Combatting Human Trafficking in Mississippi: The Net is Widening

HT-Pic-678x1024This year, four Biloxi men were arrested for selling a child into sexual servitude. A Biloxi couple faces prison for forcing a women into prostitution. A Jackson man is serving 23 years in prison for selling a 4-year-old child into prostitution. A Meridian man is serving 50 years for kidnapping and drugging a Hattiesburg teen and forcing her into prostitution. Two teenagers were rescued from a Ridgeland hotel where they were sold by a couple for sex acts to patrons and transported to other locations for the purposes of prostitution. A New Orleans woman was convicted of prostituting several teenagers from her home where she kept them locked up and battered.

Meanwhile, the net is widening to catch more and more human predators that profit from modern-day slavery. Police around the state have become more vigilant in their efforts to catch human traffickers. The state’s police academy has added trafficking to their training curriculum. On the Gulf Coast, several of our law enforcement officers are doing more to recognize victims when making prostitution arrests, and making sure the victims know about services to help them get out.

Just a few short years ago, very few people in Mississippi ever thought that labor and sex slavery was so well established in the state. With the grassroots efforts of concerned citizens, faith-based groups, business owners and public officials, a light has been finally cast on the darkest acts of cruelty occurring right under our noses.

Susie Harvill of Advocates For Freedom (AFF), the only nonprofit in the state dedicated to combatting human trafficking, said there are now task forces all over the state made up of law enforcement, faith-based and human services organizations, and concerned citizens. “They do speaking engagements, training in the schools, working on getting billboards for the area, working the county fair, and other opportunities to get with the public,” she said. The task forces are located in the hot beds of human trafficking throughout the state, such as Corinth, Southaven, Jackson, Meridian, Hattiesburg, and the Gulf Coast. These areas are travel corridors that make transporting slaves over the state lines easy. In Meridian, “we are seeing international labor trafficking as well as a great deal of sex trafficking,” Susie said. “The Southaven area is another place that is seeing a lot of activity. One reason is its proximity to Memphis,” which is a major hub for human trafficking for the entire United States. It is a place where slaves are taken to drop off and pick up new ones, Susie explained.

In Meridian, one concerned resident volunteers to spend the dark nights undercover, “hitting the streets in a hoodie and mixing in with gang members… and the dark corners of the world because there is a kid out there needing help and looking for a way out.” The volunteer said that law enforcement in Meridian isn’t completely convinced that trafficking is a problem in the city, so the volunteer rallied the help of friends and supporters to provide emergency services, transportation to safe houses, plus some nutritious food and decent clean clothing. “Also there are girls that come to me and tell me about having friends that are being pimped out in the schools,” the volunteer explained. “When I come in contact or I am given information on a girl, I connect with them on a level they understand and let them know that I can get them to safety and the help they need.” This dedicated Meridian resident has been doing this regularly for almost 4 years now, but this has been a labor of compassion throughout the volunteer’s life. “I have been working with victims of crime since I was 17 years old,” the volunteer said. “My heart has always been about the children. They are the ones that fall through the cracks of life and the system.” Meridian’s passionate advocate calls the task force “Stepping Stones.”… “Stepping stones from darkness into the light,” the volunteer quipped.
AFF’s Law Enforcement Training Curriculum is being taught throughout the state, and law enforcement agencies are starting to get the necessary tools to make arrests in trafficking cases and provide help for rescued victims. The tool kit given to law enforcement includes a list of victim services providers, questions to ask if they suspect a person they encounter might be a victim, and an overview of the newest Mississippi Human Trafficking laws.

In 2013, the Mississippi Attorney General’s (AG) Office signed on to the battle against human trafficking. They successfully joined with activists, lobbyists and legislators throughout the state to pass comprehensive legislation to close loopholes in the law that prevented successful prosecutions.

The new law, MS Code 97-3-54, 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.” Participation can be activities such as a taxi driver taking a prostituted person to a customer, a hotel informing guests where to find prostitutes or giving them phone numbers to illegitimate escort services or massage parlors. It also includes allowing advertisements in a publication or website, so business owners and managers should be diligent when accepting ads that feature adult entertainment.

Although the law has become more clarified, there still remains the prosecutors’ reluctance to use the law. Cases of child sex trafficking, for instance, are still being charged under exploitation laws. Cases of adult trafficking are often charged under solicitation statutes. When it comes to calculating how pervasive the problem is, the number of arrests and convictions can be obscured, reducing the opportunity for funding, manpower and public concern needed to combat human trafficking in the state. One victims advocate said, “we need to call it what it is,” so people will know just how pervasive the problem is.

Victims’ advocates are also concerned that courts and prosecutors are not taking modern-day slavery seriously. A prime example of this is the case of Sean McWhirter, a Memphis Police officer, who was convicted earlier this year of transporting sex slaves, sometimes in his own patrol car, to Mississippi hotels and prostituting them. In one incident, he took the victims to a party where he sold them as entertainment. McWhirter was even caught on camera having sex with the victims himself and accepting money from other party attendees who sexually assaulted the victims. His sentence? One year in jail. Although he was convicted under the trafficking statute, the judge did not even impose the minimum sentence on this trafficker, which would have been 25 years to life in prison.

Needless to say, Mississippi is making great strides in combatting this serious pervasive crime, but it still has work to do. Advocates and volunteers say it is necessary to create more of these “task forces” to be even more effective. Susie Harvill said that current volunteers come from all walks of life. “They have jobs in the medical field, retail sales, ministry staff, college students and staff, some are retired law enforcement, teachers, counselors, mental health providers, they are in marketing,” Susie explained. “We are blessed with a variety of volunteers all ages. Each one brings a great deal to our organization. Our AFF volunteers are the reason for much of our success in the past 4 years.”

Currently, the human trafficking task forces need more volunteers and other manners of support to keep up the momentum of the past few years. They are needing people with graphic design skills, medical and mental health credentials, fundraisers and grant writers, and people who have a “great outgoing personality for marketing and media opportunities,” Susie said.

Since its inception in 2010, AFF has helped 116 victims in Mississippi. “Many of these are minors,” Susie said. Most of the adult survivors have been able to get help, and move on with their lives. “They now have jobs, relationships, education, goals and dreams! This is what makes bringing awareness worthwhile.”

There are many ways you can help widen the net to catch traffickers and rescue the enslaved. To volunteer with or support AFF, contact them through their website: http://www.advocatesforfreeodm.org. To volunteer or offer support in the Meridian area, email Stepping Stones at steppingstonesinc2014@gmail.com

Advertisements