Human trafficking task force introduced to raise awareness, educate

In an effort to combat human trafficking, a new Northeast Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force is set to begin initiatives in the upcoming months.

Head of the new task force committee is Family Services of North Alabama Executive Director Sherrie Hiett, who oversees both Marshall and DeKalb County, each with their chairperson.

The task force is geared towards educating individuals and spreading awareness while combating all aspects of human trafficking.

“You can have sexual assault without human trafficking, but you are rarely going to have human trafficking without an element of sexual assault,” said Hiett.

Chairperson of DeKalb County is Natasha Hilley, an educator at Fyffe High School. Chairperson of Marshall County is Courtney Thompson, a forensic interviewer and therapist at the Children’s Advocacy Center in Marshall County.

Hiett said although most task forces are law enforcement initiatives, the new NAHTTF will instead be community-based.

“The reason being it will draw more people from the community into the task force that we can educate and who can spread awareness,” she said.

The task force's origin came about after Teresa Collier from the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and member of the END IT Alabama project with the Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force, conducted a training with the DeKalb County Sheriff Office and invited the Family Services of North Alabama to attend.

“She started talking about the different types of trafficking, what trafficking is, and I was like, ‘we have victims all the time coming through our center that are being trafficked,’ but I didn’t know that's what it was,” said Hiett.

For example, Collier said four different types of trafficking include labor trafficking, sex trafficking, familiar trafficking and drug trafficking.

“What we see in our office the majority of the time are victims who have been sold by their parents over and over just for a hit of drugs,” Hiett said.

As stated by Collier, when there is an exchange of money, it becomes trafficking. So many of the victims they come in contact with were not only sexual assault victims, they were also victims of human trafficking.

“That’s when I started to research it. I went to the END IT Alabama Human Trafficking Summit last year and it completely changed my whole perspective,” said Hiett.

While there are various task forces in the state, including one in west Alabama and one in north Alabama, there was not one in northeast Alabama.

“The west Alabama [task force] is really kicking and thriving. They’ve been doing this for many years and so is north Alabama,” Hiett said.

During the summit, Hiett realized that Marshall and DeKalb Counties did not have a task force or were involved in one.

Hiett said initially they talked about having two separate task forces, one for Marshall and another for DeKalb. However, they decided to combine forces creating the Northeast Alabama Human trafficking Task Force to cover those two counties and the surrounding counties.

“That way if you had people from Jackson, Cherokee, Etowah or any other surrounding county who wanted to come to any of the meetings or sit in on training they would have that opportunity,” she said.

Currently, the initiative is in the early stages and the committee is working out the remaining details to launch the task force effectively.

“When I go out and speak about Family Services of North Alabama or sexual assault and human trafficking, one of the first things that people say is ‘that doesn’t happen around here,’” said Hiett.

She associates the misconception to various movies, which play a part in people's vision or expectations of human trafficking.

“They think it’s a girl being put on a plane and flown to an Arabian prince overseas. Not to say that doesn’t happen because it absolutely does happen, but it’s a lot more complex than that,” Hiett said.

The “It doesn’t happen here” is a component that the task force will be working to eliminate through education of how it does happen.

“It’s not just a girl being flown on an airplane, it’s when a parent is desperate for a hit of drugs, so they sell their child over and over just to get that hit, that is trafficking,” said Hiett.

Hiett credits DeKalb County Sheriff Nick Welden and law enforcement for their phenomenal job in making the public aware of the drug trafficking arrest.

“What people may not realize is one of the elements that could be happening in that drug trafficking bust is sexual assault,” she said. “I think people think Marshall and DeKalb Counties are completely safe from that, but when your infamously known as “Meth Mountain,’ and you know the drug issue is so terrible in our two counties, then you gotta be aware that there's parents, husband and boyfriends selling their children, wife or girlfriend for a hit of drugs.”

One of the new task force's primary purposes is to make citizens aware that human trafficking does happen a lot in this area.

The following are other areas and interest that will also be covered:

• Different types of trafficking

• Warning signs or red flags

• Trafficking venues

• How to help

Hiett said the task force already had several activities planned for this year that were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it has worked out in their favor providing them with extra time to train and adequately oversee the counties in these efforts.

In November, an official Facebook page will be launched, providing the public with information, tips and updates.

“We are going to be targeting specific entities through 2021 to hopefully not just spread awareness but to educate. That is our sole purpose,” said Hiett.

She said so far, they’ve had a great response from the community already wanting to get involved.

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and Hiett said the group would be targeting and reaching out to the faith-based community such as churches, getting them involved and informing them about the upcoming Churches Against Trafficking Conference.

“The truth is there are perpetrators that are sitting in pews at churches every Sunday and Wednesday. So we feel it's really important that we educate that community on how to spot the signs,” Hiett said.

In the next few months, the group will be training under seasoned officials throughout the state, gathering as many resources and knowledge as possible before launching full force in January.

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