Human trafficking in the spotlight

DeKalb County Sheriff Nick Welden and Marshall County Sheriff Phil Sims will join Family Services of North Alabama (FSNA) for a Facebook Live event with Prevention Educator Portia Shepherd on Jan. 28 at noon.

The headlines terrify: young women snatched by strangers while pumping gas or walking from stores to their cars, forced into sex slavery. Sadly, it’s not just media hype or an urban legend, according to officials.

January is Human Trafficking Awareness month, a time to bring attention to those whose human rights are denied by the use of force, coercion or fraud to exploit them into slave labor or sexual exploitation.

The problem is serious enough that on Jan. 28 from 12 to 1 p.m., DeKalb County Sheriff Nick Welden and Marshall County Sheriff Phil Sims will join Family Services of North Alabama (FSNA) for a Facebook Live event with Prevention Educator Portia Shepherd. They will be joined by Victim Services Director Traci Rhines and Victim Services Coordinator Zaira Parga to discuss how people can work together to prevent human trafficking in DeKalb and Marshall counties.

“Due to the highways and interstates intersecting our county, it’s highly likely that human trafficking as well as illegal narcotics regularly move through,” said Sheriff Welden.

“We have an opportunity to do our part as a department and help curb this illegal activity. Pro-active law enforcement can not only build a better county, but also help clean up our country,” he added.

Family Services of North Alabama Executive Director Sherrie Hiett said Facebook users can type questions to ask the two sheriffs during the live webcast, scheduled for lunchtime to boost participation.

“What most people think of when they hear the term ‘human trafficking’ is what they see in movies,” said FSNA Victim Services Director Traci Rhines. “The victim is kidnapped, blindfolded, then shipped overseas where they are sold to the highest bidder. When they think of it happening in their back door, they usually associate it with prostitution. Both of these types of trafficking do occur. However, the majority of the trafficking victims I've been exposed to in Marshall County and DeKalb County were sold for money and/or drugs.”

Most often, she said, females face trafficking by an acquaintance, usually a relative, husband or boyfriend. In many cases, the women are drugged then numerous men will be allowed to enter the home and have intercourse with them in exchange for drugs and/or cash given to the trafficker. Unlike the illegal drug trade, traffickers continue to exploit their victims because the same product, a human being, can be sold over and over again.

“Drugging [victims] prevents them from resisting the assault and impedes their memory,” Rhines said. “Some victims have no idea that they were ever assaulted. Some will have what they refer to as ‘flashbacks’ or ‘dreams’. Because they were drugged when the assault happened, they cannot decipher if the ‘flashbacks’ or ‘dreams’ are real or a figment of their imagination. The trafficker can then convince the victim that what they are experiencing is indeed not real. Depending on the type of drug that was administered, some real memories may, in fact, become tainted with illusions, making it difficult for victims to distinguish between the two. These distortions of reality may eventually go away once the drug has had time to fully clear the victim's system, allowing memories to emerge more clearly. Traffickers will sometimes use this as part of their legal defense, to discredit the victim or challenge the validity of their testimony, if caught.”

Jerika Brumbeloe is a Registered Nurse specially trained by Family Services of North Alabama who works at DeKalb Regional Medical Center in Fort Payne and Riverview Regional Medical Center in Gadsden. She said Alabama saw 250 cases of suspected human trafficking in 2019, but 89 of these turned into actual cases.

“You really can’t nail down a specific number because there are so many ‘gone missing’ cases where we don’t know the end results,” Brumbeloe said. “Like the case of Natalee Holloway, the Mountain Brook woman who vanished in 2005 near the end of a high school graduation trip to Aruba in the Caribbean. Was she murdered? Was she kidnapped and sold as a sex slave? We may never know.”

The legal definition of trafficking does not require physical restraint, bodily harm or physical force. Psychological means of control, such as coercion, threats, fraud or abuse of the legal process, are sufficient elements of the crime.

Patient confidentiality prevents naming specific parties, but Brumbeloe recalled an instance in which an older gentleman kept returning to an emergency room where she worked, accompanied by a young woman who was never allowed to speak or leave his side. This arose suspicions that she was there against her will, but when staff finally took an opportunity to talk to her privately, the young woman still refused to talk to them. The pair never returned after that.

Victims frequently do not seek help due to language barriers, fear of their traffickers or fear of law enforcement. They may lack trust, self-blame or forced to follow specific instructions by the traffickers regarding how to behave when talking to law enforcement or social services.

“It becomes a coping mechanism and the victim’s identification becomes what the abuser bestows on them. A fortunate few do manage to try and run away,” she said.

Brumbeloe speaks to teenagers in area schools. She tells them human trafficking is a $35 billion industry worldwide, affecting an estimated 20.9 million people – 59 percent female, 26 percent children and 68 percent trapped in forced labor. An estimated 400,000-650,000 victims are in the U.S., 12 being the average age of a child forced into sex trafficking. One in five runaways report being forced into sex trafficking.

Traffickers typically target those who are vulnerable, have little to no social safety net or who are without strong family relationships. It can happen to people of any age, race, gender or nationality. Violence, manipulation or false promises of a well-paying job are often used to lure victims into trafficking situations. It can occur in legal and legitimate business settings as well as underground markets.

Indicators can help people recognize potential endangerment. Hotel workers, ride-hailing service drivers and security personnel are urged to be especially alert because these are the people most likely to encounter the victims and perpetrators of trafficking — and would be able to provide authorities with tips and evidence of the crime taking place. Possible signs of human trafficking: rooms where people come and go at all hours, cash payments and young women who never leave their rooms.

In 2014, the Alabama Legislature created an Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force that meets quarterly at the Alabama State House. The task force will host the Alabama Human Trafficking Summit on Friday, January 30 from 9 am – 4:45 pm at First Baptist Church Montgomery (305 S Perry St Montgomery, AL 36104).

Pat McCay, the Huntsville/North Alabama chair for the Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force said she continues “to be amazed at the number of people who do not think human trafficking happens in Alabama. They seem to think it only happens in third world countries. It is abundantly clear that human trafficking happens in nearly every country in the world. Human trafficking is happening in the United States at an increasing rate. And yes, it happens right here in Alabama in our large cities, suburbs, small towns, and even rural areas. That is why raising awareness is one of the major goals of our task force.”

In order to put an end to this crime in Alabama, McCay said, “we have to all work together. Law enforcement, the state and local task forces, NGO's, social workers, legislators, every one of us has a role to play in this fight.”

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