her nursing colleagues felt “absolutely amazing” about receiving the award.
“To win this is very special because we did a lot of this work in our own time to get this project off the ground,” she added.
The team now hopes that its work can be rolled out nationally across the NHS to support more victims and vulnerable women across the country.
“Modern slavery isn’t going anywhere, it’s getting bigger and the risk is getting bigger,” said Ms Sparkes.
“My vision is to share this practice model as far as it will go so we can get as many partnerships built so that we can get as many women safeguarded and as many hard to reach groups as possible, with a clear understanding that there is access to healthcare opportunities.”
She described her team as at “the forefront of understanding” around the threshold of modern slavery and stressed that the most important thing was to focus on health equality for all.