Human Trafficking Update: Mississippi in Action

traffickingmedium2In February of this year, tens of thousands of sports fan flocked to New Orleans for the Super Bowl. Two young Mississippi brothers, ages 10 and 11, were thrilled that a family friend had invited them to go see the game. They left early for New Orleans, and the family friend treated them to the city’s main attractions for kids. They enjoyed the River Walk, watched an IMAX movie and explored downtown. When they returned to the hotel to rest up for the big game the next day, the family friend sold the two boys to three men. The brothers were raped repeatedly throughout the night. Thanks to the human trafficking advocacy group, Advocates For Freedom (AFF), the family knew what to do. They reported the incident, and the so-called friend was arrested for sex trafficking of the minors. The young boys will have a long road back to recovery after such an ordeal, but sadly, theirs is a success story. Many children who are sold into the minor sex trade never find their way back home.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, an estimated 300,000 children are sold as sex slaves every year in the United States. The average age of a child entering the sex trade is eleven for boys and 12 for girls. Many, however, are trafficked as young as two and three years of age. Most are prostituted, and one third of these children are forced to make pornographic videos. There are about 13,000 new pornographic films are produced every year. According to FBI statistics, twenty five percent of those feature sex acts with children. Some teenagers look mature for their age, so one cannot be sure if they are watching a child being raped. And since one third of adults featured in pornographic films are also trafficking victims, there is no way to tell if the sex is consensual in an all-adult video. Sex trafficking victims of all ages are often beaten, drugged, and forced to perform 20 to 30 sex acts every day. They usually die from suicide, STD’s, head injuries or murder. From the time they enslaved into the illegal sex trade, very few survive beyond nine years.
The state of Mississippi is increasing their awareness of human trafficking in its communities. More Mississippians are learning how to recognize the signs of trafficking in their area and beginning to report their suspicions to law enforcement and the National Human Trafficking Hotline. Last year, the Hotline received 92 calls from our state. This year, the number is already four times that, and we still have five months to go in 2013. One such call came from a concerned grandmother of 3 who went out of town for a business trip. She was staying at a hotel near the airport, and decided to walk across the street to a popular diner for something to eat. After she ordered her food, she noticed a man and woman standing by the cash register paying for their meals. The man was in his 30’s, well dressed and clean cut. The woman was scantily clad with holes in her shoes. “I watched curiously as they went outside,” the woman said. “I saw them go to a really fancy new luxury car in the parking lot. The man took a phone call while the woman paced on the passenger side of the car smoking a cigarette.” She said the man got off the phone and they both got in the car and drove away toward the airport. “I didn’t think anything of it until the next car arrived,” she said. Another luxury car with a well-dressed man and scantily clad woman arrived and parked in almost the same exact spot as the other car. “My curiosity was peaked,” the grandmother said. “I thought, ‘this is that human trafficking I’ve been hearing about,’ so I watched them while I ate my supper.” She said they only stayed a few minutes when the man got a phone call and they both drove away. After the tired businesswoman paid and left the restaurant, she walked back across the street and sat on a curb with a view of the diner’s parking lot. A short while later, the first car she saw arrived with different girl. “She couldn’t have been more than 13 or 14, and she was wearing very short shorts and a skimpy top and high heels,” she said. The man took her into the diner to eat, “and that’s when I decided to call the police,” she said. She called the local dispatch number and requested a welfare check on the child she saw with the man. She explained what she had observed during her dinner. The dispatcher told her they would send someone out. The grandmother waited more than a half hour on the curb waiting to see the police show up. They never did. She went back to her hotel room and called the National Hotline and reported what she saw. As of this writing, the grandmother is still wondering if that young girl is safe or is she still in the grips of a human trafficker. “The police have to take this seriously if something is going to change,” she lamented. “What if this was YOUR daughter? Wouldn’t you want to know that someone tried to help them?”
Another Mississippi story involves a local man who called an AFF volunteer a few months ago. He called to report that he suspected that the escort he had been seeing was being prostituted against her will. He told the volunteer that he had no issue with consensual sex between adults, but it worried him when his regular escort showed up at his house one night with a brand burned into her skin. The AFF volunteers got his story to law enforcement and the escort was rescued. Since that time, he has received an education about the prevalence of sex trafficking in the area. He has had a change of heart and has stopped buying sex. He now helps other women to get out of the sex trade, and he speaks to other buyers about the danger they put victims in by creating the demand for prostitution that keeps so many enslaved.
Law enforcement, like the general public, is gradually learning just how prevalent human trafficking is in our state. AFF has been conducting trainings for law enforcement across Mississippi and surrounding states. More community involvement and improved responses to calls has resulted in some success stories, but Susie Harvill of AFF said we still have a long way to go, “But we’re on our way.” As of July 1st, Mississippi has newer trafficking laws with enhanced penalties for trafficking, and for businesses who facilitate trafficking. The new law, HB 367, states, “[Anyone] who benefits, whether financially or by receiving anything of value from participating in a venture that has engaged in such acts, shall be guilty of the crime of human-trafficking.” Facilitation includes taxi drivers who take prostituted people to a customer, a hotel informing guests where to find prostitutes or giving them phone numbers to illegitimate escort services. It also includes allowing advertisements in a publication or website that are posted by traffickers. Not all ads for escorts or dating are illegal, but a business owner needs to be sure they are not facilitating human trafficking. State Attorney General Jim Hood has been instrumental in improving Mississippi’s law to protect victims of modern day slavery. He, along with 40 other state attorney generals, are collectively going after businesses that facilitate trafficking, especially websites that advertise sex for sale. AG Hood recently spoke at the National Association of Attorneys General where he emphasized his commitment, and said he was already taking action against some of these websites.
While our laws are strengthened, and more citizens are reporting trafficking behavior around our state, more needs to be done. “We need more victims’ advocates,” said Susie. Once they leave their traffickers, “we need advocates to tell them their rights,” and help them find resources so they can begin to recover, she said. More education is needed everywhere. AFF currently provides age-appropriate safety from predators training for children and teens. Schools and educators can contact Susie to schedule a training session, and people can call to volunteer as an advocate, by emailing AFF at affstopht@gmail.com or by visiting their website at http://www.advocatesforfreedom.org. The National Hotline number is 888-373-7888

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