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.

2 hours ago

Crimson Tide star helps spearhead effort to save college football season

University of Alabama running back Najee Harris is a leader in the #WeWantToPlay movement to save the 2020 college football season.

On Monday, the Big 10 canceled its fall football season, according to reports, and the Pac-12 is expected to follow their lead.

That leaves the SEC, ACC and Big 12 as the remaining Power 5 conferences yet to make a decision on playing their fall schedules.

While some of the national (and in-state) sports media world continues to cheer the death of the season, key players from Power 5 schools on Sunday jumped on a conference call to try and rescue the situation.

401

ESPN reported that the Crimson Tide’s Harris was one of the players on the call, along with the likes of Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

During that call, the players came up with a list of key takeaways to share with the college football universe. That list has been turned into a graphic and shared widely on social media by players since the call.

Former Bama quarterback Greg McElroy reacted to the players’ efforts in a tweet on Monday.

“All weekend, it felt like the 2020 College Football Season was doomed,” he said. “But, the #WeWanttoPlay movement has given it new life. Ultimately, I don’t know if it will make a difference, but it feels like the players are the only people that can make a season happen.”

Kristen Saban Setas, daughter of head coach Nick Saban, also advocated for the season to occur in a tweet of her own.

If the SEC ultimately forges ahead with a season (with or without the ACC and Big 12), there could also be the question of further conference alignment changes — at least for this fall.

One Ohio State player has suggested the Buckeyes bail on the Big 10 and play in the SEC this year, and Notre Dame has already signed up with the ACC in an effort to preserve their season.

Even more movement is expected this week in the college football world, with the SEC, ACC and Big 12 each set to hold regularly scheduled meetings of their directors of athletics.

Reports on Monday morning said that Texas and Oklahoma are the Big 12 schools trying to save their fall season, however the SEC could be looking to scoop up those schools if the Big 12 as a whole decides not to play this year.

Right now, the SEC has adopted a conference-only, 10-game schedule for this season.

Alabama is scheduled to play homes games versus Auburn, Georgia, Mississippi State, Kentucky and Texas A&M, along with contests at Arkansas, LSU, Ole Miss, Missouri and Tennessee.

Auburn has home games against Arkansas, Kentucky, LSU, Tennessee and Texas A&M, as well as games at Alabama, Georgia, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and South Carolina.

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

2 hours ago

Alabama pre-apprenticeship program launched to create better pathways to workforce

The Alabama Office of Apprenticeship (AOA) announced Monday a new program for those seeking to develop marketable skills and enter the workforce quickly.

The pre-apprenticeship initiative will use “a combination of curriculum, on-the-job training and simulated work experiences” in order to “allow a person to gain access to a specific industry and improve existing skills,” according to a release from AlabamaWorks.

Individuals applying for the pre-apprenticeship must include a signed memorandum of agreement with a registered apprenticeship program for the application to be considered by the AOA.

163

The application instructions available on the agency’s website indicate that those applying for a pre-apprenticeship have an amount of flexibility in constructing the experience they will undergo as part of the pre-apprenticeship.

AlabamaWorks says that pre-apprenticeship programs also help employers, because they provide “pre-screened, ready-to-work employees who have already begun their training.”

“A major focus of the AOA right now is to help employers think beyond these uncertain times and use this moment as an opportunity to invest in their own future success,” Josh Laney, director of AOA remarked in a statement.

“Ultimately our economy will rebound and the companies who are investing in training programs now will be the ones poised to capitalize when it does,” he continued.

Laney concluded, “Apprenticeships are also going to serve as critical vehicles for people to access the training they need to become re-employed in higher skilled and more durable occupations.”

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95

3 hours ago

Alabama GOP legislative leaders request fourth presidential debate in Yellowhammer State

Lt. Governor Will Ainsworth (R-AL), State Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed (R-Jasper) and State House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter (R-Rainsville) have requested that an additional presidential debate be scheduled ahead of November’s general election.

The Republican legislative leaders jointly sent a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates asking for a fourth debate on top of the three previously scheduled by the commission.

Currently, presidential debates are set for September 29 in Cleveland, OH; October 15 in Miami, FL; and October 22 in Nashville, TN. The election will be held on November 3, featuring President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden — the presumptive Republican and Democratic nominees, respectively.

Ainsworth, Reed and Ledbetter began their letter, “In order to continue preserving fairness and transparency in this year’s presidential election, we are writing today to request that an additional, earlier debate be held in our home state of Alabama, this September.”

192

“As you are aware, presidential debates are a critical part of the electoral process,” they advised. “Unlike television ads or pre-written speeches, debates give Americans a firsthand look at each candidate’s own policies and intellect in an unscripted setting. They allow voters to hear the candidates’ platforms firsthand and give candidates the opportunity to respond to the tough questions at the forefront of every voter’s mind.”

The three Alabama officials explained that the current debate schedule begins too late, considering Alabamians will have already begun casting absentee ballots before the first presidential debate. More voters are expected to choose the absentee route this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Secretary of State John Merrill has extended absentee voting because of the ongoing pandemic to ensure all eligible voters are able to exercise their rights.

“This monumental election will determine the very future of our nation. The least we can do is equip voters with the facts necessary to aid them in electing the next President of the United States,” Ainsworth, Reed and Ledbetter concluded.

Read the full letter here.

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

3 hours ago

This back-to-school season, families should decide

Parents and other observers have many understandable questions about how their local school districts are responding to the challenges presented by COVID-19.

At this juncture, I don’t think it’s helpful to lay much blame on anyone. There will be plenty of time for that in the future, and when the dust settles, we’re likely to find that there is real blame to go around from the state board of education all the way down to your kid’s geometry teacher. It is probably true that some number of educators and administrators did not make proper use of the time they had in late spring and early summer to adequately plan for the fall, but let’s remember two things.

770

First, events are constantly changing. We’re all dealing with a virus that no doctor had encountered 12 months ago, and both the spread and the effects of the virus are novel. Volatile case numbers mean that some plans for schooling must be altered or scrapped altogether. Now is simply not the time for those discussions. The goal for everyone who works not only in education, but in state and local government at large, should be to get children back to school as safely as possible. Given the summer spike in Alabama’s COVID caseload, that goal is proving elusive.

Public education in Alabama is noted for its many different school districts – county and city, both large and small. Our state is varied in its approach and it’s reasonable that the state board did not attempt to mandate how each and every district conducts itself. Areas with a very low caseload are prepping for a return to class, while some districts with high rates are choosing to remain virtual.

State Superintendent Eric Mackey suggested as many as half of the state’s students could begin the year with virtual-only education. Some districts such as my own suburban district are offering both in-person and virtual instruction; parents make the choice that’s best for their family and commit to it for the duration of the fall semester. The degree of variation and experimentation is confusing at first, but there is some hope that these varied approaches will produce helpful innovations in the way we educate our state’s children.

There is just one problem. Families are still bound to the decisions made by their local district. My own district is offering both in-person and virtual instruction, but parents had just six days to make an important decision that will stand for the entire fall semester. My family made a decision that works for us, and we hope circumstances uphold our judgment. What about families that simply cannot work within the parameters provided by their local district? If a family cannot meet these expectations without compromising either the education of their children or the financial stability of their family – then what?

We are likely to find that creative parents and concerned community members come up with various means of supplementing their children’s education if their district is all virtual, or if the pandemic shuts down in-person instruction. Anecdotal evidence from other parts of the country already suggests that parents are going to develop something that resembles the subject-based co-ops already utilized by many homeschooled children. It’s not hard to imagine something similar happening in Alabama if school-based instruction begins to falter, even if through no fault of the school district.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed many things about our world, one of which is that we cannot ask our public institutions to do everything, because those institutions have their own limitations.

The ultimate decisions about a child’s education must be made within the family, by parents and other caregivers. When the local school falters, even through no fault of its own, we cannot deny parents the ability to make the best decisions on behalf of their children. In the midst of this pandemic, that may look like many things; it may be a move towards other home-based resources besides that which are provided by public schools. It may mean a move towards voluntary pods or co-ops with other families, and yes, it could mean a move towards a private school that, due to its flexibility as a smaller institution, is able to continue to meet in person.

Alabamians generally value and appreciate the public schools that serve as meaningful institutions in their communities. I mean instead to protect the freedom of families to make their own decisions. The state can best do that by allowing some of their children’s education funding to follow them in the form of education savings accounts. ESAs allow some funding to be reserved for specified education expenses, which alleviates some of the financial burdens that come with choosing to educate outside the bounds of the traditional public systems. Parents must not be constrained by finances into a bad situation; the goal of state policy should instead be to liberate parents to make the choices they deem best.

The end result of those choices may look different, but we will find in time that parents begin to create new forms of civil society that strengthen their children, their communities, and their state.

Matthew Stokes, a widely published opinion writer and instructor in the core texts program at Samford University, is a Resident Fellow of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit educational organization based in Birmingham; learn more at alabamapolicy.org.

Register Now! A free virtual conference for Alabama’s business community

Alabama businesses of all sizes will have the opportunity to connect and learn from industry experts on a wide array of topics from economic development to marketing your business in a post-COVID world. The Business Council of Alabama is excited to present Engage Alabama: A Virtual Business Summit on August 26-27, 2020.

The two-day virtual summit is open to all Alabamians and will provide tangible takeaways and practical advice on doing business in the current climate.

Speakers include Governor Kay Ivey and the state’s leading subject matter experts on topics such as diversity in the workplace, employee resources, small business development and optimizing Alabama’s transportation and broadband infrastructure.

Register Now for Engage Alabama as we continue to make Alabama a sweet home for business.

1