Experts: Human trafficking prevalent in Alabama

The Alpha Phi Sigma criminal justice honor society hosted an event on campus at the University of Alabama to promote awareness and advocacy for human trafficking across the state of Alabama. A panel of experts that included law enforcement, sexual assault nurses and advocacy groups, spoke to students about the harsh reality that is human trafficking and the resources that are in place in the area to combat the problem moving forward.

By Tanner Ary
News Reporter

TUSCALOOSA — For decades, products have been trafficked into, out of and throughout the United States.

During prohibition, bootleggers ran shipments of illegal alcohol across the country to be sold under the table to consumers and bar owners.

In the ’70s and ’80s, cocaine and heroin trafficking became big business as millions of kilos of the white powder poured into the U.S.

Today, a more personal form of trafficking is at its height in the country. It is not in the form of drugs or alcohol or goods. This time, it’s human beings.

More than 40.3 million people are trafficking victims globally, according to the Freedom K9 Project. Of these, 81 percent are trafficked for sexual purposes. This heinous form of business is a global industry that rakes in $150 billion annually.

The problem has crept its way into every state in the country, including Alabama. In 2017, 31 cases of human trafficking were prosecuted in the state, eight from West Alabama.

The University of Alabama and Alpha Phi Sigma, the Criminal Justice Honor Society, held an event on campus in which people on the front lines of human trafficking discussed how to better prevent the crime.

The panel included law enforcement officers, medical professionals, and even church group leaders who are volunteering to join the fight in Tuscaloosa and the surrounding areas.

Lieutenant Darren Beams spoke on his work fighting human trafficking with the West Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force

“Human trafficking is the hot ticket item for law enforcement entities these days,” said Lt. Darren Beams, commander of the West Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force. “The $6 million question is how exactly do we figure out a way to effectively do something to combat the issue.”

The goal of the task force is not only to effectively pursue and apprehend human traffickers, but also to make sure that awareness is raised across West Alabama so that people can be on the look out for the tell tale signs.

“Although our main goal is to get these people off of the streets and their victims back to their families, we also want to make sure that you know what to look out for and what signs to pay attention to so that you are not the next victim of one of these traffickers,” Beams said.

Beams said the average age of victims is 11 to 14 and 80 percent of these victims are female. A victim is raped or hired out about 10 to 15 times daily with a total profit of $250,000 per victim every year, he said.

“These traffickers are often hiding in plain sight,” Beams said. “Major sporting events like Alabama football games and the NASCAR race at Talladega are hot spots for trafficking activity. In almost every case, alcohol at these events plays a factor.”

While the panel focused on law enforcement efforts to prevent further cases, it also provided information on resources for victims in West Alabama.

One resource is the University of Alabama’s Women and Gender Resource Center. The campus-based center offers victim advocacy and support to all that come through its doors seeking help.

“Our mission is to get you plugged into the resource that will best help you deal with the traumas you have encountered,” said Zoe Winston, Peer Education Program Coordinator with the Resource Center. “We are a one-stop-shop that is able to get you plugged in with any group that you need to speak to. Whether it’s Title IX or counseling, we can get you what you need.”

Another resource is the recently opened Tuscaloosa SAFE Center, a nonprofit company whose mission is to provide a compassionate, patient-centered environment for traumatized sexual assault victims to have forensic examinations performed.

Brenda Maddox, Program Director of the Tuscaloosa SAFE Center, spoke on her experiences with victims of human trafficking and the SAFE Center’s goals moving forward

The SAFE Center provides patients with professionally trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, or SANE nurses. The center has nurses on call 24-hours per day and offers care to anyone 14 years or older, regardless of gender.

“For victims of assault and human trafficking, it is not why won’t they seek help, it’s how can they? Where do they have to go?” said Brenda Maddox, forensic nurse and program coordinator for the SAFE Center. “We seek to provide a space where patients can feel safe and be treated for any injuries or other infections that they may have, without having to be scared anymore.”

Human trafficking is an issue that has flown under the radar for a long period of time. Now, with higher pressure from police and a better understanding of useful care practices, the problem is beginning to be met head on.

“This is not something that is happening miles away,” Maddox said. “This is happening here. It is in your backyard and we have to work diligently to gain control over this problem as fast as possible.”