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As many as 300,000 people are at risk of being trafficked in the US, and many victims of sex trafficking are branded with tattoos conveying ownership, including names, symbols, initials, and barcodes. Paul M. Friedman, MD, the director of Dermatology & Laser Surgery Center of Houston and the President of the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery (ASLMS) has made it his mission to help sex traffic survivors remove the physical reminders of past trauma so they can move forward. Here, Dr. Friedman discusses the ASLMS’ New Beginnings Branding Tattoo Removal program.

Tell us about the origins of New Beginnings.

Paul M. Friedman, MD: New Beginnings was initially launched by the ASLMS in 2014 to benefit cancer survivors in the removal of radiation tattoos. This year we expanded the philanthropic campaign to create the New Beginnings Branding Tattoo Removal Program and have partnered with the National Trafficking Sheltered Alliance (NTSA) to connect board-certified physicians with sex trafficking survivors for pro bono laser removal of branding tattoos. NTSA represents more than 100 programs across the country as a national referral service for sex trafficking survivors.

Why did you get involved?

Dr. Friedman: When Houston hosted the Super Bowl in 2017, I was devastated to learn it was one of the top cities for sex trafficking in the US given its proximity to the border. The more I learned, the more I wanted to help, leading to a partnership with an organization called Elijah Rising, which gives support to victims of sex trafficking throughout Houston and whose mission is to put an end to sex trafficking. Through this partnership with Elijah Rising, my practice provided free branding tattoo removal to survivors. As president of ASLMS, my main initiative is a philanthropic campaign to create a national directory of board-certified ASLMS physicians who volunteer their time and expertise to remove branding tattoos free of charge to help sex trafficking survivors in their recovery.

How do these services change lives?

Dr. Friedman: These tattoos are brands that signify victims are the traffickers’ property and they are for sale. Branding tattoos can serve as a tether to the old life and be painful reminders of the abuse endured. Removing branding tattoos profoundly aids to lower barriers to fully, physically, emotionally, and psychologically exit survivors from their trafficking situation and start a path to a new restorative life.

Our recent study in Lasers in Surgery and Medicine, Liberating More Than Light: Laser Removal of Branding Tattoos is Impactful in the Recovery of Sex Trafficking Survivors, illuminates that the removal of branding tattoos is highly impactful on recovery and may be preferred over tattoo cover-up. In this study, 40 organizations responded to an online survey aimed at assessing the need and potential impact of pro bono branding tattoo laser removal services. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most needed, pro bono services for laser removal received an average need score of 9.1. On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being most impactful on recovery, removal of branding tattoos received an average impact score of 9.2.

What’s the protocol?

Dr. Friedman: We have an amazing group of thought leaders and 69 physician volunteers—listed on the provider directory on the ASLMS website—to offer this pro bono service. My goal is to get to 100 physicians by the end of the year who can provide coverage across the US. To be eligible, patients must provide documentation from their case manager stating they are sex trafficking survivors at the optimal stage of recovery to undergo laser tattoo removal. A consultation appointment will be scheduled, and treatment discussed including the need for multiple treatment sessions where patients will likely be accompanied by a support person.

What’s next?

Dr. Friedman: I have formed a Task Force on Philanthropy, including many thought leaders, to support the New Beginnings Program and explore other philanthropic opportunities. In coordination with NTSA and Task Force on Philanthropy, we are currently developing resources, including best practices and trauma-informed care guidelines, to help volunteering physicians create a safe, supportive, and comfortable environment for the patient. Additionally, we plan to collaborate with the Academy of Dermatology Association’s Ad Hoc Task Force on Dermatologic Resources for the intervention and prevention of Human Trafficking of which I am a member. Our goal is to create an archive database of branding tattoos to assist healthcare providers with timely recognition and intervention for those who are trafficked.

Get Involved Now

If you are interested in participating, contact ASLMS at

All participating physicians must be board-certified and ASLMS members in good standing.

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