HELENA — Through the doors of Associated Dermatology and Skin Care Clinic of Helena, some survivors find a new start. The clinic’s New Beginnings program offers free removal of radiation tattoos used for cancer treatment and human trafficking brand tattoos.
The program is offered by American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery physicians across the country. According to the ASLMS website, Associated Dermatology is the only location offering the New Beginnings tattoo removal program in Montana.
“It’s a big passion of ours,” Associated Dermatology Advanced Laser Clinic director Janel Zitzka said. “I know Dr. Goldes is very community-oriented. We want to do what we can to support our survivors and our patients.”
Zitzka said this is the first year they have offered free human trafficking brand tattoo removal through the New Beginnings program.
“It was a great need for our part of the country to have a program like this,” she said.
According to the US Department of Homeland Security, human trafficking is a $150 billion industry worldwide. Human trafficking is a reality in Montana, too. The National Human Trafficking Hotline got 133 calls, texts, emails, chats and online form submittals from Montana in 2021, and that’s just scratching the surface of the issue.
“The more we investigate, the more we dig into this, the more cases we find,” Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen said. “Just to give you an idea, from 2021 to 2022, our DCI-initiated investigations into human trafficking went up 300-percent.”
Knudsen said Montana sees both sex trafficking and labor trafficking, and it touches communities across the state.
“It’s not just one demographic group, it’s not just one ethnic group,” Knudsen said. “We see it across all demographics, all ethnic groups.”
Through the new beginnings program, Zitzka sees the visible marks of human trafficking.
“Sometimes it’s in a very visible area, such as the forehead. It can be in the form of initials, it can be in the form of initials, it can be in the form of a perception of wealth—so we see money bags, coins, dollar signs, that means this person is bringing in wealth for their trafficker,” Zitzka said. “It’s heartbreaking.”
The trauma from trafficking can be more than skin-deep.
“Honestly, this is some of the most evil stuff I’ve ever seen,” Knudsen said. “It’s some of the most manipulative people I’ve ever seen when you start looking at how these people operate.”
While law enforcement helps put traffickers away, Zitzka and others like her help care for the survivors.
“We can’t guarantee complete removal (of the tattoo), but faded to the point where maybe they forget to look at it,” Zitzka said. “The big thing is they don’t get questioned about it, they don’t have to open and share that trauma with people asking what the tattoo is.”
For survivors of human trafficking, that can be a step toward healing and a new beginning.