An APR News Special: "Selling Kids: Human Trafficking in Alabama"

Dec 23, 2019

An APR news special report.

A note to our readers, this documentary contains content of an adult nature. Parents may want to consider whether it's appropriate for all ages.

“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.”

Human trafficking survivor Dixie Shannon
Credit APR's Pat Duggins

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.’”

Crystal Yarbrough of the Rose Center in Mobile
Credit APR's Pat Duggins

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.

Researchers who study trafficking consider Alabama to be a microcosm of what’s going on in the U.S. In other words, the problem is here and issues in Alabama are likely occurring everywhere. One way to put trafficking into focus in Alabama is by looking at the numbers.

“The fact is that there’s a prevalence of human trafficking throughout the entire state,” said Christian Lim, who 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. Lim said the final number was nearly 1,200, and that’s not the disquieting part.

Credit Pixabay

“Clearly whatever we recovering is a smaller percentage of what’s happening,” he said.

So small, Lim believes, 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, just in 2017. Lim said the point is that authorities know what they know, but that's it.

“If you flip that on their head, 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,” Lim 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 in 2017.

Gary Warner is a computer analyst in Birmingham.

“The biggest problem with getting a realistic number is that the only people who know what’s going on are the participants,” he said of the buyers and sellers of sex trafficking, known as Johns and pimps, “and they’re not likely to report the situation."

Gary Warner, Director of the UAB Computer Forensics Research Lab
Credit UAB

At least, not voluntarily. And that’s where Warner comes in. If you look at trafficking like a business, there is a point where some traffickers come out in the open. Like most businesses, you have sellers, you have buyers, and you have merchandise, which happens to be people. And, like most business owners in Alabama, traffickers advertise.

“If we go down further, it says, 'Hey daddy, if you’re looking for….' and that’s about all we’re able to say about this ad on the radio,'” Warner said. “'But, if you want to have a great time, contact me.' And, it lists the telephone number again.”

Warner sits in front of a large computer screen. It’s cluttered with online ads in Birmingham featuring pictures of young women. Some are unclothed. Others are performing sex acts. And many of the messages get specific.

“And, in this case, she describes many different sex acts she’ll perform, and then the prices go as low as $10 for these services, up to $100, if you want to her to spend the night with you,” Warner said.

The ads on Warner’s computer screen are basic. No flashy videos or graphics. Just a photo and a price list. None of these ads gives details on this person may be going through.

“I was forced to stay in a motel room. I was basically in a box for a year,” Dixie Shannon said.

She lives in central Alabama. Shannon isn’t in any of the sex ads on Warner’s computer screen. But, the experience she shared with APR showed what it was like to be trafficked. Shannon said it didn’t just start with Johns with handfuls of cash. Her trafficker had a process, first. It’s referred to as grooming.

Human trafficking survivor Dixie Shannon
Credit APR's Pat Duggins

“There was many episodes where, you know like, he would test me many times, and use different forms of punishment,” Shannon said. “He would break me down until I was nothing. And then, he would build me a little bit from that, then break me down, and keep rebuilding me, and breaking me down.”

Part of Shannon’s grooming process was on how to use internet sex ads to drum up business. She was trafficked twice. First when Shannon was 17, then again in her mid-twenties as she was going through a divorce.

Warner isn’t alone studying sex trafficking ads in Alabama. Outside his office, there’s a workroom where analysts sit hunched over their own PC’s. One of them arrived late. She had a test in Western Civilization class. This is the computer forensics lab at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. Outside the lab, other UAB students prepare for their next class. Inside the lab, Warner’s crew works to dredge the seamy underbelly of the internet. Technically, their main client is Facebook. But, Warner and his team aren’t looking just for irritating pop-up ads.

“We do this in the area of terrorism, in opioid and fentanyl trafficking, and we were doing this in the area of sex trafficking for Facebook,” Warner said.

When it comes to sex trafficking in Alabama, Warner said Alabamians are more likely to use the web to arrange hook-ups. Particularly in larger cities like Mobile, Birmingham and Huntsville.

“[It's] largely because we don’t have the same organized crime structure as some of the larger cities,” Warner said.

And, that makes them easier to track. Remember that number of human trafficking ads? The 641,000 for Alabama in 2017? That may sound impressive, but Warner’s job is to look below the surface, and his result is different.

“It’s a much smaller than 641,000, but it’s a pretty large number,” he said.

Warner's students use computers to scrape the internet. Their system logs onto trafficking sites and chat rooms and studies the ads for sexual services. That sifting process shows not all of Alabama’s sex trafficking ads in 2017 were what they appeared to be.

“A lot of these websites where you see these ads aren’t making their money by the girls who are being trafficked,” Warner said. “They’re making their money by affiliate programs that are selling pornography.”

Warner and his team pick a day at random and used their computer tools to look at the commercial sex trade in Birmingham, Mobile, Montgomery and Huntsville.

“In Birmingham, we had 251 ads,” Warner said. “In Mobile, we had 114. In Huntsville, we had 160, and in Montgomery we had 89, which is about 550 ads, roughly, for a single day in four major cities in Alabama. Five hundred and fifty distinctly different advertisements.”

Credit Pixabay

Five hundred and sixty when you total it up. Alabama is a small and rural location for trafficking compared to say Atlanta, which is a considered a main hub in the southeast. Warner’ calls up Atlanta’s numbers for the same day as Mobile, Montgomery, Birmingham and Huntsville.

“We get 20 ads per hour, which is higher than any city in Alabama," he said.

But, if that hourly rate kept up for the whole day, Atlanta’s total would be 480 ads. That’s less than the 560 ads for the Alabama cities in Warner’s study. The possible takeaway could be that Alabama may be small, but maybe not insignifcant. 

“If we go to these ads…Birmingham ads,” Warner explained while looking at the pictures, “I’m on one of these sites. But, this one, you’ll notice the time stamp on these, and these are Birmingham, Alabama ads...One says 25 minutes ago, one has 33 minutes, two hours ago, there are several listed."

Warner clicked on one photo and then told the computer to scan the web for other pictures exactly like it. Ad after ad appears with the same girl, in the same pose as the original.

“The fact it’s across many different websites, that aren’t necessarily selling escort services, and the fact that the person is being called different names in the photos, makes it more likely that they’ve stolen an image,” Warner said.

Then, Warner called up another example.

“And, in this case, the only copy of this image is the website we’re looking for,” Warner said. “This is likely going to be that individual.”

And, Warner said the trail of clues doesn’t end with whether a sex trafficking ad is real or not. It can also track if these young women are moving into and out of Alabama, either alone are in groups.

“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,” he said.

The trafficking roadshow Warner is describing typically starts in Atlanta. From Atlanta, the next step is often interstate 20, which runs from Georgia west into Alabama. It also splits into I-59 running between Birmingham northeast to Chattanooga. Warner said those stretches of highway have already earned a reputation among human trafficking support groups.

Interstate 20/59, known as a "superhighway" for traffickers and their victims.
Credit APR's Pat Duggins

“There are certainly girls who are trafficked up and down the I-20 corridor. They certainly stop in Birmingham and provide services here,” Warner said.

It’s easy to get the impression that Warner is focused on the numbers. He keeps the good data is finds on sex trafficking, and discards the bad. But, chasing cybercriminals isn’t what got him into this line of work.

“I had a daughter who was very troubled,” Warner said. “She had drug problems and sexual identity problems. [She] went through some very hard times."

As a result, Warner and his wife began supporting the anti-human trafficking group A21, which operates in 14 countries. They found it through their church.

“My daughter said ‘You know, a lot of girls in a situation like mine, their parents throw them out of the house, and they end up getting trafficked. So, I’m glad that you’re supporting that,'" he said. "We lost our daughter a few years after that and personally got involved in fighting human trafficking in memory of my daughter after that, to tell the truth.”

APR heard similar stories on how runaways end up being trafficked.

“I shut down from my family and everyone I knew to trust, but I developed a pure 15, 16, 17, normal rebellion as well,” Shannon said. “I just got fed up and tired, with what I was seeing in my family...I didn’t beat to the drum they beat to, so I ran away from home.”

Within a short time, Shannon was being trafficked. Her first Johns were college students from Georgia. The National Human Trafficking hotline quotes a study in Chicago that says 56 percent of women in the sex trade start off as runaways. This raises a sensitive question. Just because someone is a prostitute, does that automatically mean they’re being trafficked? Even support groups for trafficking survivors disagree on this, but Warner doesn’t.

“Our interpretation, and having talked to many sociologists and criminologists, about this…there are few volunteer sex workers,” Warner said. “Even if you claim you’re a volunteer, your economic situation has likely drove you to this point of desperation.”

The FBI says a young person in the sex trade is considered a trafficking victim. Adults have to be forced into it through coercion, fraud or deception. None of the women pictured in the ads Warner showed us appear afraid. He said they don’t need to.

“There may be some people who are doing this for kicks and money. But, usually there’s some form of abuse or harm in the past that caused them to gravitate to this line of work,” Warner said.

National studies put the average age of a sex trafficking victim in the U.S. ranges from 12 to 15 years old, where the notion of choice doesn’t enter into it.

"So, I think we have more familial trafficking," says Teresa Collier. She’s with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, also known as ALEA. She’s considered the state’s point person on human trafficking. Collier works for ALEA’s Fusion center which deals in intelligence. That means she spends a lot of time interacting with federal and local law enforcement. Collier also does lots of interviews in the field with victims of trafficking in Alabama. And, she says she’s noticed a pattern.

Credit ALEA

"You might have a mom, where the only way she can keep her house or wherever she’s staying, is to let her landlord get access, sexual access, to her kid. That happens quite a bit,” she says.

In other words, familial trafficking.

“The abuse started for me, with him, just before my first birthday,” says Kelly Dore, a survivor of familial trafficking. 

"And then it transpired, and when I was two and a half to three, he was allowing other people to abuse me," recalls Dore. 

With familial trafficking, instead of someone coming in from the outside, a mother or father, or an aunt or an uncle, is the trafficker and a younger family member is the victim. You’ve heard from survivors who describe how traffickers preyed on their weaknesses to draw them in. Kelly Dore says her experience was more direct.

“He had threatened over and over that he would kill my mother, he would kill my brother, he would kill my grandparents on my mom’s side,” says Dore.

Credit Pixabay

Teresa Collier says she concerned familial trafficking in Alabama isn’t just an issue—it could very well be the issue.

"The only reason I say that I feel like there’s so much familial pimping is because of my role as a forensic interviewer and I know what I have seen," she say.

“I would say it’s likely, of course,” says Wendy Bradford. She lives in Jackson, Mississippi. Bradford’s support of Teresa Collier’s position comes with a condition and it’s a big one.

"But I’ll say the same thing people said to me before we started the project, and that was you have to have the numbers,” says Bradford.

Collier says the project Bradford is referring to is why she considers Mississippi to be pretty much the gold standard when it comes to measuring familial trafficking.

“Basically, they took four counties in rural Mississippi, and they surveyed the children’s advocacy centers and other victims’ service providers, just top find out the most common type of trafficking that was going on, and it was familial,” says Collier.

Credit visitmississippi.org

So, we hit the road for Jackson, Mississippi to meet with Bradford.

“I was the liaison of the project," says Bradford. "I was one of the authors of the project, I was the editor of the project."

The human trafficking group Shared Hope teamed up with Belhaven University. Bradford founded the support group Beautiful Ones Ministries, which also took part. Thirty six interviews were conducted in the four counties surrounding Jackson. Bradford says Prosecutors were invited to talk, along with judges, service providers, law enforcement, and governmental agencies.

“So, nobody really, really, knew what the problem was. Most people were like…’we don’t have that here,’ like most other states and small towns…’we don’t have that here,’" says Bradford. 

But, the study said otherwise. Familial trafficking was identified during interviews as the most common form of exploitation-- more than gang related, pimp related, or survival sex. That’s where minors sell sexual favors for either food or drugs. Bradford says a lack of education was one common factor leading to familial trafficking, and there was one more.

”I knew that poverty, obviously, is an issue in Mississippi. It’s…I mean, come on, it’s an issue just about anywhere in any state that you have," she says. "It’s just we happen to be in the bottom end of the barrel. That’s not a very popular answer, but it’s true…it’s just true.”

A general lack of awareness of trafficking was also pointed out as an issue. Bradford says there were also sympathy gaps among the officials who sat down to talk.

“Because it was so clear that they were looking at teenagers as prostitutes…calling them those names," she says.

Bradford says that was especially troubling because the people being questioned were the ones handling child sex trafficking cases. “You can’t bring awareness to that. You can’t open somebody’s eyes to that, at the place where they were. And, I wasn’t even sure how, to do that. So, we didn’t. We just cut the interview short,” Bradford says.

The final report in Mississippi also points to cultural issues that make some families more prone to trafficking their own children. That doesn’t appear to be a new topic.

“You know, a few years ago…gosh, looking back it was twenty years ago,” says Kelly Dore. Earlier, she described her experience as a victim of familial trafficking. She lives in Colorado. APR sought her out for an interview not just because she’s a survivor, but what she did about it. Dore currently helps write anti-trafficking legislation on the state and federal level. That interest was not only prompted by her own abuse, but an experience she had as an undergrad in college. Dore says she accompanied a professor to the Ozarks for a speaking tour.

"And, she was talking about how it wasn’t normal to have sexual relations with members in your family," Dore recalls. "And if someone in your family has been abusing you, or perpetrating on you, then what are you rights? You have the right to notify authorities and ask for help.” Dore says that’s when the situation went a little sideways.

“Several of the women got uncomfortable and they started walking away," says Dore. She chased after them to ask what was wrong. And, they told her.

“ In our culture, and with our families," Dore recalls. "If you’re over the age of sixteen and you have not been had by a male member of your family, then you’re not a woman.”

Wendy Bradford agrees with the notion of culture playing a role in familial trafficking. Her point is that no one should consider this just a southern thing.

“Why wouldn’t that kind of stuff occur…with poverty. It happens on the other side of the world, in Cambodia…I’ve visited Cambodia. The poverty over there…you’re celebrated If you have a girl, because she’s going to provide for you, through trafficking,” asys Bradford.

But, how does all figure into potential familial trafficking in Alabama? Bradford agrees that Alabama and Mississippi look a lot alike in terms of rural population, poverty, and a lack of education. All of these elements were pointed out in Mississippi’s report as factors related to familial trafficking. But, Bradford says that’s not enough…

“Unless someone is willing to pick up the torch, and do the research, and go through some type of thing like we went through. And say ‘okay, guys here are our statistics in Alabama.’ They told me we weren’t going to move forward unless we had statistics. That we’re not to going to get support," says Bradford.

“I tell law enforcement, and also the DA’s…’hey, this is a trafficking case,’" says Teresa Collier. "And whether they want pursue that or not, most of the time they don’t. Because it easier to do a lesser type of charge, like a sex abuse or something like that…it’s just easier for them to do that.”

And, both the tough sell and the tough audience show no apparent signs of changing, at least not yet.

Survivors of human trafficking in Alabama have advocates who work on their behalf. These people say they deal with a general public that seems at least uninformed about it. Then, there are the cultural stereotypes.

“That’s a great question, because I think there’s a big misnomer,” Christian Lim said. He’s leading a team at the University of Alabama’s School of Social Work on projects related to human trafficking in the state.

“That’s because of movies and videos that have been popular over the last 10 years,” he said.

And one Hollywood film people like Christian Lim love to hate is the movie Taken with actor Liam Neesen. The action flick may be an exciting depiction of human trafficking, but Lim said that’s all.

"It’s more insidious than throwing a bag over someone’s head and throwing them in a van,” he said.

Here’s how the FBI says trafficking works. For an adult to be a victim of trafficking, that person has to be forced into it. That happens through coercion, fraud or deception. If an underage minor is involved in commercial sex, that young person is automatically considered a trafficking victim under the law.

Credit The Wellhouse

“He drugged me, and I woke up in a hotel room, naked on a bed, and I no idea how I got there, or anything,” said “Ace." 

She’s 19. That’s not her real name, but that’s how she wants to be called for this program. ACE was 16 when she trafficked along the Mississippi gulf coast.

We met ACE at a cafe. We sat in a booth in a quiet corner as she talked about what happened to her three years ago.

“I was being bullied real bad in school,” Ace said, “and I just found out I had cancer for the first time. I had told my teachers and counselors, and they weren’t anything about it, so I was just gonna try and meet somebody and see if I can hang out for the weekend, and then come back and …be fine and go back to school. But, they had other plans.”

A report by Polaris, a human trafficking victims support group, says ACE isn’t alone. Case data from The National Human Trafficking Hotline between 2015 and 2017 includes calls from over 800 victims who say they were recruited online. That’s where ACE said it started for her on a chat room.

“You can post something, and people can start a chat with you over it,” she said. “I’d posted I really needed someone to talk to because I was so depressed, and I felt like I didn’t have anyone at home to talk to."

Ace  said someone who seemed sympathetic started chatting offline. Then he suggested a face to face meeting. ACE was 16 at the time. One of her family saw her trying to sneak out and stopped her. More chatting followed. Then, the second time, ACE got away and met this person in the parking lot of a big box store.

“He kept asking if I had any siblings, and I wouldn’t give that answer,” Ace said. “I didn’t think it was bad at the time, but looking back now on our conversation. I should’ve known something wasn’t right.”

“It’s almost like they’re honed into that,” said Sharon Robbins lives along the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

She founded the advocacy group Jubilee Havens Ministry, which works with survivors of trafficking Robbins is referring to how traffickers draw in their intended victims.

“A trafficker or pimp will actually find out your weaknesses by the way you’re dressed, or the way your personality is,” Robbins said. “Like if you’re insecure, or you need approval, or you seem needy.”

Robbins’ expertise is no theory. She was trafficked herself in the late 1970s.

“So, me being already abused as a child, I had insecurities, I was an introvert, and they…picked up on that,” she said.

ACE and Sharon Robbins represent two generations of trafficking victims. While ACE’s pimp found her on the internet, the man who trafficked Robbins took a more personal approach. She left home as a teenager and started working in a café.

“So, he used the tactic of…well, I’m young…I’m 17, 18 years old… and, I’m on my own…I’m living alone, and, I need money, and maybe nobody’s going to miss me because my family doesn’t even live in the same state,” she said. “He found all that information just by coming in and having breakfast every day.”

Promises of money and reassurance led to a job at the customer’s strip club. Robbins said her trafficker used a combination of drugs and alcohol to get her up on stage. Then, he said something that many victims of trafficking say they eventually hear.

“Now, I’ve done all this for you, now I need you to do this…because we need money,” Robbins said.

That meant commercial sex.

“A had a couple of private instances where he would take me to a private room…the boss…just to find out a little bit more about my weaknesses before actually being sold,” Robbins said. "I think he was trying to feel me out, to see how easy or hard it was going to be.”

Credit End It Alabama

Another thing both Robbins and ACE they have in common is both were rescued. Robbins says she was back at the strip club one day, when a family member showed up.

“And he walked into the club, and sat down at the front table,” she said, “and I walked out on stage and I was under the influence of alcohol, but when I saw him I freaked.”

Back at our café booth, ACE recalls how a routine traffic stop, with her trafficker behind the wheel and her in the back seat, led to her rescue. She’s back home and the ordeal is over, except for the nightmares. One in particular.

“I’ll be at home, and my family will be there, and I’ll be in my room because it’s further down the hall in the back, and I’ll have my door closed,” Ace said. “I’ll just be in there and I’ll hear two gun shots, and I’ll hear my siblings screaming, and I’ll run out of my room with my bb-gun, and I’ll see the people who tried to sell me, with my siblings. And they’ll have a gun to their head, and I’ll see my parent’s bodies on the floor. And, they’ll grab me and I’ll be begging for them to let my siblings go, and just take me."

Even for victims of trafficking who are rescued, some things don’t go away.

“She was one of the most traumatized young females I think I’ve ever interviewed,” recalls Tuscaloosa Police Lieutenant Darren Beams. He runs the West Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force. Beams used to work homicide. He recalls the one case that convinced him trafficking was worse.

“She’d been in the trafficking world since she was twelve, she had been forcibly raped since she was twelve, she had a baby when she was sixteen," says Beams. "The baby was placed in the microwave oven by a trafficker. He threatened to turn it on. So, he kept her in that life.”

A technician for the West Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force prepares for a undercover sting operation
Credit APR's Pat Duggins

Tonight, Beams and the Task Force ar going hunting with an undercover sting operation at a Tuscaloosa County motel. The group of law officers representing four departments is about to net its first suspect of the night. One of the female officers is alone in a guest room as a potential John arrives to talk price. Four more members of the task force are standing outside the back door to the room. First bust The handcuffs go on and the first suspect is ushered out for booking. One observer for tonight’s sting is Christian Lim. You heard from him earlier in our series. Lim is leading a human trafficking project at the University of Alabama’s College of Social Work. He says he has something in mind that could be a new tool to aid both victims of trafficking and the people who try to help them.

“The best practice, and what I’ve seen actually work, is when they’re sitting down at the table, along with law enforcement, along with mental health, along with probation and other people, working together to find a solution for this victim," says Lim.

Lim and his team are designing what’s called the first ever internet database meant to be used by everyone involved with trafficking victims. That includes law enforcement, social service groups, and even the victims themselves. But Lim admits, the database is the easy part. It’s changing mindsets that gets tricky.

“Yeah, it’s a huge shift, and not just for law enforcement, it’s a big shift for all the partners involved," asserts Lim. 

Here’s what Lim means by a big shift.

“The shift is understanding that your role is important and is essential, but so is the role of the person I had previously been viewing as my adversary—that their role is essential and important, and both in justice, but in recovery and restoration," says Lim.

Lim spent fourteen years with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. For law offficers like him, the shift means getting officers past the stereotype that they arrest the bad guys and social workers give them a hug.

“It was hard,” says Tuscaloosa police Lieutenant Darren Beams. “When we started training in the department, we had a lot of officers that resisted, transitioning from a criminal to a victim approach.”

A victim approach means establishing whether a sex worker was forced by a trafficker. If an underage minor is involved in the sex trade, they’re automatically considered a victim of trafficking. Adults have to be coerced or lured in by fraud or deception. Lieutenant Beams says there’s a catch.

“A lot of them that are involved in commercial sex know the language we’re looking for. In other words, people in handcuffs tend to lie… They know the clues that we’re looking. But, we still a have few…little things in our bag…little tools in our bag that we identify those who are not telling the truth," he says.

But, the notion of law enforcement and social services working hand in glove with social workers has its supporters.

“We can’t do what we do without law enforcement. We can do maybe a quarter of it," says Crystal Yarborough. She lives in Mobile. Yarbrough runs a shelter for people in the sex trade along the Gulf Coast, and she knows about the distrust between social workers and the police.

Crystal Yarbrough at the Rose Center, a drop-in center for sex workers along the Alabama Gulf coast
Credit APR's Pat Duggins

“A lot of times service providers are so victim centered, that they tend to be anti-law enforcement. Sometimes law enforcement is so law enforcement that they tend to be anti-victim services," says Yarbrough. 

She sees this world from an undercover operation of her own. Not far from downtown Mobile…we won’t say how far, is a small house in a quiet neighborhood…we won’t say which one. It’s called the Rose Center.

“We do everything a residential facility does, we just don’t house them overnight,” says Yarbrough.

That’s what a drop-in center means. Sex workers and victims of trafficking can sleep, eat, wash their clothes, and get counseling. That’s why we’re keeping the location a secret. Yarborough doesn’t want traffickers or former johns showing up. She says the first stop for new clients is by the front door. It’s a white cabinet with a padlock.

“If the girl’s carry something on them, sometimes it’s a knife, sometimes they carry a gun for protection. Most of the time they don’t bring it in with them, but we do ask them if you have it with you, we lock it up," says Yarbrough.

Yarborough is already a believer in the idea of changing mindsets among law enforcement and care givers when it comes to help victims of sex trafficking. But, not just so cops and social workers get along. Yarborough says the victims benefit, too.

Credit Pixabay

“They need to know, they’ve been really manipulated to believe that law enforcement is against them, they tend to already have this mindset. And we want to change that mindset, because we’re all a community," she says.

Yarborough recalls one case that shows how traumatic being trafficking can be. The victim couldn’t express how she was feeling through words. Yarborough communicated with a sheet of paper with four boxes. The first box had a happy face drawn on it with words associated with being happy. The others had faces and words for sadness, fear, and anger.

“She pointed to mad, sad, afraid and suspicious," Yarbrough recalls.

The Rose Center operates only two drop-in centers in the U.S. The one we’re visiting in the Mobile, which serves the Gulf Coast between Alabama and New Orleans. The second one is in Green Bay, Wisconsin, which represents a twist when it comes to changing mindsets. Yarborough is referring to acceptance that there’s sex trafficking going on in a given community. She says people in the deep South respond differently from those in the Midwest.

“In the Midwest, it’s very much like ‘let’s fix that, what can I do about that?’ 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,’” says Yarbrough.

And, as for announcing that the Rose Center would open in Mobile?

“I don’t think we told a lot of people," she says.

Back at the sting operation in Tuscaloosa, the arrests are trickling in. Without naming names, the list includes college aged young people, one member of the military, and a trucker who left his eighteen wheeler idling in the parking lot while he allegedly dropped in to buy sex. For Christian Lim, the next step is rolling out the University of Alabama’s shared trafficking database. He says the goal is to make sure trafficking victims don’t get lost in the cracks...

“And so, you have a system that’s working now to truly find justice, and help this person toward restoration, as opposed to in the case of a defense attorney and prosecuting attorney, a couple of professionals working to win a case," says Lim.

And Lieutenant Beams and the West Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force will play a part in that. His team is being asked to help train state law officers in how the task force operates. Beams says that includes his own officers who once opposed treating sex workers as possible victims of trafficking.

“It was hard, and it was difficult to change the mindset," says Beams. "And across the state I think it’s still difficult, cause we’re one of the only task forces running right not that address it like we do.”

And perhaps changing more mindsets one at a time.

“Seeing Steve stand over him like he was beating him like he was…I can feel every thump that went across his body. Billy Jack Gaither was finally dead.”

About a half dozen students are gathered at Auburn University’s campus in Montgomery watching the documentary “Assault on Gay America.” It tells the story of how Billy Jack Gaither was beaten to death with an axe handle. The message is, in Alabama, violence against gay people is not a hate crime.

The crowd was bigger for this talk at the Alabama capitol. Auburn professor Dr. Paul Hard organized the 20th annual Vigil for Hate Crime and Violence.

“If you’re grateful for the nice weather in spite of everything they were telling us would you just say, yes!” Hard said.

“Yes!” the crowd responded.

On one side of Hard is the flag of Alabama, on the other is rainbow Gay Pride flag. But he wasn’t the only speaker.

“We couldn’t go any further today without taking a moment to recognize those who are here as our allies our supporters our fellow family members,” Hard said.

Daroenshia Duncan Boyd is a transgender woman of color. She’s the CEO of a group called Alabama’s TAKE, which stands for Transgender Advocates Knowledge and Empowering.

“I’m super excited to be here. Like I said I hate I had to come in honor of 20 years for this vigil, but this is the best place to be at because often time we know that trans women of color don’t have a voice in the race,” Boyd said.

The message of the night’s gathering is that violence against gay or transgender people needs to be considered a hate crime. But that’s not Boyd’s only concern.

We sat down with Boyd at TAKE headquarters in Birmingham, where the agenda is a little different. TAKE helps trans women of color including those who work in the sex trade, an industry Daroneshia knows about.

“Oh girl I was inside my house and the first person believe it or not it was first person was a lawyer,” Boyd said.

Boyd performed sex acts for money.

“He was a lawyer so it was a great experience and it wasn’t, it was something different for me because he wasn’t my ideal type of guy. But oh well I made it work and made over like $400 plus $500 or whatever so I wasn’t complaining about it that first time. But then again it got harder as they days progressed honey because everybody isn’t going give you $400 and $500 so just being real with yourself and knowing that sometimes you’re going to have to work with $40 or something,” Boyd said.

And her reason for turning to sex work is simple.

“I had to turn to it because inn wasn’t meeting. I had lost a job and I was working. I had unemployment and unemployment was only $180 or $190 something a week,” she said.

Boyd said she was never under the control of a pimp, but she said others in the LGBTQ community are.

“Not being able to find stable income, stable housing, so you have to do something in order to survive,” she said.

This is where Boyd begins to address the issue of gay and transgender trafficking. For many teenagers, it starts with running away from home, typically over arguments with their parents. Boyd said being gay on top of being a teenager can complicate things.

“A lot of youth are forced out of their homes. Especially here…conservative…evangelical Christian, and all that stuff in a red state. If you’re pushed out of the house from your family, you don’t have support or whatever…You’re going to have to find a way to survive,” she said.  

The human trafficking support group Polaris said 40 percent of homeless youths in the U.S. identify as LGBTQ. Homelessness is considered a key factor for young people who end up being trafficked. Boyd’s job is try to turn these young people around, like she did.

“Because I had someone to tell me that there was hope when I spent 13.5 years using cocaine I knew that one day I would be delivered. When I was running the streets and I was stunting and I was stealing I knew that one day I would be delivered. And I wasn’t doing this because I wanted to do it for fun. I was doing it because I had to survive,” Boyd said.

For Boyd that meant survival sex. Trafficking involves a pimp and the FBI says if someone sells a minor for commercial sex, the law considers that young person to be a victim of trafficking.

In the Huntsville area a lot of these young people come here.

Safe Harbor Youth is a Transitional Living Program for youth, ages 16-22, who have run away from home are neglected homeless living on the streets or victims of human trafficking.

“Most of our kids identify as bisexual and that’s because they’ve been sold to this person or that person,” said Lynn Caffrey, who runs safe harbor youth.

She was also a victim of child sex trafficking where he was sold to both men and women.

“Saying it’s a push to be gay, that’s not true. Well in human trafficking, like me I was sold to both males and females so I had to make a choice when I got my life changed. Do I want to be gay do I want to be straight? You have to really learn who you really are. And a lot of times they don’t know who they really are when they are that young,” Caffrey said.

Caffrey said teens who identify as transgender might have it the toughest when it comes to acceptance, particularly at home. But, Caffrey has opinions of her own when it comes to LGBTQ young people living in a conservative state like Alabama. 

“Religion, Bible belt, the South is so huge on it. But if you look at the book the Bible it says, ‘judge not and you shall not be judged,’” Caffrey said.

Caffrey carries that message to Alabama’s faithful, in the form of talks at local churches.

“Like when I speak in churches and stuff, if you come to my house and you see a kid dressed in drag when you come to my house, don’t judge them. That’s not what you are coming there for. If you can’t come there with an open mind and understand that they’re humans, they’re just like me and you. We are just like me and you but they have different sexualities. We are not here to judge them on their sexualities,” Caffrey said.

Back at TAKEN’s office in Birmingham Boyd talks about the constant struggle to keep at-risk clients who also happen to be gay or transgender from falling in the trap of being trafficked.

“When you are vulnerable, especially the ladies that experience substance abuse, they basically settle for this condition, not knowing that it’s really toxic,” Boyd said.

For Boyd, the story of one girl she knew comes to mind. She was 15 years old, pushed out of her home, and took up with a man in his 40s  just to survive. Boyd said it doesn’t take much for a situation like that to go very badly.

“It’s a risky business, and it’s very dangerous, because you don’t if your next John will be…the person who will kill you,” Boyd said.

“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.

So far most of the focus has been on sex trafficking. Another major part of human trafficking is labor. 

Evelyn Chumbow is from Cameroon. She’s also a survivor of labor trafficking.

“The message I want you all to take back, to think about this, you’re dealing with humans. "These are human beings," she said. "Being a victim at such a young age, I have trauma but think about that, it could be your child, it could be your sister.” 

Chumbow told a panel of U.S. senators how she was brought to the United States from Africa. She expected to go to college. What she said she got was a life of slave labor. And the state says it’s happening here in Alabama.

Robin Wilburn is the child labor inspector supervisor for the Alabama Department of Labor. She’s also a new member of the Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force. Wilburn said many undocumented children are forced into jobs upon arriving in the U.S.

“We have children doing the job of an adult and they don’t have that level of safety that an adult would have," she said. “They’re also doing jobs that are long hours on their feet, cold conditions or very hot conditions it just depends on what job they have.”

Many of these children are working in meat processing plants, agriculture and construction. Most are coming from Central America, Guatemala in particular. Wilburn said they first have to find false ID’s to get these jobs.

“One of my young girls that was working at the meat processing plant, she was fired after two days because somebody else was already using that name and social security number,” she said.

And when her bosses found out, they don’t seem to worry.

 “They told her to get new papers and come back,” Wilburn said.

The process sounds cheap and easy if you’re okay with breaking the law. But Wilburn said it’s not.

“In interviews with them, they’re paying anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 dollars. I don’t know who the source is they get their IDs from but most of the driver’s licenses that we looked at were from neighboring states, Tennessee and North Carolina," she said.

State raids on massage therapies in Huntsville made the news earlier this year. These are industries where sex trafficking and labor trafficking often overlap, just not clearly.

Doug Gilmer is the resident agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations for the Birmingham field office. He said when it comes to breaking the two down, you must look at them individually.

“Labor trafficking is not necessarily sex trafficking. Sex trafficking is always labor trafficking," he said. “The two main forms are sex trafficking which is the facilitation of a commercial sex act through force, fraud or coercion or in which the victim is under the age of 18.”

Defining labor trafficking is a little different.

“Labor trafficking is very similar in that it’s the use of fraud, force or coercion to employ, harbor, transport, and otherwise exploit a person for the purpose of forced labor, slavery, debt bondage or peonage," Gilmer said.

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Peonage is when people work off a debt with labor. Congress outlawed the practice in 1867, but it’s reportedly going on now in Alabama. Immigrants trying to make a new life for themselves cross paths with people looking to exploit their situation. Gilmer said many of these people are working in plain sight.

“They’re industries where there doesn’t have to be a lot of skilled labor. So it could be, housekeeping at a hotel, dishwashers at a restaurant, cooks, could be the agricultural industry, manufacturing those sorts of things," he said.

This is where the Alabama Board of Massage Therapy comes in. Keith Warren is the executive director of the board. 

“We have approximately 50 out of the 709 that we have licensed as massage therapy establishments or that calculates to seven percent of those that are out there that we have identified and participated in that kind of activity," he said.

The board licenses and regulates massage therapists, the parlors where they work, and schools where they learn their trade. The state also inspects these businesses and investigates them if necessary.  

Warren said there are several red flags to look out for when looking for some of these illegal operations.

“Those that fit the criteria basically have facilities close to the state lines, heavy traffic area like truck stops, heavy traffic exits around the state," he said.

The courts are still sorting out the high profile case in Florida against New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. It can argued that alleged Johns know what they’re looking for. Warren said how sex workers end up in situations like this may come as a shock.

“The information we’ve obtained through the investigations is that the conditions they are presented with and given when they are here are tremendously greater than the conditions they have where they originally came from," Warren said.

Massage therapies are a common front for human trafficking, but in Alabama the Massage Therapy Board is very active in fighting back.

“We are probably one of the very few states out of the fifty that have the authority to go and inspect an establishment and not have a complaint filed against them. So we are pretty much the lead in the nation when it comes to dealing with these kinds of complaints.”

Those fighting traffickers know the best way to stop the process is to take away their means of carrying out their practice. The state of Alabama has a new tool that helps in this effort, as well as offering another way to help the victims.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall's office came up with a new law that is designed to fight traffickers and help the victims at the same time by giving state prosecutors a specific power.

“It’s not too far akin to what we see in the fortitude side for criminal cases," he said. “To allow us in a civil setting to seek very immediate relief through a temporary restraining order and then subsequently a preliminary injunction when we are aware of a business that has been, is or will be engaged in human trafficking.”

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Before prosecutors could only charge traffickers with a crime, now the victims can hit massage business owners in their wallets. Marshall said the cases in Huntsville is the first time the state has been able to use the new law. 

“It’s a wonderful tool for us to then not only seek the immediate relief, shut down a business or businesses we believe are engaged in this effort and then allow the civil court to be able to allow the case to continue," he said.

Just last week Marshall’s office hosted a summit where he hopes to take what authorities have learned in Alabama and passing it along to others.

“The largest law enforcement gathering every year is one we host for training and we have the opportunity to set the agenda," he said. "One of the agenda blocks this year will be human trafficking. We’ll bring in some experts, gives us a chance to broaden the knowledge and expand the training and hopefully create more opportunities for enforcement.”

All of the law enforcement individuals we spoke to say they are trying to help the victims. Once someone is taken out of a trafficking situation, they try to help them get some stability in their lives. Wilburn said this is especially true when working with kids.

“The teenager is not in trouble, we’re not prosecuting them and that’s why a lot of times they’re willing to answer our questions, we’ve reiterated to them that they are not being held responsible, no penalty will be issued to them and we also do not deport, we are not immigration," she said.

“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.”

We chose to end our program here, not because of the questions and answers—but tonight, there’s a guest speaker. If Dixie Shannon’s name sounds familiar, it could be because she led off our program. The central Alabama resident was trafficked twice, first at the age of seventeen, and again in her mid-twenties. Afterwards, we caught up with Shannon to see how she thinks it went.

Human trafficking survivor Dixie Shannon addresses parents at Northport City Hall.
Credit APR's Pat Duggins

“I think it went good," says Shannon. "It was the first time I’ve ever spoken with families, I mean parents, I would have liked to have had more time with them. I would have liked to have had more q & a with them, but, I think it went really good."

And not just good for the audience. Shannon says tonight’s talk was good for her as well. 

“I think it’s really good for me, because I have my oldest kids that I have not really been haven’t be able to sit down with them about trafficking" she says. "So, it was really good it was really good practice for me to have for my children.”

Shannon’s children were growing up during the second time she was trafficked. And, when the time for that talk comes up, she says she’ll be ready…