Best Use of Sound "Selling Kids: Human Trafficking in Alabama" Alabama Public Radio
Please find enclosed Alabama Public Radio’s entry for the PMJA award for Best Radio Use of Sound, titled “Selling Kids: Human Trafficking in Alabama.” The two member Alabama Public Radio news team spent fourteen months and three thousand miles on the road, with no budget, investigating the trafficking issue in Alabama. This audio montage started off the series. It all began with a number.
That’s the total number of on-line sex trafficking ads in Alabama, just in 2017, as counted by the University of Alabama’s College of Social Work. Our reporting is that this type of web activity is a reliable metric to track sex trafficking since, in Alabama, it’s where traffickers come out in the open. APR news built on that earlier figure by commissioning a study by the cybercrime lab at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. These analysts generated a one-day “snap shot” of verified sex trafficking ads in Mobile, Birmingham, Montgomery, and Huntsville. The result for these four small cities outpaced numbers that day for Atlanta, a main hub for trafficking in the southeast.
“Familial” trafficking is considered a primary concern in Alabama. That’s where a mother, father, aunt, or uncle is the trafficker and younger family members are the victims. APR news sought out the project leader of a study on familial trafficking in Mississippi which found that this type of trafficking was the main source of sexual exploitation in the four counties that were researched. Officials in Alabama consider that Mississippi study to be the “gold standard” on the issue, and directly applicable to the situation in Alabama. APR focused on similarities between the two states including poverty, a lack of education, and culture which, in Mississippi, are considered key indicators of familial trafficking.
APR also interviewed women representing two generations of sex trafficking survivors who described “how it happened to me.” Their stories reflect the belief among law enforcement and survivor support groups that traffickers use psychological tricks to draw victims in, and then resort to coercion to force them into the sex industry.
APR also investigated solutions. The University of Alabama’s College of Social Work is creating an internet database to be used jointly by trafficking victims, law enforcement, and survivor support groups. The organizers of the project say changing mindsets among these groups is the true challenge, with each side thinking the others are the “enemy.” APR studied efforts to change these mindsets.
APR student reporter Tina Turner focused on how teenaged members of Alabama’s LBGTQ community are statistically more likely to be trafficked. She visited a teen shelter in Huntsville where the majority of the young people identify as bisexual, because they’d been sold to both men and women. The result appears to be these teens don’t know what their gender is.
Readers please note this story contains content of an adult nature that might not be suitable for all ages.
Selling people for sex or underpaid labor is considered a $150 billion business worldwide. Researchers who study trafficking in Alabama said our state is a microcosm of what’s going on in the U.S. In other words, problems in Alabama are likely occurring everywhere.
“My friend Becca took to me the hospital, but I hadn’t told the hospital what had happened to me,” Dixie Shannon said. She lives in Central Alabama.
“I was just blindly…I just…was just going along with going there. And, the hospital recognized me as a trafficked victim. And, they asked me ‘Ma’am, have you been trafficked? Are you being trafficked currently?’ And, I just remember breaking into tears, and just crying, and like…just, finally someone had a name for it,” Shannon said. “Someone had a name for the torment I’d been just been through.”
It happened twice, first when she was 17, and the second time in her mid-20s. Each time, Shannon said her trafficker acted like he was on her side, at least at first.
“This guy was going to give me some more security. He was going to put me in a hotel room, and I was going to take a shower. I just needed to eat,” Shannon said. “He did all of that. He brought me in a hotel room, and he took care of me. And he said ‘This is what I want from you.’ And, I was like ‘OK.’”
The phrase "what I want from you" is one you hear a lot from survivors of human trafficking. It’s like a code that means you’re about to enter “the life.” That’s code too, for the world of commercial sex.
“I ended up doing so much drugs, because he was requiring me to do so much…I couldn’t take a shower without making a certain amount of money…I couldn’t eat…I couldn’t do anything…I couldn’t rest…I couldn’t talk to my kids…nothing," Shannon said. "And, I couldn’t do anything. And, I ended up getting to a point where I was I either going to kill myself because I’m going to overdose on these drugs, or he’s going to kill me.”
For some of the survivors, their trafficker started out as a stranger.
“He drugged me and I woke up in a hotel room, naked, on a bed, and had no idea how I got there or anything,” said “Ace,” who was trafficked along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
For others in Alabama, their trafficker was a member of their family.
“You might have a mom, who…the only way she can keep her house, or her…wherever she’s at…will let her landlord have sexual access to her kid,” said Teresa Collier of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. “That sort of thing happens quite a bit.”
Human trafficking isn’t limited just to women. Both men and boys are abused, as well as members of Alabama’s LGBTQ community.
“Most of our kids identify as bisexual. And, that’s because they’ve been sold to this person or that person, males and females. So, they don’t know what their gender is,” said Lynn Caffery, Executive Director of the shelter Safe Harbor Youth in Huntsville.
Traffickers often use psychological games to ensnare their victims.
“They pick up on that,” said Sharon Robbins, a survivor and founder of the trafficking support group Jubilee Havens and lives along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. “It’s almost like they’re honed into that. So me, being already abused as a child, I had a lot of insecurities, I was an introvert, so, they picked up on that.”
Cybercrime analysts in Birmingham study sex traffickers when they advertise on the internet in Alabama. This data can track sex workers who live in Alabama, and those who travel into the state like a caravan.
“So, if I can find five girls who are in Atlanta on Monday, and Birmingham on Tuesday, and Chattanooga on Wednesday, that’s something we would consider a strong indicator of trafficking,” said Gary Warner, director of the UAB Computer Forensics Research Lab in Birmingham.
How the Deep South handles the issue differs from other parts of the country, according to Crystal Yarborough who is the Executive Director of the Rose Center, a drop-in shelter for victims of human trafficking along the Gulf Coast.
“In the Midwest, it’s very much like ‘let’s fix that, what can I do about that?’” she said. “In the South, it’s very much like ‘Oh, I wish you had not told me about that. I did not want to know that.’”
Christiam Lim is leading a project at The University of Alabama’s College of Social Work on human trafficking in the state. His team spent 2017 conducting interviews around Alabama to get a snapshot of how many suspected victims of trafficking asked for help from the police or social service agencies. He said the final number was nearly 1,200 victims.
“The fact is, that there’s a prevalence of human trafficking throughout the entire state,” he said. “Clearly whatever we recovering is a smaller percentage of what’s happening.”
So small, that some estimates put the real figure at 10 times higher. If that’s true, the total could be closer to 12,000, just in Alabama in 2017. Lim said the point is that authorities know what they know, but that's it.
“What that means is there are a lot of professionals in our state who are running across victims of human trafficking, but not identifying them and seeing them as victims of human trafficking,” he said.
But, the College of Social Work found another number that could give an even clearer picture of trafficking in Alabama. It's based on when traffickers come out in the open and advertise on the internet. Two years ago, the college counted those ads and the total was 641,000, just in Alabama, just in 2017.
Editor's note: If you or someone you know is being trafficked, Alabama Public Radio has resources to help. Go to apr.org-slash-traffic for phone numbers and links to groups that support trafficking survivors. You can also text the word traffic to 855-353-6644.