Kimberly Chang was fresh out of medical residency in 2003 when a 14-year-old girl stumbled into her exam room at Asian Health Services in Oakland, California. Reeking of marijuana, with bloodshot eyes and bruises all over her body, the girl asked to be checked for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
Chang, MPH ’15, diagnosed several STDs in the teen—and, with a sinking realization, also determined that her patient was being forced into sex, addicted to drugs, and getting beaten up regularly. Over the next few years, Chang would see the scenario repeated again and again among her mostly poor, immigrant patients.
“Back then, I referred to them as ‘child prostitutes.’ That was so bad of me,” Chang says, cringing at the implicit blame in that term. “But we didn’t have the right language, and I didn’t have the awareness.” Over time, as her own understanding grew and as the effects of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000—the first comprehensive federal law to address human trafficking—filtered down to the clinic, Chang redefined these patients as victims, forced by poverty or isolation into a life of servitude, often trading sex for money or drugs.