Human Trafficking, and the "BEAMS" project...an APR news feature

Jan 23, 2020

The Alabama Public Radio news team spent fourteen months investigating the issue of human trafficking in Alabama. You can find that content at apr.org. The project meant talking with a lot of people, and there’s one part of the story that has taken until now to come together. It’s a University of Alabama project designed to help trafficking survivors, and to build trust where trust appears to be rare.

“Yeah, it’s a huge shift and not just for law enforcement, it’s a big shift for all of the partners involved,” said Christian Lim. He’s leading a team at the University of Alabama’s College of Social Work on what’s called the BEAMS project. That’s Bringing Exploitation of Alabama Minors to a Stop, for short. APR listeners last heard from Lim during the news team's fourteen month long investigation into human trafficking in Alabama. He says the College of Social Work is now unveiling a database at the heart of the effort.

“We’re looking at resources especially for victims of human trafficking," says Lim. "But, I mean really resources that the general public needs as well…educational resources, detox resources, counseling or mental health, medical resources.”

And, all sides of the trafficking survivors support equation gets to use the database all at once. The website includes links to services, training, and ways to report possible incidents of human trafficking. Certain subjects, like personal information on trafficking survivors, won’t be available. Lim says the point isn’t just to have a handy gadget.

“The trick is, with human trafficking and building kind of a community that’s working together collaboratively, is for everybody to understand the roles and responsibilities of each other,” Lim contends.

That community includes trafficking survivors, support groups, and one other constituency. Both Chris Lim and APR were invited to attend an all-night sting operation by the West Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force. Female officers from the Police Departments in Tuscaloosa, Northport, and the University of Alabama, along with the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff Department. Lim says the BEAMS database is part of a culture change for law enforcement, which is confirming whether the sex workers they arrest were coerced into that industry, which is a sign of trafficking.

“That’s important, not just for law enforcement, but it’s kind of a new thing for law enforcement. That’s something that law enforcement has really began to understand, really in the past ten years or so, in the U.S.”

“We are a team that interviews victims in a trauma setting," says Tuscaloosa Police Lieutenant Darren Beam. He leads the West Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force.

“We realize there’s a potential for a lifelong traumatization there, from family as well as a trafficker. And so that that starts the process for us and we’ve been pretty successful for that.”

So much so, that the local task force trains other law enforcement agencies around Alabama on how detect signs of coercion among sex workers that indicate trafficking. We talked with Lieutenant Beams about the website around the time of the all night sting operation. The data base was still in the works at that time, but Beams liked the idea.

“There are plenty of counties along the interstate that have a questionable hotel probably in their area of patrol that this information would be vital for them to have, because it’s not just the big cities. As we do more undercover operations, we’re pushing down to the smaller areas”

Lieutenant Beams also addressed the initial pushback from some officers in the task force who had to be convinced that seventy five percent of the sex workers they encountered locally showed signs of being trafficked. And law enforcement isn’t the only group that had to adjust to Lim’s vision that not everyone is out to get them.

“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 Crystal Yarbrough. She runs the Rose center. It’s a walk-in shelter where victims of trafficking can eat, get counseling, wash their clothes, among other things, except stay overnight.  The new database the University of Alabama is unveiling is in part to help survivors of trafficking. Yarbrough says getting a sex worker to trust in a new system isn’t a quick process. She points to one client at the Rose Center and how she reacted to house rules.

“She said ‘you tell me when I can have my cell phone, or I can’t have a cell phone, or what time I have to be here, whether or not I can lock the door, who I can and cannot talk to. I just got rid of a pimp, I don’t need another one.”

The rubber is likely to hit the road on the news website next week. This is from last year’s Alabama Human Trafficking Summit, which figured prominently in Alabama Public Radio’s fourteen month long investigation. Chris Lim is on the agenda for the year’s event, where he’ll roll out the BEAM’s website for the audience. The crowd will be made up of his law enforcement and trafficking support workers, people who apper likely to use the database.