Dr. Paul Rodeghero, dentist and owner of Clearwater Family Dental, performs pro bono work for victims of human trafficking.
CLEARWATER – They were sex slaves. Labor slaves. They were held against their will, forced to work long hours at hard, often painful jobs.
These human trafficking victims were neglected in every possible way. Their masters only cared about the money they brought in and the work they performed, so things like medical and dental care were the least of their concerns.
And there are many more human slaves still out there.
When the victims are finally rescued from their situations, they are a mess, both emotionally and physically. There are many steps involved in the process of healing and starting a life of freedom, but one of those is fixing their mouths.
World Relief is one of the organizations that helps the victims get care and treatment when they are rescued, and among other things, they help get them proper dental care. Dr. Paul T. Rodeghero, owner of Clearwater Family Dental, is one of the dentists in the Tampa Bay area that World Relief works with, and he provides pro bono dental work to human trafficking victims.
“We see them when they have only been out for a few weeks,” Dr. Rodeghero said. “The ones I see have had huge dental problems. Severely abscessed teeth. Major neglect. The person has not had the ability to personally take care of their teeth. It wasn’t a matter of they didn’t want to. They didn’t have the ability to.”
Dr. Rodeghero’s wife, Ginger Rodeghero, who is the office manager at Clearwater Family Dental, has worked a lot with human rights education, and through that was introduced to World Relief. She was shocked to learn how often trafficking occurs in this area and can be all around us. Therefore, she wanted to do what she could to help these people who have endured so much to get back on their feet, so she asked her husband if he would provide free dental services to these women and men. He jumped at the chance to help.
“What can you do but help them?” Ginger Rodeghero said. “They need to get their life back in order. Most of them have been tricked into the situation somewhere, and they truly are victims. You just have to have some empathy. As soon as our girls (on staff) found out what some of these girls have been through, it’s just ‘Whatever we can do.’”
Olga I. Barulli, anti-trafficking project coordinator with World Relief out of the New Port Richey office, said that World Relief works in partnership with the Clearwater Police Department as well as law enforcement and agencies all over Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties. They get referrals from the communities, from organizations, and from its national hotline for human trafficking, 1-888-373-7888. Nationally, there are more than 18,000 people from other countries trafficked into the United States each year, she said, and there are between 100,000 and 300,000 domestic children and youth being sexually and commercially trafficked each year.
Florida itself is the third highest destination for human trafficking in the whole country, Barulli said. The local World Relief has served trafficking clients who originally came from all over the world, including the Philippines, Romania, Africa, and plenty from Mexico and Central America, including Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
As far as the Tampa Bay area goes, there is plenty of both labor and sex trafficking, Barulli said. There are people forced to work in migrant labor camps, and there also are those who are forced to work in nail salons, restaurants, hotels, construction, and in homes as servants, she said. There is also sex trafficking and mail-order brides.
“For the foreign born ones, a lot of them are looking for the American Dream,” Barulli said. “They are looking for a better way of life.”
Unfortunately, instead of finding that dream, malicious people take advantage of them for personal profit.
“Then with our domestic ones, we have a lot of runaways and women who have been lured into prostitution for various reasons,” Barulli said. “They are looking for a better paying job so they go to strip clubs and once they’re there, they’re made slaves. They’re forced to meet a quota of whatever, depending on the services that they provide. Sexual services.”
After they are rescued, victims of both labor and sex trafficking need a lot of help, and World Relief helps to fulfill as many of those needs as possible.
“All our clients need dental help,” Barulli said. “All of them. Both labor and sex trafficking. Clearwater Family Dental has been more than wonderful because they see our clients and do pro bono work. Sometimes we refer them to surgeons if they need more work done in their mouth.”
The traffickers often use drugs and alcohol as a means of control, getting their victims hooked on them so they are further dependent on the traffickers. Along with keeping them addicted and afraid, it also does extreme damage to their teeth, Barulli said.
Dr. Rodeghero said he generally gets about one or two human trafficking victims a month, and he does all he can to fix them up. His goal is to make it so the individuals’ attention is no longer focused on their mouths by helping them get out of pain and know that people are no longer staring at a mouth full of bad teeth.
“The goal is to get them out of pain and be able to smile and talk with people,” Dr. Rodeghero said. “If they have pain on a daily basis, they’re not going to sleep and they’re not going to eat. They can’t function. If you get rid of the pain for them, that’s the first thing you want to do.”
The next thing he does is to cosmetically fix their teeth enough so they can smile and talk to people without being embarrassed, Dr. Rodeghero said.
Usually the victims have a lot of bad teeth that need to be removed or fixed, and he needs to do plenty of fillings and crowns. Sometimes it’s even more extensive.
“We had a client and they (the traffickers) had bashed her face and one of the teeth went into the middle of the roof of her mouth,” Barulli said. “They (at Clearwater Family Dental) ended up having to extract all the teeth and put in dentures. But now she is smiling and she speaks more. Before, she would mumble a little because she was embarrassed about how her mouth looked.”
When people have so many problems with their teeth and gums, they are in a lot of pain, Dr. Rodeghero said. Ginger Rodeghero added that when one’s mouth is full of decay, and broken teeth, their faces become swollen, get serious infections and have excruciating toothaches.
“Patients tell me all the time, a toothache is the worst thing to have,” Ginger said. “It keeps them awake, they can’t concentrate, it’s very distracting. It interferes with your job, your performance, whatever. So to give somebody back their smile, it’s a good purpose.”
Furthermore, when someone’s teeth hurts, it makes it hard or impossible to chew, Dr. Rodeghero said.
“Often their nutrition is real bad and they can’t eat good foods because it hurts,” he said. “So it helps their overall nutrition to get their teeth fixed.”
Having infected teeth is also hard on the body and exacerbates other conditions, Dr. Rodeghero said. The body overworks itself, constantly trying to fight the infection, and it also can make diabetes and heart conditions worse, among many other things. Ginger said that the mouth is the gateway to the body, and one can often tell how sick a person is by the state of their mouth.
After the pain is gone, the Rodegheros want to help their clients have confidence in their appearance so they can move on and succeed in life without this holding them back.
“More than anything, we just want to get them into a condition where they can do better in life,” Ginger said. “And it starts with their smile. … And without a smile, it’s hard to get a job. It’s all connected. You don’t really take pride in yourself and want to go out there and meet new people if you can’t smile.”
Fair or not, potential employers could judge someone by the state of their teeth, Ginger said. One’s appearance makes a big difference in a job interview.
In addition to being in need of dental care, victims of both labor and sex trafficking have a lot of other areas where they need help after they are freed, Barulli said.
“The labor victims, mostly they need help with their immigration issues,” Barulli said. “Now, if they have been pre-certified or certified to be victims of human trafficking, we connect them with our legal services department and they try to help them with their immigration information and get them work authorization so they won’t be deported.”
They then must apply for their trafficking visa, which will allow them to stay in the United States while they apply for citizenship. After that, it usually doesn’t take too long to help the labor victims successfully integrate into society, Barulli said. The sex trafficking victims, however, usually need much more care and help. They have been through a lot, and it could take years for them to recover, she said. Even then, she guesses only about 50 percent of them can integrate back into society successfully.
“They’re mostly women and children, and they are highly addicted to drugs and alcohol,” Barulli said, because the pimps get them hooked on these substances. “They need a lot of counseling. They’ve gone through a lot of trauma, so they experience post-traumatic stress disorder. They do not trust. Some of them, for their own safety, we need to find safe housing for them, and sometimes that housing is not where they’d like to be. Some of them have physical problems. Some of them develop bipolar disorders as a result of their ordeal.”
The women and girls could be forced to have sex with 25 to 30 men in a single night, Barulli said. Years of this leaves them with numerous scars, both psychologically and physically.
“They contract diseases,” Barulli said. “Sometimes they’re so destroyed because the girls have been raped and sodomized. That’s pretty hard. Sometimes they suffer abuse from the hands of the johns because some are very sadistic and they take pleasure in beating them. It just depends on what the john wants to do. I’ve heard stories of girls being raped vaginally at the same time that they are being sodomized. And that’s why it’s so difficult for them to recover.”
Barulli said that one client’s body would suddenly shut down for no reason. Something would trigger the trauma in her, even if she said she wasn’t thinking about it at the time. The client was so frustrated, Barulli said, because she couldn’t control what her body was doing. This made it hard for her to hold a job because most employers don’t want to take on that kind of risk or liability.
Traffickers keep their victims isolated and intimidated, often threatening to kill their families if they do not obey, and often use lots of force, beatings and even branding them. Victims can be very young, Barulli said, with the average age for a child being about 12 years old. In general, the sex trafficking victims tend to range from their teens to their 20s, Ginger said. Labor workers are more often men, and they are usually older than the sex victims and can get up into their 30s, she added.
The first thing World Relief has to do before it can help the victims find jobs and move on with life is they have to help them get stabilized. That’s where the doctors, dentists, gynecologists, psychologists and mental health specialists come in, Barulli said.
“We have to do that first before we send them to try to get a job,” Barulli said. “And when they are ready to get a job, we have clothes here that they can use to go on an interview. We refer them to employment offices like career centers that will help them find a job where employers will take them. Some of our sex trafficking cases, they have felonies, and not every employer is going to want to hire them.”
Even after all the horror, there still can be some happy endings, Barulli said. There have been several cases she has worked with where mothers have had their children taken away from them at the hands of the traffickers, or their children were left behind in their country of origin. World Relief has been able to reunite the mothers with their children, and churches donated money to pay for the plane ticket to reunite them. The children were put back in school, and together they worked on building a life of freedom together.
Human trafficking victims are extremely vulnerable and are strictly controlled by their masters or pimps, Barulli said. Though there are some signs to watch for that could suggest that someone may be such a victim.
“They are taken to work and back to where they’re being kept,” Barulli said. “Usually those people will not talk too much. They won’t look you straight in the eyes. Sometimes you can see bruises on their body. They have no documentation and are not in control of their lives.”
If a member of the public goes to a shop for some kind of service and starts unknowingly talking to a human trafficking victim, usually her boss – or master – will come over and stand next to them, and that will shut them up, Barulli said.
“They don’t have the freedom to express themselves,” she said. “There is always a controlling person over them. They feel very intimidated.”
If you are or you suspect someone is a victim of human trafficking, please call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at 888-373-7888.
For Dr. Rodeghero, he is just glad that he can help with one of the many steps on the road to recovery.
“My staff and I get a little personal satisfaction, knowing we’re helping somebody who is having a change in life,” Dr. Rodeghero said. “And we can be a small part in that.”