Dental Professionals Can Help Identify and Save Child Sex Trafficking Victims

Renee Dixon


Child sex trafficking is the fastest growing crime in the world, according to a two-year study by the University of Texas School of Social Work. Dental professionals are in a unique position to make a big difference in reducing those statistics—saving lives, one patient at a time. 

When performing an oral exam, dental professionals may find certain conditions inside the mouth that can indicate a victim. One of the most telltale signs is a torn lingual frenulum. The lingual frenulum is the small fold of tissue that extends from the floor of the mouth to the midline of the underside of the tongue.


“If you have a child in your care with the other warning signs of trafficking and she has a torn lingual frenulum, then you can be pretty certain she is being trafficked,” said Steven “Flyer” Phenix of the Refuge for Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking. “You can have your suspicions when you see the other signs, but combine that with the tears, then you should call the hotline and 911.”

Another key indicator is the presence of visible injuries or scars in the mouth, particularly bruising on the floor and roof of the mouth. Ask the patient how he or she was injured, but do so as subtly as possible. If the patient seems afraid or evasive when answering or the answer doesn’t make sense with the injury or scar present, then it may be a cause for concern.

Remember to be discreet and don’t push too hard for an answer. Victims and their companions panic easily and may make a run for it, putting the victim in even more jeopardy. If you are worried you’ll be too invasive, then don’t mention it. Instead, find a way to call 911 or contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center without being observed.

Save the help hotline into your cell phone so you can contact the center as quickly and unobtrusively as possible. Call (888) 373-7888 or text HELP or INFO to 233733. Make sure everyone on your staff has access to the numbers at all times, but don’t post them where a predator can see them and get spooked. 

You may see other evidence that the patient is being controlled or abused, like black eyes or cigarette burns. A few other indicators to watch for include visible tattoos of ownership, money symbols, or emoticons; a patient who appears younger than the stated age; evidence of untreated dental or medical needs; and signs of malnutrition, such as swollen or bleeding gums, tooth decay, low body mass index (BMI), cracked or extremely dry skin, or a swollen abdomen. 

Keep in mind, though, that each case is different. Even the same perpetrator can afflict different injuries on different victims. In addition, victims may feel ashamed or afraid to speak up about what’s happening to them. They may exhibit subordinate, hyper-vigilant, or fearful behavior, which also are indicators. When asked about their personal or medical histories, these patients’ responses may sound scripted or rehearsed. 

Furthermore, these patients may not have a formal identification, and their ID paperwork may be held by a companion. The companion may stay with the patient and refuse to leave if asked. In addition, this person might not allow the patient to speak for himself or herself. For example, if you find an unexplained scar or injury in the patient’s mouth and ask her about it, the companion may answer for her and demand that you refer questions to him. That’s a big red flag. 

It’s important to note that the presence of one or more of these indicators does not necessarily mean the person is a victim, but they are a cause for concern. Use your best judgement and trust your instincts. 

If something doesn’t feel right, contact the experts and let them sort it out. The experts can guide you through the next steps and provide real-time, under-the-radar support that doesn’t put you or the victim in more danger.

“Capture all the detail you can about the pimp: height, weight, race, hair and eye color, vehicle, and even photos, if possible. But be inconspicuous,” advised Phenix. “If the pimp thinks you suspect the truth, he’ll go further underground, taking the victim with him and punishing her for a near discovery. Don’t approach the victim or the pimp. Call the police and the hotline.” 

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Ms. Dixon started her career in oral surgery in 1981 as a surgical assistant at Scott and White Hospital in Temple, Texas. She joined Austin Oral Surgery in 1988 and became a part of the leadership team in 2008, when she was named marketing director. As director, Dixon spearheads the practice’s marketing, community outreach, and educational programs, including Dove Projects, a free program that she helped establish in the dental community to train dental professionals to properly recognize and report signs of sex trafficking. Through this program, Dixon and her colleagues have brought awareness to approximately 1,800 dental professionals throughout Central Texas.

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