Editor's note-- the following article contains material of an adult nature. Parents may want to consider whether it's appropriate for all ages.
“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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
Editor's note: If you or someone you know is being trafficked, Alabama Public Radio has a list of 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.