Being aware of human trafficking, experts say I-85 sees major activity
Published 1:19 am Wednesday, January 23, 2019
Earlier this month, the state of Alabama marked the fifth annual Human Trafficking Awareness Day, which is meant to educate the public about the signs of trafficking.
Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery and involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Sex trafficking is defined as a commercial sex act induced by force, fraud or coercion or any commercial sex act by a person under the age of 18.
Although there are no known recent cases in Chambers County, Interstate 85 is a major corridor for sex traffickers, according to experts.
Email newsletter signup
“When we have all kinds of cases in Georgia from Atlanta, and Tennessee, Mississippi, and Florida, they have to be coming through Alabama and the interstate corridor through Chambers County,” said Adrian Carpenter with the Renew Hope program within Circle of Care Center for Families organization.
He said when learning of the cases surrounding Chambers County, the organization found that the average age of the children exploited was between 12 and 14 years old.
“Right of the bat, we knew this was a child abuse issue,” he said.
Carpenter said as the Renew Hope program began investigating human trafficking activity around the Chambers County region, it learned of several phone calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline along Interstate 85 from Opelika to Atlanta.
He said that gave the organization the indication that it’s happening within the target age group it wants to protect — juveniles — and second, there was evidence that human trafficking is happening near the Greater Valley Area.
Carpenter said Renew Hope talks to local police agencies and provides training. He said they’ve talked to police about looking for signs if making a traffic stop — such as one man with three children in the back who don’t look like they are on a family trip.
Renew Hope also hosted a community forum in 2018 with more than 100 people attending. Carpenter said the goal was to provide as much awareness about the issue to as many people as possible throughout the area.
Carpenter said his organization isn’t aware of a human trafficking charge in Chambers County, but he believes some of the child sexual abuse cases or rape cases that have been prosecuted could’ve been trafficking cases if pressed further.
Renew Hope also hosted training for teachers, local attorneys and nurses. Carpenter said the organization brought in Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Vikki Vodosia from the University of Alabama at Birmingham to train nurses in Chambers County about what to look for when individuals are brought to the hospital for treatment.
“The trafficker will do everything they can to not let a child out of their sight, and they will try to answer every question for them,” Carpenter said about hospital interactions with their victims. “They just won’t let them get in any private situation. We try to train nurses to use subtle ways to separate the two to ask questions.”
Stats don’t tell full story
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, in Alabama, there were 68 human trafficking cases reported and 184 calls in 2017. The most recent stats from the hotline from 2018 are as of June 30, and it shows 36 cases reported and 107 calls.
The hotline’s website shows 49 of those cases were sex trafficking in 2017 and there were 28 sex trafficking cases halfway through 2018.
National Human Trafficking Hotline Director Caroline Diemar said those numbers are just what’s being reported.
“We often will say that the numbers that are being reported to the hotline and on our website are not indicative to prevalence at all,” she said. “Instead it is more about the awareness of the hotline and human trafficking in general in that area.”
Diemar said it’s impossible to predict the number of cases not being reported.
“We are not saying that trafficking is increasing, it just that the awareness of the issue is getting into the hands of more people,” she said. “We are just scratching the surface of the potential cases that could be coming in and the more we can get the hotline number out to rural areas, hopefully, more people will reach out for help.”
Not all trafficking looks the same
With Chambers County being less than 90 miles to Atlanta, where major human trafficking activity is prevalent, Carpenter said it’s important to know that human trafficking doesn’t always look the same in every area.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t more familial human trafficking in rural areas,” he said.
In Atmore in July 2017, a grandmother was arrested on human trafficking charges after she allegedly forced her 13-year-old granddaughter to have sex with a man for money. Court documents revealed the man threatened to harm the girl if she didn’t participate in the sexual act. The girl’s mother was later arrested on human trafficking and endangering the welfare of a child charges in the same case. The male in the case was also arrested on human trafficking charges.
Carpenter said it doesn’t always have to be cash that is exchanged during a trafficking transaction — it can be a place to stay, food or even a car.
A common misconception about trafficking is that transportation or movement is not required, according to Diemar.
However, she said a trafficker could move a victim from location to location to keep their victim isolated or unaware of their surroundings, so they don’t know how to ask for help. Additionally, she said a rural location could be desirable because there are fewer resources than in a metropolitan area.
With I-85 stretching through Chambers County to Atlanta, Carpenter said Renew Hope has spoken with a victim who reported being sold at exit 79 in Alabama and exit 2 in Georgia. He said websites like Backpage.com were hubs for traffickers, who would provide locations throughout I-85, including Chambers County.
He said the websites include a description of the person being trafficked, a photo of the person and number of an untraceable cell phone. After convincing the trafficker the person isn’t law enforcement, a location is set up, and a cash transaction typically takes place, Carpenter said.
“It is very similar to a drug transaction,” he said. “Except once you sell the drug the one time, it’s gone, but these victims are sometimes used 15 to 20 times a night.”
The co-founder of backpage.com was arrested in April, and the website has been taken down by the federal government. Carpenter said similar websites have moved overseas and they are outside the jurisdiction of the federal government.
Where to get help
According to the hotline website, there are two organizations in Birmingham which help trafficking victims — Children’s Aid Society of Alabama and The Well House.
The Well House took its first rescue survivor in 2011 and since then it has helped more than 400 women who were affected by trafficking, Well House CEO Carolyn Potter said.
Upon arriving, women receive any medical care needed and then the nonprofit organization works on getting back their birth certificate and social security cards. Even more so, the women are given clothing and begin counseling for both trauma and substance abuse. After that, Potter said if women choose to stay at the Well House after a 90-day program, they start to make educational and employment goals and work to reunite the women with their children.
Potter said there is some fear that they may reencounter their trafficker if they leave and get severely punished, but the organization isn’t concerned about traffickers seeking them out.
“We don’t have a fear that they will come looking for them, because they typically just replace the girls,” she said.
To get started, a call must be made to the rescue coordinator, and an assessment over the phone must be conducted, Potter said. The Well House only takes victims of trafficking and if its solely domestic violence or substance abuse. She said the organization will make referrals, but it’s not equipped to serve women who are actively using heroin or opiates — they must detox first.
“If they are a victim of trafficking, and they are willing to come here and receive our services, we will make arrangements,” Potter said. “Right now, there are 24 beds, but we are looking at adding 14 more in the next couple of months. We stay close to full with a waiting list.”
For victims of sex trafficking, call 1-800-991-0948.
Help can also be found with the hotline that is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week with a live person on the phone, Diemar said. The hotline is also available in more than 200 languages.
The national hotline can be contacted at 1-888-373-7888.
Renew Hope is hosting two advisory council meetings to learn more about human trafficking in the area. The first meeting with from 2:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Jan. 28 at the East Alabama Medical Center — Lanier Education Classroom. The second meeting will be from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. on the same day at the Circle of Care building at 2200 35th Place in Valley. To RSVP for the program, email email@example.com or call (334) 768-4091.