HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - Alarming data continues to surface on human trafficking in Alabama.
The numbers back up the need for more education and tougher legislation targeting the buyers and businesses that are fueling the multi-billion-dollar industry.
Pat McCay is on the forefront of combating the issue in the state. She’s the chair of the North Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force and the secretary for the state task force, which added more members this year.
“We want to make sure we have the voices involved to make the decisions we’re going to make as far as future legislation and education on this subject,” she stated.
Human trafficking can take different shapes, she added.
“It’s as simple as a family member or family friend selling a child or a person to somebody else for sex,” McCay explained. “It can also include labor trafficking, involuntary servitude.”
She revealed that Alabama continues to crack down on illicit massage parlors across the state. A number of them are under investigation for human trafficking, according to McCay. In many cases, she says workers have been found living at the business.
“That’s labor and sex trafficking combined and it does happen that way,” she said. “Massage parlors, nail salons, chicken processing plants. There’s been several cases of those areas in the last couple of years. Our community does not know the full ramifications of what a trafficking situation really is and our North Alabama task force is trying to educate as many people as possible and the state is trying to do the same thing.”
So just how bad is the problem? The University of Alabama School of Social Work is working with several different entities to create a statewide human trafficking protocol for law enforcement, social service and other service providers in Alabama. The university brought on Chris Lim to lead their new efforts.
Lim is a 14-year veteran of law enforcement with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. After his career in law enforcement, he worked with non-profit organizations providing services to victims of human trafficking. He was the vice president of justice and restoration with Saving Innocence, an organization in Los Angeles that works with juvenile victims of sex trafficking. He also served as the chief operating officer of End Slavery Tennessee in Nashville, where he worked with victims of both sex and labor trafficking and operated safe-houses. Lim has served internationally as a volunteer in the Middle East, Kenya, Cambodia and the Philippines as a security consultant for victims of police abuse and he worked in an undercover capacity in brothels and massage parlors to help victims of human trafficking.
His team hopes to get a better understanding of what methods work more efficiently to save victims. They’re also defining the numbers of victims and perpetrators.
Researchers conducted 20 focus groups in 2018 around the state. More than 100 front line professionals participated in those groups including law enforcement, the Department of Human Resources (DHR), Children’s Advocacy Centers, non-governmental organizations, and churches.
They found that professionals engaged with 617 potential victims of human trafficking last year.
Lim says more than half of them were minors, and that’s only about 10 percent of the victims actually out there.
The researchers also discovered 641,000 online ads escort ads placed in prominent websites known for exploiting victims in Alabama in 2017. Traffickers often post multiple ads in multiple platforms for the same victim.
“As more awareness gets out there as protocols get rolled out and we become more efficient in helping these victims and rescuing them obviously numbers a will go up. And that’s a good sign. Actually, that means we are helping the people we’re currently not able to help.” Lim said.
A new law passed this year in Alabama is cracking down on human trafficking operations. HB 305 raises the definition of a minor from 18 to 19 for the purpose of human trafficking.
“It also addresses the fact that a buyer is just as guilty as the seller in a trafficking situation. It also talks about massage parlors. They must be doing background checks on anyone they hire and another requirement is that no one is allowed to sleep on the premises overnight,” Pat McCay said.
Going after the buyers-those creating the demand- is one of the things Carolyn Potter says is key.
She’s the executive director of The Well House, a safe haven located 30 miles east of Birmingham that helps victims of trafficking get back on their feet with shelter, schooling and therapy.
“It is happening in the Southeast, all over our state actually,” Potter explained. “It’s hard to measure that because it is a hidden crime. But we do know that reports tell us it is the second largest criminal activity in the US, second only to drug trafficking and of course, drugs are usually a part of the human trafficking problem.”
Potter’s data show that human trafficking is a $150 billion per year industry and that 40% of human trafficking in the U.S. is in the Southeast. Major human trafficking corridors are: I-20, I-59, I-65, and I-95. Locations include hotels, truck stops, rest stops, strip clubs, parking lots and massage parlors.
The Well House exists to help with rescues and provides restoration opportunities for females who have been enslaved in sex trafficking. They have a short-term shelter program after which the survivors can transition to a long-term program where they receive in-depth trauma therapy, job skills, life skills and educational opportunities.
“The goal is that they’re able to leave us stable and with sustainable employment,” Potter said.
The Well House is about to add a new division called the “Next Step to Independence” Transitional Living Apartments for those who graduated from the long-term program but still need more care.
“They’re able to stay with us while they’re working or finishing school,” Potter stated. “We’ve rescued from Alabama and more than 25 other states over 7-8 years that the well house has been receiving victims. More than 400 women have come to The Well House.”
Potter has spent the majority of her life in child advocacy and found out that children were being trafficked at an early age, sometimes out of the foster care system.
“Most importantly, just about 100% of the survivors who come to the Well House where victims of child sexual abuse. That’s where it really tugs at my heart, that they were victims in their childhood and they weren’t rescued then. So I want to do everything I can to put them on the right path now,” she stressed.
To tackle human trafficking, Potter stresses that two issues must be addressed: childhood abuse and the demand.
“I’m talking about the buyers- the people who actually participate in this activity,” she said.
Potter travels everywhere speaking to crowds on the topic to continue to create more awareness. The Well House is part of establishing a national alliance for setting best practices and standards of care for victims.
“Educating the community and getting the word out is so very important to eradication,” she added.
The Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force is also focusing on education. They want to see consistent training materials for every Alabama law enforcement agency. And they want to get into schools more.
“The kids 7th grade and up need to know about this because they’re a big part of the target. The age range for kids these days is changing. It used to be 12-14, then it was 11-14 and now it’s 11-17. Kids can be recruited in school and they are being recruited in school and they need to be aware of what they’re getting themselves into,” McCay stated.
In 2016, she says there were at least three active cases of human trafficking cases being investigated in local schools.
“We know that it happens. We know that it’s here. We just have to make sure that as many people as we can reach can learn what it is and understand what it is and then go from there for protecting their children, their grandchildren, their community,” McCay added.
The state task force us working to put strict laws in place to ensure minors are protected and that perpetrators are properly punished with jail time and fines.
“We want to make sure we have all of that infrastructure in place so that hopefully it will deter people from doing that or send them somewhere else to do what they’re going to do, not in Alabama. We want our children and our folks in our state to be safe, especially safe from these horrible crimes,” McCay said.
The North Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force's next meeting is Tuesday, November 6, 2018 at 2 pm at the National Children's Advocacy Center in Huntsville, AL. Volunteers are welcome.
The 5th annual Alabama Human Trafficking Summit will be held in Montgomery in February. There’s been more than 200 people in attendance and McCay hopes the number of participants continues to increase.
“I get questions all the time from people asking if this is a much bigger problem than we thought or is it just that the media is telling us and more reporting is happening. I say ‘yes’ and ‘yes.’ There is more activity, more numbers, but on the other hand, the media is learning about it and there’s more attention given to it,” McCay revealed.
Carolyn Potter, meanwhile, continues her work with The Well House and knows that victims can get back on their feet.
“We have women who have graduated from the Well House who are serving in the Navy, working in the medical field, a chef, and one is driving a truck. We have mothers who have regained custody of their children and they’re doing very well so I know it’s possible for a life to be restored,” she said.