How to be an advocate: An in depth look at the local fight on human trafficking

Published 9:29 am Tuesday, June 27, 2023

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By LIZZIE BOWEN | Staff Writer

Estimated as a $150 billion business and one of the top two illegal activities in the world, human trafficking is second only to drug trafficking in the lucrative criminal activity realm, and it’s a business local officials continually try to combat.

Lawmakers and police departments work tirelessly to prevent trafficking across Shelby County and the Birmingham metro area to prevent the unlawful activity from taking place, while nonprofit organizations and others are working to raise awareness and offer a place for those needing refuge after being trafficked.

Blanket Fort Hope is one of those nonprofits right here in Shelby County that looks to offer all of the resources for prevention and a safe haven for those who need it.


Co-founder and CEO Alexa Likis James said that Blanket Fort Hope ensures that all their statistics and studies provided are from the most reliable and up-to-date sources in order to keep the public best informed.


We strive every day to make sure our communities are trained,” James said. “We make sure we get them out the right information. We think it is important that people know the truth.”


What is the truth about human trafficking?


Defined as a crime of exploiting another person for compelled labor for commercial sex acts, typically through force, fraud or coercion or by inducing a minor under 18 into commercial sex, human trafficking leads to an estimated 20 million victims worldwide each year, according to the United Nations International Labor Organization.


Recently, Blanket Fort Hope did a study with Bringing Minors of Exploitation to an End, also known as BEAMS of Alabama, through the University of Alabama.


They identified 1,167 human trafficking victims within the state of Alabama, with 57 percent of those being minors.


“When they did their study, they found 57 percent of all victims in our state are minors,” James said. “We want to let people know that. It is hard for people to believe it, because they don’t know the signs. Advocating and letting people know that we do have this problem, don’t put your head in the sand. Let’s talk about hope. What can we do about it? How can we address it instead of being afraid by it? We can save a child’s life by just you being educated.”


Every year, the Department of Homeland Security publishes a Countering Human Trafficking Year in Review with statistics on the issue. The latest was published on Jan. 31, 2023.


In the latest report, there were 1,373 cases initiated last year, 3,655 arrests, 1,045 indictments and 638 convictions occurred.


There were also 765 human trafficking victims assisted, which is what places like Blanket Fort Hope, King’s Home and Owens House in Shelby County are dedicated to helping with.


Those organizations and their prevention techniques help make Shelby County remain one of the safest counties to live in across Alabama, but near the interchanges of Interstate 65 and Interstate 59/20, the county and the surrounding area experiences human trafficking because of the accessibility to major interstates.


That puts even more emphasis on awareness to prevent trafficking from taking place.


Preventing the issue


That is a top priority for James, who said she hopes to spread awareness and share resources available with parents, children and law enforcement to help prevent someone from becoming the next one.


“Blanket Fort Hope is in Shelby County, and I believe the prevention education that Blanket Fort Hope does and our foster care initiative is a game changer for parents, for schools and for business,” James said. “In our foster care community, we go in and do training to those people too. They may have a child who is being trafficked that they don’t even know is being trafficked, but we have this three-hour training that offers continued education units.


“We would love to host as many as people will let us do. We can do it by groups or through DHR. But, it has been a game-changer for this family. They learn about de-escalation.”


James said that a lot of the behavior children exhibit are behaviors that they have been groomed into them by the person who is holding them hostage in a trafficking situation.


James said that getting out and publicly advocating for the safety of children and victims of human trafficking is a way of spreading awareness, getting the word out and ultimately, saving lives everywhere.


“We try to advocate in the schools, advocate in police departments, advocate on the state level and in our attorney general’s office for better data systems,” James said. “We are constantly talking to people about that. We are a part of all the human trafficking summits. We are a part of the attorney general’s human trafficking alliance. We think it’s important to collaborate. We are not the only ones here.”


James said that collaborative efforts and learning from others is a massive step in working twoard fighting this issue, especially in Shelby County.


“We are advocating, ‘Here is who we are. This is what we do,’” James said. “Advocating is not just people speaking, it’s not just speaking, it’s being part of collaborations with partners, and that could be police departments, your schools, your churches or your businesses. Every entity needs to know. The hospital might be the last line of defense for a child. So, are they being trained?”


James said it is important for advocates of victims of abuse and trafficking to not just try and offer resources once victimhood occurs, but work towards prevention to keep potential victims safe.


“We are not just about receiving and healing,” James said. “We are about prevention, and if we are not doing prevention, we are not doing the whole package.”


How to know if someone needs help


James said there are a variety of indicators of that can be signs that a child is being trafficked.


“We look for change in behavior and change in clothing,” James said. “Are they trying to cover parts of their body? In summer, are they wearing longer sleeves? Do they have expensive jewelry on them that they haven’t had before?”


James said other signs can be a child’s grades changing or the child’s relationships with their friends changing.


James said that additional signs are names tattooed on the skin of a victim, often leading to ownership to the perpetrator.


“Skipping school, leaving the house in the middle or the night, there could be new tattoos on the arm or across the chest, maybe somebody’s name could be tattooed,” James said.


James said it is important to be aware of what children are doing on the internet and social media as that can often be a way for predators to get ahold of victims.


“You could have a child being recruited on social media,” James said. “They might be spending a lot more time on chat. You need to know who those people are because they could be talking to a 43-year-old and not a 16-year-old. So, who are your kids talking to? It is our business as parents to know that.”


There are many signs to look out for when a victim is being subjected to human trafficking. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security lists out indicators of a victim of human trafficking:


-Does the person seem disconnected from family, friends, or house of worship?

-Has the child stopped attending school?

-Has the person had a sudden dramatic change in behavior?

-Is a juvenile engaged in commercial sex acts?

-Is the person disoriented or confused, showing signs of mental or physical abuse?

-Does the person have bruises in various stages of healing?

-Is the person fearful, timid, or submissive

-Does the person show signs of having been denied food, water, sleep or medical care?

-Is the person in the company of someone to whom he or she often defers? Or someone who often seems to be in control of the situation (example: where they go or who they talk to)

-Does the person appear coached on what to say?


James said victims will sometimes go away for long periods of time and not directly inform those around them the exact location of their destination of whom they’re going with. Victims may even be forced to lie to friends or family about their whereabouts by the perpetrator of the trafficking.


“They may be gone for longer periods of time,” James said. “They could have STD’s. There could be bruises on them that should not be there. Have they been hit? Have they been tied up?”


James reiterated that the reclusiveness children may experience while being trafficked is something to be alert of. She added that the difficult part in determining this is that teenagers can naturally be reclusive during those formative years, so in order to determine victimhood, it is important to be on high alert of if this reclusive behavior becomes heightened in any way.


“What is scary is, some of that is being a teenager,” James said. “So, what you have to look for is, is it extra?”


A collaborative effort in healing


King’s Home is one of those local entities needed in the collaboration effort mentioned by James, as are Owens House and local law enforcement agencies, as they all have to be prepared for helping rehabilitate someone who has been trafficked or abused.


King’s Home President Lew Burdette said there are a variety of programs offered to those who come into King’s Home in order to offer victims proper rehabilitation.


For more than 49 years, King’s Home, located in Chelsea, has been a home to thousands of youth, women and children seeking refuge.


“Some of our teenagers that come to us do so through DHR,” Burdette said. “So, we deal with that every day too. But on the adult side, we work with mothers fleeing domestic violence, and that is most of our moms.”


Burdette said that King’s Home works closely alongside WellHouse. WellHouse is a haven for female victims of human trafficking with more than 600 victims recovered.


“The way we partner with WellHouse is through our therapeutic programs,” Burdette said. “WellHouse women who have been trafficked and come out of a trafficking home go to our equine program.”


Burdette said that often victims will come to King’s Home once they have reached a certain level of stability from the treatments and recovery that WellHouse offers first. King’s Home works closely to offer victims jobs to get back to a sense of normalcy.


Those two programs include Prodigal Pottery, which ends with pottery sold to all 50 states, and restoring, refurbishing and repainting furniture, which is shared with the new King’s Home Collections store in Chelsea.


“Our women and teenagers work retail in the store or they work in our shop restoring and repainting this beautiful furniture,” Burdette said. “That is how we help with jobs, particularly WellHouse women, because women who have experienced this kind of trauma whether it be human trafficking or domestic violence, sometimes have coping and mental health issues that make it hard for them to maintain jobs.”


Burdette said providing them that safe and controlled environment is extremely important.


“When they are in a loving, safe controlled environment like King’s Home Pottery or working in the store, we are able to help them more with their mental health and trauma,” Burdette said.


The goal is for those that are part of the program to save 75 percent of what they earn to set them up in a strong financial situation to get them back on their feet.


“That is their nest egg to independence,” Burdette said. “If they can save $2,000 or $3,000, they can easily get transportation, make down payments, etc. So, what we help them with is that next phase to get them on track, getting them financially secure, help them with budgeting and help them with saving.”


The Shelby County Sheriff’s Office and other local law enforcement agencies also work closely with the nonprofits to help in rehabilitation efforts.


Shelby County Sherriff John Samaniego said that law enforcement works closely with Owens House to conduct interviews when receiving complaints or tips of abuse of children.


“It is usually displayed in some sort of behavior that ends up in an abuse complaint from the children,” Samaniego said. “It comes out of the school, a church or just comes out of an anonymous tip if someone sees something wrong in the household.”


Samaniego said there are many different nonprofits and organizations that law enforcement works closely with. Samaniego welcomed everyone who is taking part is combatting trafficking to the initiative, thanking them for their hard work.


“We’ve worked with WellHouse for years,” Samaniego said. “Now Blanket Fort Hope has come onboard, and we welcome them as well.”


Owens House is a child advocacy center with the mission to equip the Shelby County community to protect, strengthen and restore those who have experienced child abuse and trauma. Samaniego said that Owens House works to conduct interviews within the community for victims.


Burdette shared a story about one victim, a child who was scarred from years of abuse both mentally and physically with burns on his stomach.


At the time, King’s Home had a horse on their horse farm who they had rescued as well. The horse, like the kid, had scars on his body.


“This kid gravitated to the horse,” Burdette said.


The horse, also more standoffish because of the abuse it faced, welcomed the kid’s affection.


“At first, we had no idea why he loved this one horse that was scarred,” Burdette said. “One day, our director asked, ‘Why do you love this horse?’ The boy raised his shirt and said, ‘I have the same scars he does.’ It was a breakthrough moment for that kid to be able to express that. You never know how these programs are going to help people.”