A young girl goes on vacation abroad. She is instantly taken by a charismatic man who promises to show her around and to take care of her. She feels safe. She has no idea that he has much more sinister things in mind.
That portrayal is often found in Hollywood depictions, but it’s hardly the complete picture. There are hundreds of people across the country working hard to fight human trafficking, yet few Americans understand how pervasive this crime is across this country, or the many forms it can take.
Ashley Anderson, the development director for The WellHouse, a local organization that helps “rescue and restore” survivors of sex trafficking, is adamant about the importance of educating people on the issues involved on a national scale. “Oftentimes people think that it’s something that happens in other countries only,” Anderson said. “It’s something that happens here.
“And so I get questions a lot like, ‘Well, what country are your ladies from?’ Well, they’re from right here. They’re from Birmingham. They’re from Anniston, Mobile, California, New York, New Jersey, Florida, from all over. And unfortunately it doesn’t seem like it’s getting any smaller.”
In Your Own Backyard
In addition to organizations like the WellHouse, many law enforcement officials and advocates for trafficking victims are working to alert U.S. citizens to what’s happening in their own country.
The International Labor Organization estimated that between 2002 and 2011, there were 20.9 million victims of human trafficking globally. Of that number, 22 percent were forced into sexual exploitation.
The national anti-trafficking organization called the Polaris Project has indicated that more than 27,000 cases of human trafficking in all forms have been reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline, which has been run by Polaris since 2007, in the last eight years. The Polaris Project also reported that in 2015, it was estimated that 1 out of 5 endangered runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were likely child sex trafficking victims.
While there is no official estimate of the total number of human trafficking victims in the United States, the Polaris Project estimates roughly 40 percent of the nation’s human trafficking takes place in the Southeast. According to its website, as of September 30, 2016, the NHTRC hotline counted 42 cases of human trafficking in Alabama this year, 24 of which specifically involved sex trafficking. The website also reported that from 2007 to September 30, 2016, the hotline received a total of 954 calls involving human trafficking in this state.
“It’s not a socioeconomic problem,” Anderson said. “It’s not something that you’ll just see in a lower income area. It hits all aspects of where we are. We’ve rescued ladies from off of Valleydale Road. We’ve rescued from Homewood, Mountain Brook, all over. And unfortunately they [the survivors] come from good homes and not so good homes.”
Anderson said that, instead of trafficking being a state-to-state endeavor, it takes place between cities and within cities. “People have this mindset that trafficking is something that only happens across borders or across the country but that’s just not the case,” Anderson said.
FBI Special Agent Cornelius Harris in Birmingham attributed the high volume of sex trafficking in the Southeast to the various highways that connect the major ports and cities. “[The] interstate system makes it easier for victims and traffickers to travel,” Harris explained. “[It provides] ready-made locations for traffickers like hotels — there’s a large cluster of hotels right off the exits so that makes it easier for the traffickers. They’ll maybe work for one or two days and then once it’s known that they’re in the area, they move on to the next location.”
Anderson added that I-20 is one of the main routes for traffickers due to its direct connection between Atlanta and Birmingham. But the trafficking doesn’t stop there — Interstates 65, 59 and the 459 loop all make it easy for traffickers to move between cities and harder for the authorities to stop them.
“Unfortunately we say we kind of have the perfect storm in this area especially because while it may be difficult for us to get around in the mornings, for a trafficker it’s ideal,” Anderson said. “It’s not that law enforcement doesn’t know. They do. They are very well aware but [human trafficking] is a $32 billion a year industry. So if you compare that amount to your local law enforcement, we are getting woefully outspent.”
Supervisory Special Agent Angel Castillo of the FBI said that traffickers like to work in what is called “a circuit” which involves major highways that extend across the country. “The victim may be from Atlanta or the trafficker may be from North Carolina and so they’ll get on the interstate and go through Memphis or all the way through Tennessee back down to Louisiana past New Orleans, then go back to Birmingham, then back to Atlanta,” he said. “Sometimes they can go as far as Dallas or even farther and what they’ll do is they’ll loop around using the interstate.”
One of the main difficulties in pinpointing an exact percentage of total sex trafficking cases in the U.S. is due to the high number of unreported cases. “We say it’s a $32 billion a year industry, but you have to understand that these traffickers are not filing taxes,” Anderson said. “They are not sharing their income and so that’s only a small fraction of the surface. Because it’s a fact that only 2 to 4 percent of trafficking victims are even rescued. So if you kind of do the math on that 2 to 4 percent, there’s a whole 96 to 98 percent that are not being rescued. And so that’s a whole other amount that is out there that we have not reached.”
Identifying the Invisible
While the word “profiling” is often associated with racial or ethnic targeting, law enforcement efforts to fight human trafficking involve parsing out the profiles of its victims, traffickers, and the purchasers (or “johns”). Such efforts yield facts that Anderson understands all too well: The average “grooming age” for sex trafficking victims is between 12 and 14, and most victims are caught while running away from less-than-ideal circumstances at home.
“The average age that we [The WellHouse] serve is 24 or 25 years of age,” she said. “So understand that some of these ladies have already been trafficked for upwards sometimes for 10 years at that point. They don’t feel like there is any hope. They’ve already given up on life. Some of them do have a history of childhood sexual abuse so they have grown up in an environment that’s pretty brutally abusive. So they have to put up these walls to help cope with these things.”
Traffickers also know the profiles of the victims they target. “They’re looking for someone who fits the profile,” Harris said. “Somebody who has been through domestic abuse or sexual abuse… Any of those profiles, the trafficker is going to attach themselves and try to make contact with them. And [the traffickers] know instantly when they’re talking to [their target] when they make their initial approach because they get certain responses from [the victims] and they know instantly that [the targets] are somebody they want to hone in on.”
Many traffickers today were once drug dealers who decided that peddling human beings was easier and exposed them to less danger, Harris said. “They switch because they can be more detached from the act and from what’s happening,” he said.
“They can drop her off in the parking lot of the hotel or whatever and then just meet up with her after she’s done and get the money,” Castillo added. “They never have to actually meet up with the john or make the exchange of money, so it’s a little more distant.”
Anderson said there is no “real” profile for a trafficker, because she’s learned from her experiences at WellHouse that anyone can be a trafficker. “It’s a wide spectrum of who these abusers are,” she said, adding that she’s seen traffickers of 18 and others who were 60. “There is no cookie cutter.”
As far as the “johns” are concerned, Anderson said part of the problem is that they tend to fade into the background and are forgotten. “And people always ask, ‘Well, who’s purchasing?’ It’s 25- to 60-year-old white males with disposable income,” she said. “You can go online and do a Google search and see it for yourself.”
Trafficking in the Modern Age
Although every trafficking operation is different, there are usually certain common elements. Drug trafficking almost always plays a role in the sex trafficking business, Anderson said. “They say that sex trafficking is second to drug trafficking. We have this conversation a lot. I would challenge somebody to be able to delineate between drug trafficking and human trafficking, because we see such a correlation between the two,” she said.
“Some of the ladies could potentially be runaways. They’re people that have run because they’re tired of that abuse. So, unfortunately, because they are a fairly easy target … they will run into the arms of that trafficker and that trafficker will be the one that says, ‘Hey, I can take care of you. I can help you. All you have to do is sell drugs. That’s all you’ve got to do,’” Anderson said. After that, the trafficker commonly works to manipulate the self-esteem of the victim, she said.
Modern technology also figures into how traffickers work. In May 2016, 15 johns from Alabama were arrested in a sting involving the Dallas-based classified advertising website Backpage, which is one of the hundreds of websites used to promote sex trafficking. On October 6, 2016, the operators of Backpage were charged with conspiracy and pimping a minor. California Attorney General Kamala Harris called Backpage an “online brothel,” telling a judge that more than 90 percent of the millions of dollars the site brings in monthly “comes from adult escort ads that use coded language and nearly nude photos to offer sex for money,” according to ABC News.
The judge has indicated that he might throw the charges out. He is expected to issue a final ruling by December 9, according to abcnews.go.com.
Still, investigators said that how traffickers use the internet adds more complexity to the work of catching and prosecuting them.
“Sex trafficking is a completely different game than what it was 15 years ago,” said Tina Mauldin, an intelligence analyst for the FBI. “Now the internet has allowed them to spread their wings even further and to be available in a bigger pool… But in the end, crime changes based on the ability of the law enforcement. So once we try to figure out what they’re doing and get a handle on it they’ll change their methods.”
Not that the authorities are giving up, Harris said. For example, that there are certain context clues that investigators look for in web advertising. “Say a website advertises, ‘Two girls for the price of one’ and there’s a picture of only one of the girls. That’s a dead giveaway that something is suspicious,” he said.
Front businesses are also a way for traffickers to carry out their crimes without raising too much suspicion. “Oftentimes it’s massage parlors, but they can be anything really,” Harris said, adding that those “businesses” also have ways of giving away their true characters. “It’s just little clues like, a business advertises a half-hour-long massage, but these men are walking out after 10 or 15 minutes,” Harris said. “I’m not saying every massage parlor you see is a front business, of course. But front businesses are very common.”
Fighting The Right Fight
In the year 2000, the way the law viewed trafficking and the victims of the crime changed substantially. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 establishes that human trafficking and all related acts are federal crimes with corresponding punishments. The act also makes victims of human trafficking eligible to be paid restitution and establishes several national task forces dedicated to fighting human trafficking.
“We refer to them as victims because that’s what they are,” said Castillo. “When we would do a sting operation, years ago, say 10 or 15 years ago, they [the girls] would be arrested. We would have to arrest them for prostitution, and that would be the focus of the investigation. The pimp would be caught but not really looked at. Nowadays, we treat them as victims. We try to look at who their pimp is and try to identify who their pimp is and then arrest him. So the model is changing. But for the longest time it was if she got arrested, she got arrested and the pimp would go get another girl.”
The old system made traffickers feel more at ease. “Think about the visibility of it,” Harris said. “It used to be a lot of standing on a street corner. So basically the pimp would watch his victims pacing up and down the street and so if the police saw her flagging down cars then she would be the one that got arrested. Then the pimp would put another girl back on the corner because she has to make that money back,” he said.
The TVPA of 2000 helped supplement existing laws in the United States Code pertaining to forced labor, sex trafficking, and involuntary servitude. Section 1584 of Title 18 in the U.S. Code states that in the case of involuntary servitude, it is “unlawful to hold a person in a condition of slavery, that is, a condition of compulsory service or labor against his/her will. A Section 1584 conviction requires that the victim be held against his/her will by actual force, threats of force, or threats of legal coercion.” If an individual is found guilty of the events described in the section they, too, “shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.”
The same punishment applies in cases involving “trafficking with respect to peonage, slavery, involuntary servitude, or forced labor,” but in cases involving trafficking of minors by coercion the punishment is extended in length: “The specific conditions are the use of force, fraud, or coercion, or conduct involving persons under the age of 18. The punishment for conduct that either involves a victim who is under the age of 14 or involves force, fraud, or coercion is any term of years or life. The punishment for conduct that involves a victim between the ages of 14 and 18 is 40 years.”
According to Alabama code, managing a “prostitution business” is considered a Class C felony and is “punishable by from one year and one day in prison to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $15,000.” Pimping or pandering a prostitute under the age of 18 is also considered a class C felony. However, “pandering by compelling a person to engage in prostitution or profiting from the coercive conduct of others, and pimping or pandering a prostitute under the age of 16 are class B felonies, punishable by two to 20 years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to $30,000.”
Solicitation of prostitution, however, is considered more of a state offense than a federal crime. The Alabama code makes “criminal solicitation … a Class A misdemeanor if the offense solicited is a Class C felony.” This means that solicitation from a sex trafficking “business” receives no more than a one-year jail sentence or a fine of no more than $6,000.
In 2010 Alabama passed its first anti-human trafficking bill, mandating that human trafficking be criminalized and that extensive protection and restitution be given to victims of sex and labor trafficking. In April 2016 Alabama passed the Safe Harbour Act, which protects minors who have been victims of sex trafficking from being tried for prostitution. “If you think about it, the legal age of consent in Alabama is 16 and so a 14-year-old could be arrested for prostitution but can’t consent to sex. It’s so hard to wrap your head around,” Anderson said.
After the storm
WellHouse is one of a small number of organizations around the U.S. specializing in helping victims of sex trafficking through their entire recovery journey. It was started in 2010 by Tajuan McCarty, a victim of sex trafficking herself. Since 2011, WellHouse has served approximately 300 women, receiving, on average, 50 to 60 women per year.
For two and a half years McCarty ran the WellHouse by herself, determined to give survivors the attention they deserved. “Substance abuse clinics will let you in but you have to be what? Clean when you come in,” McCarty said. “And I understand policy, but that’s perpetuating the problem. I refer to it as, for lack of a better word, recycling, because you’re just going to keep getting the same people over and over again. Homeless shelters want you to have proof of homelessness or be there by a certain time or have ID…Or how about you have to be at a place before two in the morning for them to take you? I love our local service shelters, I really do, but I want people to understand the barrier to services that we face.”
The WellHouse stands apart from other nonprofit shelters in the Southeast in that it takes trafficking victims in 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “We have 26 beds, and on average we have anywhere between 20 and 22 ladies with us at any given time, so you can imagine that we stay pretty full,” Anderson said. Unlike most shelters, WellHouse doesn’t require the women who seek refuge there to leave during the day after an overnight stay, she said.
WellHouse services include GED preparation, job skills training, and resume writing. Women who stay there are given extensive counseling and therapy.
When a victim first arrives, she is taken to the agency’s Immediate Shelter where her immediate needs are taken care of. “We provide health care,” Anderson said. “We provide on the front end what we call a ‘hope bag,’ which provides to them full size products like shampoo, conditioner, deodorant. Anything you use, of course that’s what we give them. We give them that full-sized because we want them to stay with us… We want to show them that we’re in it for the long haul.”
The new client will stay at the Immediate Shelter for 30 to 45 days before moving on to the longterm shelter, known as ‘Next Steps to Freedom.’
“That’s where they learn to do job skills, they do jobs for life training, we begin that process of faith and finance, budgeting, and cooking, and learning how to do the things that they’ve never really known how to do before,” Anderson explained. “Do they want to get their GED? Do they want to go back to college? Do they have a desire to be certified in something? This is where their future comes in because they never even had the opportunity to plan for the future before.”
WellHouse allows women to stay at the NSF shelter as long as they need to. “One lady may be with us for six months and one lady may be with us for two years,” Anderson said. “But as long as they’re progressing and moving towards their goals and they’re doing what they want to do in a healthy environment with love and respect they can stay here. There is no time limit as long as you are moving forward in the process.”
The road to recovery, Anderson said, is anything but easy. “All of the ladies we serve are unique — they’re very different. They are in a different area of healing. They could take a long time [to heal]. We have case managers who work very closely with the ladies and help set goals for them,” she said.
WellHouse accepts adults only, but in the case of someone who has been abused for a protracted period, age is no guarantee of maturity or stability. “Remember that they have oftentimes maybe stopped maturing when the trafficking began,” Anderson said. “Or they do have a history of childhood sexual abuse, so unfortunately they stop maturing when that sexual abuse started. So you’re not just dealing with the trauma of trafficking. You also have to peel back those layers and see whether that childhood sexual abuse could be what caused all of this.”
Stockholm Syndrome is a prominent factor among trafficking victims, according to Anderson, because many victims have developed a dependence on their trafficker. An additional factor, particularly during first contact with a victim, is that her communication with the agency could have serious consequences.
“She has to, unfortunately, be very mindful that he could hear the conversation, potentially kill her or injure her in some way,” Anderson said. “And you have to keep in mind he has also brainwashed these young ladies to think, ‘If you leave me, I know where your family is and I’ll kill them.’ There’s a lot of threatening.”
The goal of a trafficker is to make his victim believe no one cares about or wants her. “They’ve been beaten so much that often times they won’t bruise anymore because they’ve been beaten so much. They have absolutely nothing of self-confidence, nothing left.” Anderson said. “And so we help build them up and share with them that they are worth it.”
Mauldin has seen firsthand the intensity of the connection that can exist between victim and trafficker. The young victim “truly believed that she had the best deal,” Mauldin said. “She said, ‘I don’t have to cook. I don’t have to clean. I don’t have to get up early in the morning.’ She felt sorry for me! And that just blew my mind.”
In the state of Alabama, there is no shelter specifically for underage or male victims of trafficking. According to NBC news, the first shelter for male domestic minor sex trafficking victims, The Anchor House (a new addition to the Christian ministry RestoreOne), is in Greenville, North Carolina and opened in 2012.
In Alabama, a young victim of trafficking will go into the custody of the Department of Human Resources, which will likely place the victim into foster care. That has its own challenges: the foster family may not, for example, be ready to handle a teenager who has been trafficked, which, in turn, could lead to the victim running away, Anderson said. WellHouse hopes to offer a better solution, a home for minor victims, which could open in the next year or so, she said.
The Polaris Project conducted a survey between January and June 2012 of 150 shelters across the country that deal with victims of sex trafficking. The survey discovered that there were approximately 529 beds reserved exclusively for human trafficking survivors in general and of that number 348 were only for sex trafficking victims. That number has gone up in those to years to approximately 682 beds nationally, according to a survey by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority done in 2013, but that number is still very low. “People have opened shelters across the country, but it’s still not enough,” McCarty said.
“The important thing to remember is these ladies are worth it,” Anderson said. “This is not a life choice. They did not grow up saying ‘I can’t wait to be a human trafficking victim when I grow up.’ These ladies, unfortunately, have been victims for a long time and they deserve our help.
“We get the question a lot of ‘What is your success rate?’ and when it’s me, I always say it’s 100 percent because we have rescued a young lady off the street that was not raped that night. And so for us that’s a success.”
“A New Conversation”
On October 24, The WellHouse broke ground on new land to start building their larger facility. Despite the focus on relocating, WellHouse will always make the safety of survivors their top priority,” Anderson said. “It’s constant. This is a consistency for them. This is a life and a safe environment. And we have to continue that safe environment regardless of whether we’re building or moving or whatever. We’re going to give them the stability that they need because they have not ever had that before,” she said.
As common as human trafficking has become, Anderson said, it remains important for people to understand the nature of the issues involved. “The sad part is that this is not a new issue. It’s just a new conversation,” she said. “When I started here, it’s funny how many people didn’t really know too much about it.”
Through outreach efforts, WellHouse has helped teach more people in this community about trafficking. “We don’t want to scare anybody but we want them to know what’s out there so parents will monitor their kids. So the kids, when they do leave for college they’ll be a little more aware of themselves. So that there is … a little less trusting and more of being aware of their surroundings,” Anderson said.
Despite those efforts, McCarty believes many people are living with blinders on – unaware of the seriousness or the pervasiveness of the problem. “People have become numb to it because there are so many girls who are being exploited,” she said. “We need to stop viewing prostitution, pornography, and stripping as choices.”
If WellHouse is to continue and expand in the services it provides, it needs donations. “I need five million dollars,” McCarty said. “That is not a joke. We just purchased 65 acres of land and we need the money to continue to grow,” she said.
It is important for ordinary people to they can make a difference in the life of a trafficking victim. “A lot of times people will say, ‘What do I even say to them?’ And you know it’s just like talking to a friend,” Anderson said. “These women are just like you and me and what we want to do is we want them to know their worth.”
Learn more about WellHouse by texting ProjectFreedom to 41444 or visit their website the-wellhouse.org/ To report trafficking, WellHouse maintains a hotline at 1-800-991-9937 . To contact the Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline call 1-888-373-7888.