DeKalb, Marshall sheriffs address human trafficking

DeKalb County Sheriff Nick Welden.

DeKalb County Sheriff Nick Welden and Marshall County Sheriff Phil Sims participated Tuesday in an hour-long Facebook Live event with Family Services of North Alabama answering questions from the public about human trafficking.

Welden said his office created an interdiction unit on this issue because of Interstate 59 crossing through DeKalb County and the unit had rescued 19 victims discovered in two different traffic stops. He said there’s some disagreement about what constitutes human trafficking versus human smuggling. From the perspective of law enforcement, there’s no way to distinguish until cases can be investigated to determine the facts.

“This is one of the most evil, senseless crimes,” Welden said. He cited estimates that more than $290 million is generated annually from human trafficking in Atlanta alone. “[Traffickers] put a number on people. Their families are answering to it too.”

Welden said illegal drugs are “the root” of the problem because the same criminals are merely moving different products from place to place. Unlike smuggled narcotics that can be confiscated by law enforcement, trafficking victims can still be exploited because of debt they owe a criminal organization for getting them into the country.

“People who are this deep into crime will have some history with drugs,” Welden said on the live chat. He spoke of victims who get in over their heads and find themselves indebted to drug cartels.

“They don’t know the intentions of the people transporting them, so they get turned into a slave, whether it is forced to have sex against their will or provide cheap labor to a business looking for construction workers,” Welden said.

“Victims are forced to earn their way [to America], most of the time through prostitution,” Sims said. “Unlike DeKalb County, we don’t find them [in transit] as much as cases like prostitution houses in Marshall County. We might find seven or eight people in a trailer, working off their debt. Once [victims] are here, they are kept down, fed false illusions about reuniting with family when they actually get split up. The nature of this crime is evil. It’s all about greed and control. Victims are just doing what they have to day-by-day to survive. They get beat down if they don’t do what they are told. Our job is to help people who can’t help themselves.”

“[Trafficking is a] senseless act of free labor, going after free money,” Weldon said. “Criminals work hard at discovering ways not to work. It’s unbelievable. Social media is the devil if it is used for [finding victims to exploit]. So many predators are just waiting for a child to get on there. We get so many disturbing reports. The criminals are always trying to stay one step ahead of law enforcement and prosecution. We are trying to stay one step ahead of them. We don’t advertise a lot of what we are doing because we don’t want to give them a way around it.”

Welden said there are a disturbing number of registered sexual offenders in DeKalb County. He considers the production of child pornography to be a form of human trafficking because it exploits young victims. Sims agreed he is also concerned about pedophile activity.

“Accountability will give [human traffickers] the thought in their head that they need to get out of this business,” Welden said. He expressed gratitude to the DeKalb County Commission for recognizing the issues and providing resources to fight them.

Welden and Sims were joined by on the Facebook Live event by Family Services of North Alabama (FSNA) Prevention Educator Portia Shepherd, Victim Services Director Traci Rhines, Victim Services Coordinator Zaira Parga, and RN Jerika Brumbeloe.

Parga, who shared part of her message in Spanish, said she’s met undocumented locals who were promised a better future when they came to America, but instead they’re “forced to work constantly. They never get done paying their debt. They’re told that if they don’t continue working or paying money back, the traffickers will kill or kidnap their family members back home. I tell them they can trust these sheriffs because they want to keep them safe. Don’t be afraid of your status if you need help. And for those who suspect trafficking is happening, don’t be a bystander to something horrible happening.”

Brumbeloe, a registered nurse specially trained to treat victims of sexual abuse, agreed and urged the public to act if they witness something suspicious. She recalled a case where forensic rape interviewers discovered that traffickers used invisible markers to write their names on the inner thighs of young girls, detectable only by using a black light.

“A lot of times, it is not obvious, and victims may be conditioned to think that they’ll never get out of it,” Brumbeloe said. “Public awareness is key in trying to stop this. Report it to the authorities. Better safe than sorry. You don’t want to wait and then two weeks later there be a body found down the road.”

Weldon and Sims agreed that people are often reluctant to report suspicious behavior, but it is better to notify the authorities of anything odd.

“Sometimes people don’t want to come forward to report [suspected trafficking], but I say what if it was your child possibly being victimized – wouldn’t you want someone to reach out and help them?” Welden said. “Everybody has to step up to the plate to make a difference. This is not like a hundred years ago when no one cared.”

Both sheriffs agreed with Parga that vulnerable populations should not hesitate to reach out to law enforcement, even if their legal resident status is in question.

“I’m going to concentrate on you as a human being and getting you the help you need,” Sims said. “Don’t be apprehensive [of law enforcement] because [deporting you] is not my biggest priority. It’s helping you as a victim of a crime.”

Welden said exploitation goes much deeper than something that only happens to Hispanic people.

“Just because you are a 45-year-old white woman or a kid at Crossville High School, it doesn’t mean you can’t become a victim. Anyone can. These criminals treat a human body as a disposable item,” he said.

Rhines said human trafficking isn’t typically what people see portrayed in movies like “Taken” where young women are randomly targeted and kidnapped.

“Sometimes women are trafficked by their husbands or boyfriends, drugged and then a lot of different men come into the house to have sex with them,” Rhines said. She encouraged victims to seek counseling at Family Services of North Alabama, whether the trauma recently happened or occurred decades ago.

As the public becomes more aware of these crimes, Weldon and Sims said police get regular tips about suspicious-looking vans parked at Walmart, for example. It may turn out to be nothing, but they patrol looking for such things. Welden said there are ways people can protect themselves from random attacks.

“Get a firearm,” Welden suggested. “I’m not saying to go out and start a war, but if someone grabs you by your arm and drags you, that’s why you have a carry permit. People need to stand up for what’s right. These people have no respect for the law, and they won’t stop or slow down unless we put our foot down and make them accountable.”

Educating the community and maintaining strong relationships between law enforcement in adjoining counties go a long way toward reducing vulnerability, Welden said. By reaching out to children in county schools, the sheriff’s office finds the kids will often start a dialogue with their parents about safety and taking action to better the community. School Resource Officers help in outreach and the crime tip-line generates a lot of reports leading to arrests.

Sims said communities become stronger and safer when citizens become involved and help law enforcement to identify crime hot spots.

“If you see it, report it,” Sims said. “I preach that to the community. You might not be sure if a crime is being committed, but what if there is something to it?”

Welden made reference to the Teen PSA Program of the KinderVision Foundation, a charity of Major League Baseball since 1992 that offers peer-to-peer education to prevent sexual exploitation, abduction and human trafficking. To learn more, visit https://kindervision.org/

To report a crime in DeKalb County, call (256) 845-3801. The anonymous tip line in Marshall County is (256) 571-7851. Family Services of North Alabama also offers a 24/7 crisis line at (855) 878-9159.

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