Human trafficking in Alabama — How victims are lured in and what state lawmakers are doing about it

An at-risk teenager or vulnerable woman begins dating someone who showers her with gifts, takes her on dates, and woos her into loving and depending on him for care and protection – and, often, drugs.

She feels that he is her “boyfriend” even though, eventually, he tells her that she needs to perform sex acts with other men to pay the rent or pay for drugs or to keep his love and protection.

She complies.

Is she a victim of sexual abuse or human trafficking or is she a prostitute?

It’s the difficult-to-define-and-prosecute problem that often festers in the shadows, eluding law enforcement, social workers and lawmakers, said Pat McCay, secretary of the Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force.

“The problem with some of these cases is they are not recognized as human trafficking,” McCay said in an interview with Yellowhammer News. “It can look like sexual abuse or sexual assault. Women and girls will come in with bruises or emotional scars and even with the most well-trained people, if you don’t understand what human trafficking is or that it is going on in your community, it’s just not on your radar.”

LAWS AND LOOPHOLES

A growing army of advocates and legislators wants to cut through the confusion — by pushing human trafficking into public awareness, and by enacting stronger laws to strong-arm it out of Alabama.

State Rep. Jack Williams (R-Vestavia Hills) has been fighting human trafficking in Alabama since 2009 and last week introduced a bill in the state House that is designed to make it harder for human traffickers to get away with their crimes, particularly those involving minors.

“We’re broadening protection for [victims] by closing up loopholes that make it easier for traffickers to use methods other than force to lure folks into prostitution,” Williams said. “Now they’ll be held accountable for those other types of methods as well.”

The loophole he’s referencing is a requirement in current law that requires proof that a minor, defined as someone under the age of 18, was coerced or deceived into commercial sex acts in order for it to be established as a trafficking offense.

If coercion or deception is not proven, it means “not all commercially exploited children are defined as juvenile sex trafficking victims,” according to Washington-based human rights group Shared Hope International (SHI), who each year issues a national report card analyzing state human trafficking laws.

Alabama received an 83.5 “B” grade from SHI last year, in part, because of that snag in the law, according to the report.

HEART AND MIND CONTROL

In other words, some traffickers don’t use physical coercion or deceit to control their victims; they use emotional or psychological methods.

Williams’ bill would make sure human trafficking “sexual servitude” laws include those pulled into prostitution by such means and would put in place stricter criminal penalties for anyone engaged in trafficking or prostitution of a minor.

It’s an important move forward, because in many cases, victims may not even realize what they are involved in because they have been groomed and brainwashed into believing they are loved and in a consensual relationship, said Carolyn Potter, executive director of The WellHouse, a shelter and recovery facility serving human trafficking victims near Birmingham.

“A minor being kidnapped and sold into sex slavery is not the norm,” Potter told Yellowhammer News during an interview at The WellHouse’s peaceful facilities in Odenville. “What we see at The WellHouse is not like what you see in the movie ‘Taken’ [the Liam Neeson movie in which college girls are kidnapped on an overseas trip and sold to international buyers].”

Far more often, Potter said, those who come to The WellHouse may have different backgrounds, but their lives include a few strikingly similar events that have led them into commercial sex.

TRAFFICKING OFTEN BEGINS AT HOME

“I’d say 95 percent of the women who come to us are victims of childhood abuse at the hands of a family member or parent,” Potter said, giving as an example a brother-sister pair who were sold for sex by their mother while they were growing up. The children were not allowed outside and had to wear long sleeves and long pants to hide their bruises.

Such traumatic childhood events follow victims their whole lives, Potter said, and when a child gets to be about 12-13 years old, the victim — usually a girl, but not always — becomes vulnerable to traffickers who pretend to care for her. The trafficker is usually much older, perhaps a man in his 30s.

The relationship progresses much like the hypothetical example leading this article and can become violent — including beatings, rape and starvation if the girl does not meet her quotas for sex money—and swinging back to bouts of kindness, with the pimp being nice and providing her with a sense of security and family.

In other cases, the victim doesn’t necessarily think of herself as a victim, said Potter, which is why changing the law’s language to drop the deception and coercion requirement for minors is crucial in freeing young women who have been groomed by pimps to feel loved, cared for, and in a “50-50” consensual relationship with their “boyfriend”.

WHOSE MUGSHOT SHOULD BE IN THE PAPER?

Potter and McCay both said they long for legislation that would impose harsher penalties on anyone buying sex, particularly from a minor.

“The buyer’s picture should be in the paper, not the girl’s,” Potter said. “Part of this is educating people that these girls have been victims all their lives.”

McCay said the best answer is to “hit demand right between the eyes.”

“If you have a product and there’s no demand, it isn’t going to be on the shelf anymore. It’s basic economics,” McCay said. “Tennessee has created this law that if you are caught buying sex you get the same punishment as a trafficker – I would love to see that in Alabama.”

Williams said such a measure is not off the table and will come up in discussions and perhaps be added to the bill during the committee process.

“Prostitution is a demand-driven industry,” Williams said. “Were there not individuals purchasing sex, people wouldn’t be selling it.”

LENIENT LAWS?

Under current Alabama law, human trafficking is a Class A felony, but a sex purchaser might only get a $500 fine on the first offense, a $1,000 fine on the second offense, a $1,500 fine on the third offense (all misdemeanors), and be charged with a Class B felony on their fourth offense, Williams said.

Those fines apply even when the purchased sex is with a minor, though child abuse and other penalties may apply to the purchaser, he said.

The proposed law would also “prohibit a defendant accused of engaging in an act of prostitution with a minor from asserting a mistake of age defense,” according to the bill, which is currently under consideration in the House judiciary committee.

Williams is expected to introduce another human trafficking bill this week to address criminal trafficking activity in massage parlors, and the State Senate’s 2018 top legislative priorities include child sex trafficking.

LEARN MORE

Williams, McCay and Potter are among twelve speakers scheduled to present at the 4th annual Alabama Human Trafficking Summit hosted by the state task force on Friday, February 9, in Montgomery.

The event is open to the public and registration details may be found here.

Rachel Blackmon Bryars is managing editor of Yellowhammer News.

7 mins ago

Lisa Thomas-McMillan is a 2020 Woman of Impact

For Lisa Thomas-McMillan, it is the newness of each day that motivates her from the minute she opens her eyes.

Thomas-McMillan, founder of Drexell & Honeybee’s in Brewton, told Yellowhammer News in a recent interview that the excitement of discovering what each day holds propels her out of bed and to her restaurant as soon as she awakens before dawn.

“I don’t know what my day is going to bring,” she offered. “I don’t know what that day is going to bring to me. You don’t ever know who you are going to help and how you are going to help them.”

Helping people is something she has made her mission for a large part of her life. A donation-only restaurant, Drexell & Honeybees is a frequent deliverer of the unknowns in which Thomas-McMillan so often revels.

She recalls one day finding a note in the donation box with a message saying that Thomas-McMillan had provided meals for a family of four who had no means to do so themselves. Being unable to recall who might have fit that description in her restaurant the previous day was exactly the way she wanted it. According to her, the “beauty” of the unknown is that names and faces are less important than the simple act of service.

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Stories like that shed light on why Thomas-McMillan took up the cause of hunger and has built a model recognized across the nation as an innovative charitable solution to feeding those in need.

“People suffer from hunger in silence,” she remarked.

So she decided to do something about it.

“People know a lot more about hunger now than 20 years ago,” Thomas-McMillan explained. “It was kind of something that people didn’t talk about. Getting around town and speaking to the elderly people in my hometown I realized a lot of them were choosing between medicine and food. So I started a non-profit food bank called Carlisa, Inc. By doing that I got a chance to go out in the rural areas delivering food, but I was also learning a lot about how people were living, some of the things they were kind of missing out on in life. Over the years, I said in my mind, wouldn’t it be nice to have a place where people could just go and eat and not have to worry about paying for anything.”

It was reading about a restaurant called “Soul Food,” and started by musician Jon Bon Jovi, that got her wheels turning.

“It fascinated me that he was doing this pay it forward thing,” she remembered.

Inspired by the story, she decided she wanted to open a similar restaurant.

After presenting the concept to her husband, Freddie, the couple set in motion plans which resulted in the opening of Drexell & Honeybees.

“We wanted it to be a place where everyone could fit in and feel comfortable and know they were in a good place with good food,” Thomas-McMillan said. “We wanted also to set it up where nobody would know who paid or if they paid or how much.”

And, so, they devised a private box for donations, a key feature of the restaurant’s function.

“One thing I learned over the years in delivering food is that people might not have money but they have pride,” she said. “I knew a lot of people would not come in if their pride would be questioned. So we set it up where they keep every inch of their pride, come in and enjoy a meal and walk out just like anybody else.”

Another part of the payoff for Thomas-McMillan is seeing what happens when people and food happen at the same time.

“I love to see people enjoy food,” she said. “Food is a great, warm thing that brings people together, makes them fellowship. When you see a group of people sitting around and enjoying food, they’re fellowshipping and enjoying each other. And that’s what the restaurant is all about, bringing different people in and saying, ‘I don’t even know you, maybe, but I’m sitting around this table sitting around this table having a good meal, enjoying the food, and I’m fellowshipping with a stranger.’ It is the best feeling in the world.”

It took quite a leap by Thomas-McMillan to arrive at this point, and along the way, it was her faith which played “the biggest role,” according to her.

Facing doubts from the outside that she and Freddie could make Drexell & Honeybees work, they were undeterred. As far as they were concerned, God gave them a mission, and they were going to fulfill it.

“The good feeling, the joy deep down in your stomach that you get from doing something like this,” she pointed out. “Money can’t buy the faith or the joy or the peace of mind. Those are priceless benefits that we get from this.”

People travel from all over asking if she thinks they would be able to replicate her mission. To which she replies, they can, and all it takes is faith and a sincere desire to serve others.

“Being in service to others is the best thing you can do,” said Thomas-McMillan. “After all, we were put on earth to help each other. Serving others is the highest compliment you can pay God for Him giving you your health and strength and keeping you sustained through everything. No matter what happens, God is going to take care of you.”

This does not mean her faith has not been put to the test during her years fighting hunger.

“I didn’t think people were taking [hunger] serious enough,” explained Thomas-McMillan.

So she prayed for guidance and felt a call to walk to Montgomery — from Brewton. Her goal was to hand-deliver a letter outlining her concerns for the hungry to then-Governor Bob Riley. After walking the approximately 115 miles, that is what she did.

Still feeling unsettled, Thomas-McMillan then felt called to walk all the way to Washington, D.C. to draw attention to her cause.

She laughs now looking back at hearing people say the walk was staged.

Thomas-McMillan remembers saying, “’Are you crazy? Do you know what it would have taken to fake a 53-day walk to Washington? It would not have been worth my time [to fake it].’”

Not only did the walk to Washington gain notice, but it also allowed her to explore the depth of her own conviction to help feed the hungry.

Before she had even left the state of Alabama, someone near Tuskegee asked her how much she was getting paid to complete the walk. She thought about it for a minute, and the answer became clear.

“’You know, they couldn’t pay me to walk to Washington,'” she recalled saying. “And that’s when I realized how great this was because you could not pay me to walk to Washington. But the fact that I’m trying to help people with hunger, I would do it for nothing. Just that one question made me realize, ‘Oh, Lord, Lisa, this is pretty awesome because you couldn’t pay me to do this.’”

Her mission statement is: “Feed the Need.” And this is a calling which she believes can be applied to anything and any situation.

Serving the food line one extremely cold day in January, Thomas-McMillan overheard a couple talking about how they did not have enough money to buy an electric heater. She took it upon herself to offer them the needed funds, with the request that they bring the receipt back to her.

They brought back the receipt, and some change, but it was what happened next which had the greatest impact on Thomas-McMillan.

“The man said to the woman, ‘Boy, those youngins gonna sure be glad to see this heater when they get home,’” she recalled. “That tore me up because I didn’t know anything about the children, and I could only imagine that they were so cold that night before, and I could only see them sitting around that little heater. That’s what I mean by ‘Feed the Need.’ People have to realize that I have learned over the last few years, and I’ve known this all my life, I think I have, the more money you give away, the less money has control over your life.”

While the mystery brought by each new day inspires Thomas-McMillan, it also never disappoints.

“Every day you can go home with this special moment from being here,” she said. “You leave with a special moment from things unfolding.”

Yellowhammer News is proud to name Lisa Thomas-McMillan a 2020 Woman of Impact.

Editor’s note: Yellowhammer Multimedia recently announced the third annual Women of Impact Awards. Honorees are being featured on Yellowhammer News each weekday through September 30. We will tell their stories one-by-one, utilizing written and video formats. Check back daily for more of Alabama’s best and brightest.

Tim Howe is an owner of Yellowhammer Multimedia

9 hours ago

Alabama Power completes restoration following historic Hurricane Sally

Alabama Gulf Coast residents are a step closer to recovery following Hurricane Sally, which battered the Alabama and Florida coastline Wednesday.

Sally was the first hurricane to make landfall in Alabama since Hurricane Ivan in 2004 and brought severe flooding and high winds that knocked down poles and power lines in southern and central Alabama before the slow-moving storm exited the state Thursday. Power was disrupted for more than 680,000 Alabama Power customers.

As of Sunday, power had been restored to 99% of Alabama Power customers able to receive service.

Throughout the multiday restoration, teamwork was paramount as company crews worked diligently to address outages in affected communities, getting the lights back on before originally projected times.

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By Friday, outages in central and southeast Alabama had been resolved and all efforts were focused on the Mobile area, as the coastal communities sustained the most damage.

Prior to Sally making landfall, Alabama Power positioned extra crews from across its service territory in the Mobile area so that they were ready to move quickly once the weather improved. From the moment it was safe, company crews were in the field, working day and night.

“Hurricane Sally will be remembered as the most damaging storm to affect Mobile since Hurricane Katrina in 2005,” said Patrick Murphy, Alabama Power Mobile Division vice president. “We appreciate our customers’ patience as we worked to restore power, and we’re committed to working alongside community leaders on full recovery efforts for the area.”

More than 4,000 lineworkers and support personnel from 14 states joined forces working to get the lights back on along the coast. Crews worked through rainy conditions over the weekend as Tropical Storm Beta loomed offshore.

By noon Sunday, crews had replaced more than 400 poles, more than 500 transformers and more than 1,500 spans of power lines that were damaged or destroyed during the severe weather.

“Our crews and industry partners worked safely and quickly through difficult conditions,” said Scott Moore, Alabama Power senior vice president of Power Delivery. “I am proud of their hard work and steadfast commitment to our customers, especially during times of need.”

Sally is just the latest severe storm in what has been a very active hurricane season. With more storms possible before the season ends later this fall, Alabama Power customers should remain vigilant and have their storm-readiness plans in place. Learn more about how to prepare at AlabamaPower.com.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

15 hours ago

VIDEO: Gov. Kay Ivey signals no end to mask order in sight, media trolling for Tuberville dirt, State Rep. Mike Ball appears to regret vote on Alabama Memorial Preservation Act and more on Alabama Politics This Week …

Radio talk show host Dale Jackson and Alabama Democratic Executive Committee member Lisa Handback take you through Alabama’s biggest political stories, including:

— Are we really looking at wearing masks in Alabama well into 2021?

— Did Sports Illustrated attempt to dig up dirt with Tommy Tuberville’s former players as part of an October surprise?

— Does State Representative Mike Ball’s shift on the Alabama Memorial Preservation Act signify a notable shift in the Alabama Republican Party?

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Jackson and Handback are joined by Alabama House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels (D-Huntsville) to discuss Confederate monuments, prison reform, the Jones/Tuberville race and 2020.

Jackson closes the show with a “parting shot” aimed at those who refuse to accept that President Donald Trump’s peace deals in the Middle East are a good thing.

Dale Jackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 AM weekdays on WVNN.

17 hours ago

Doug Jones fundraises off of late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death

Less than 24 hours after it was announced that Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away on Friday evening, U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) was fundraising for his own reelection campaign off of her death.

In an email sent out at 5:46 p.m. CT on Saturday, Jones began by saying, “This is a time for us to reflect on the life and legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg – to honor the barriers she broke and those she helped break for others. She always fought for equality and civil rights, even and especially when she was outnumbered.”

Alabama’s junior senator then pivoted to politics in the second paragraph, selectively pointing fingers at Republicans.

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“I’m saddened – though not surprised – by how quickly this has turned into a political power play by Trump and McConnell,” Jones claimed. “It not only dishonors the legacy of an American icon, it distorts the Constitutional process – a deliberate process that the Senate has always used to uphold the independence of our judicial branch.”

Jones did not mention that Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) was the first to bring politics into this discussion on Friday evening. Before Schumer even tweeted condolences for, or honored Ginsburg, the senate minority leader wrote, “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”

In contrast, President Donald Trump did not mention anything about filling the seat on Friday night, and McConnell’s comments came as a rebuttal to Schumer.

Additionally, it is not clear what “process” issues Jones could already have — as a nominee has not even been named yet, nor has a confirmation process been outlined.

Nevertheless, Jones in his email continued to use Ginsburg to fit his political purposes:

She stood for what was right and for the constitutional principles of equality and democracy that she held dear, even if it meant she was in the minority on the Court. She knew we are on the verge of a crisis for our democracy:

“My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed,” she said this week.

The “Constitutional process” Jones touted earlier in the email, of course, does not allow justices to dictate to the president or the Senate regarding their successors. It is unclear how this would “uphold the independence of our judicial branch,” as Jones asserted he aims to do.

Jones’ email subsequently contained a clear falsehood.

“Mitch McConnell has other plans,” Jones continued. “He is systematically dismantling the rules of the Senate. He’s changing the rules to fit his own agenda.”

To be clear, the Senate rules are not being dismantled, changed or ignored if the Senate proceeds to consideration of a nominee made by Trump in the coming days. Presidents have nominated justices to the Supreme Court of the United States 29 times during an election year previously in history.

Jones’ email concluded as follows:

So much depends on this Senate seat. Our win in November will be a defeat of Mitch McConnell’s hypocrisy and cynicism.

As Justice Ginsburg said in 2015: “Waste no time on anger, regret or resentment, just get the job done.”

Immediately below Jones’ electronic signature on the email is a large, blue “Donate Now” button. This links to a donation page for Jones’ reelection campaign headlined in all caps, “PROTECT JUSTICE GINSBURG’S LEGACY.”

RELATED: Doug Jones has previously vowed to oppose Trump’s Supreme Court nominee — ‘I’ll do everything I can’

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

17 hours ago

Redistricting and Alabama’s room where it happens

No one really knows how the game is played
The art of the trade
How the sausage gets made
We just assume that it happens
But no one else is in
The room where it happens

This description of 1790s American politics in the well-known musical Hamilton echoes a still-relevant sentiment–that regular Americans really don’t know how all of this happens.

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But is that feeling accurate? Looking at our inability to pass a federal budget, the process of choosing Supreme Court nominees, and even our own recently-increased gas tax, it’s hard to say it’s not. Often it feels like we don’t know how any of this really gets decided (and that attempts to find out would be futile).

Soon enough Alabama will be dealing with another potential “room-where-it-happens” scenario, one that will have lasting impacts for residents across the state.

The scenario? Redistricting–the process of redrawing state and congressional legislative district lines.

Unfortunately, in some states the definition might more accurately be “the power of legislators to decide who they want to represent and who they want to get off their backs.”

One state where that definition has proven true is Illinois. And you need not look further than the story of President Barack Obama for confirmation.

In 2001, when the Illinois state legislature was drawing new district lines (a requirement after every census), then-State Senator Barack Obama made a decision. Set on higher office, Mr. Obama had already run and lost a congressional race in a heavily poor, heavily African-American district. He needed a stronger base. In a shrewd political move, Mr. Obama calculated that he would benefit from a district with more affluent and higher educated residents who might better identify with an academic from the University of Chicago.

As a member of the state legislature, Mr. Obama was able to draw the new lines to his exact needs. His revamped district was still majority African-American in makeup, but it now included many of the wealthiest neighborhoods of Chicago. It was this richer, more-connected demographic that Mr. Obama leveraged to launch and fund his successful campaign for U.S. Senate in 2004 and, from there, his bid for the presidency.

Now that’s Illinois. Is Alabama just as bad?

The short answer to that question is that – if residents don’t pay attention – it could be.

In 2020, the Census may strip a congressional seat from Alabama (seats are allocated based on a state’s total population as determined in the Census). That’s because, in addition to growing at a slower rate than other states, Alabama finds itself dead last in the country in responding to the Census as of mid-September. This should not be tenable to Alabamians. If more people don’t respond to the census, states like California will get both our congressional seats and the federal funding (your own tax dollars) that we otherwise would receive had more of us answered a simple form.

This means that, on top of the normal changing of district lines to account for population shifts, Alabama’s congressional delegation will be influencing hard to not end up in the district with two incumbent Members of Congress vying for one seat in the House (although that election will certainly be one of the more interesting ones of Alabama history).

As for the state legislature, the Census will also require those districts to be redrawn to account for an increasingly urban and suburban population (although there will remain 105 House and 35 State Senate districts). This promises to take up all the air in the State House, making large policy shifts in other areas even more difficult. This reality is another reason Governor Ivey should consider a special session this year to address coronavirus-related issues in which legislators won’t be distracted by redistricting.

Regardless, the redistricting process, which will occur during the 2021 regular session, is lengthy and detailed. Multiple public hearings will be held, maps will be drawn and redrawn, and the legislature will have to debate the fully redistricted Alabama in open session. Compared to other states which allow their legislatures to draw their district lines, this process is notably transparent.

As with any situation in which power is at stake, there is, however, the opportunity for corruption. Legislators looking to benefit themselves through the redistricting process, whether by following Mr. Obama’s lead and giving themselves a wealthier constituency or by ensuring their competition is in another district, will be given the chance.

Thankfully, there is a check on this power: the people. The system, in order for it to work correctly, requires residents of Alabama to understand that they have a role and a responsibility in government decisions, including the redistricting process. As transparent as the redistricting process is compared to other states, a window is worthless if it isn’t used.

When the Alabama Legislature holds its hearings across the state regarding newly-drawn district maps, the audience should be full of residents ready to look through the window and give a well-informed opinion. As the process continues, Alabamians ought to be calling their representatives with input. Believe it or not, these small efforts create real impact and reduce opportunities for smoky secret deals.

If, however, we sit back and ignore the entire process and the window into it we’ve been given, we best not be surprised when we later find out what’s gone on in the room where it happens.

To see a new report on the status of the 2020 Census in Alabama, click here or visit alabamapolicy.org.

Parker Snider is Director of Policy Analysis for the Alabama Policy Insitute.