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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.
“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.”
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.
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.