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"Facing your trafficker in court," an APR 40th anniversary encore presentation

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Ronald Reagan was President of the United States in 1982. Chariots of Fire won best picture at the Oscars that year. And, Alabama Public Radio went on the air. We’re observing our fortieth anniversary by re-playing the best of our stories. That includes this one from 2019. APR spent fourteen months investigating human trafficking. That’s what prompted the U.S. State Department to invite the newsroom to address a delegation from Africa on trafficking. One subject that came up during the talk was a unique facility in Huntsville that helps young trafficking victims face their trafficker in court. Here’s that story from the APR archives

“How long does it take for the pimps to build that relationship with the victims before they actually make their move and bring them into sex trafficking?” asks Keisha Grice of Tuscaloosa.

“My question would be electronics being allowed in the schools, that allows kids access that wouldn’t otherwise have, what do we do about that?” asks Laura Jernigan of Tuscaloosa.

Tonight is a town hall in the city of Northport on human trafficking. The cups and wristbands being handed out at the check-in desk are stamped with the logo of the West Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force. Keisha Bryant asked long does it take for a trafficker to lure a young person in—police say anywhere from two weeks to a month. Laura Jernigan question on gadgets in schools relates to online chat rooms that traffickers often use to lure in young people.

Northport Police Sergeant Ashley Blalock says that’s a subject that hits home.

“I’m actually, by the grace of god, I’m not one of the victims that we’ve come into contact with,” she asserts.

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Blalock says police can’t tell principals what do about students’ cellphones, but she knows how traffickers work online to lure kids in.

“I was that kid,” Blalock says. “Growing up in middle school. I played on the internet. I talked to strangers. I had these relationships we telling people…don’t have.”

The parents tonight are getting tips on how to protect their children from traffickers. For young people who wind up being victimized, there’s another type of training--this one for people like Sergeant Blalock.

“So, she would be the interviewer, and then she would very likely be the investigator,” says Linda Cordisco-Steele who works with both. “And to me it’s really the investigator that builds that case,” she says.

Cordisco-Steele is an instructor at the National Children's Advocacy Center in Huntsville. There are centers like it all over the world, but Huntsville’s was the first. Cordisco-Steele wrote the curriculum for interviewing young victims of trafficking. That led to her unofficial title.

“I’m the kid talker,” says Cordisco-Steele.

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Credit APR's Pat Duggins
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The Center instructs interviewers and prosecutors, both in person and with online classes. Staff members also travel to conduct training international—during our visit a team was packing for a session in Stockholm, Sweden. Tonight’s session is for caregivers of children who’ve suffered sexual abuse. These classes include instructional videos and a facilitator. When people like Sergeant Blalock show up for class, they get Linda Cordisco-Steele. She says the first class is for the beginners.

“We spend a lot of time…that first day in particular…talking about what we know about the kind of questions we use,” she says.

And speaking of Sergeant Blalock.

“Um, there was only about six enforcement of our thirty, thirty five person class,” she observed.

The other students came from therapeutic group homes, advocacy centers, and for the courts. Linda Cordisco-Steele teaches interviewers how to talk to young victims of sex abuse. She says in some cases, these youngsters are at a point where they want to talk.

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“They go to somebody, and they say ‘look, this happened to me…or I never talked about it before,” says Cordisco-Steele. “But it’s caused me some problems now, or I’m worried about it in the future.”

Sergeant Blalock says that’s what she came to hear about. She wanted to build on earlier instruction she’d received on how to interact with young victims.

“I got pretty personal with a victim one time, and that was very much…kind of, keep your personal self out of the interview, it’s about them," says Blalock. "And, so I was ‘oh, good to know.’”

Blalock says she empathized a little too much based on her own history of almost being trafficked herself as a teenager. Now, she doesn’t do that. Linda Cordiscio-Steele says that’s because even a willing witness has to be questioned in a specific way to get evidence usable in court. The training teaches how to deliver a specific message to the victim.

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“You know what about what happened, I don’t. So, here’s kind of your role here. And it’s really different than the pattern about most adult-child conversations,” she explains.

That’s where adults typically know everything and lead the discussion. Another goal is to avoid having multiple adults ask the victim the same questions again and again. We met one person who knows what happens when adults do that.

“You stop talking. Because your feeling is already ‘I’ve already told you this,’ says Kelly Dore. You heard from Dore earlier in our series. She was a victim of familial trafficking. That’s where a family member was the trafficker… “And, again it goes back to the brainwashing side that your trafficker has said to you ‘nobody’s going to believe you,” recalls Dore. “And you’re going to be in trouble if you come forward and talk about all the dirty things you’ve had to do.’”

Dore’s case is unique because at the age of fifteen, she testified in court against her trafficker.

“For me, when I had to go in, it was so scary,“ Dore remembers.

The National Children's Advocacy Center works to make things less upsetting. But with kids who are less willing to talk, Cordisco-Steele says there’s plan-B—a line of questioning that gently gets to the point by referring to other evidence.

“Here’s what we think know…here’s what we have confidence in,” Cordisco-Steele explains. “I might consider introducing this, or focusing them on this particular topic, like how are things going at home. To try to get to the topic of concern.”

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Dore says her case ended with her trafficker pleading guilty to some, but not all, of the charges. She says going through the questioning, taking the stand, and then delivering her final statement was worth it.

“If you don’t speak now, then other children are going to be abused. And that’s a hard thing for a child to take on,” Dore asserts.

Sergeant Blalock says she came away better prepared, and even a veteran officer can tune up what they do on the job.

“I guess the only thing that was different is that just practicing open ended, and not yes or no questions, and looking back on past interviews that I’d done before this class, and my gosh I’d done it all wrong,” says Blalock.

But, Blalock says her practice sessions with an adult acting like a six year old victim got good reviews from her classmates and teachers, and now she ready to apply what she’s learned back at the West Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force.

Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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