Human trafficking is also a problem in the United States. Approximately 100,000 American children are trafficked each year, according to Polaris Project, and the victims of trafficking—including runaways—come from all races and socio-economic backgrounds.
Trafficking is a growing problem even in Birmingham and Alabama, according to a prominent law-enforcement official.
“Human trafficking for purposes of sexual exploitations and forced labor is a growing problem in this district and a grave concern of the Department of Justice,” according to Joyce White Vance, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. Vance’s statement was part of a news release from her office in December 2009, on the occasion of the conviction of a Florence, Ala., man on charges of sexual trafficking a girl under 18.
Among the activists in the Birmingham area that are working to stop sexual trafficking are a group of high-school students that have recently formed a non-profit called JustUs. The group is a coalition of young people working to help to stop a problem that victimizes so many other people their.
JustUs will stage a musical benefit concert the evening of Friday, April 9, at 7 p.m., at Urban Standard downtown. Funds raised will go to the anti-trafficking group Freedom to Thrive (FTT), another Birmingham non-profit that works to serve the interests of victims and increase public awareness of the problem.
The musicians appearing at the benefit will be Preston Lovinggood, Bobby Smith, Alyssa Aldape and Shades Mountain Air.
On a recent Saturday, Birmingham Weekly spoke to Lily Womble, an 18-year-old senior at Homewood High School who helped form JustUs. We were joined by Sara Jane Camacho, FTT director, and Laura Mitchell, who serves on FTT’s steering committee and assists the group in doing training and community outreach. Birmingham Weekly editorial assistant Melody Briscoe also took part.
According to Womble, she met Camacho while writing a school paper about trafficking. As Womble learned more about the issue, she realized she had to get involved. “I was very surprised it was going on in Birmingham, and I couldn’t stop at a research paper,” she says. That decision led to the formation of JustUs. “I felt that the youth needed to be involved because the people being affected in our city were our age,” Womble says. “If we didn’t know or care about it, then who would?”
Womble speaks on the subject regularly to churches and youth groups around the area. “Most people are surprised and shocked at the extent of the problem even in the country, and especially in Birmingham and Alabama,” she says. “What people need to know is that this is an epidemic, right here and now, and it’s something we can and need to care about.”
What makes trafficking so repugnant to Womble? “Just the sheer thought of girls in Birmingham, who could just as easily be me, in downtown Birmingham, and a pimp saying, ‘You got to make $800 tonight, and if you don’t you’re going back out,” she says.
“What drives me is that these kids, these women, these men, don’t have a voice,” Camacho says. “We as community members need to speak on their behalf and bring it to light, because it’s totally hidden, very hard to find, but we know it’s happening.”
Comacho, a Kentucky native who graduated from Samford University with a degree in psychology in 2006, helped form FTT in partnership with the non-profit advocacy group the SENetwork.
One of the experiences that drove Camacho to this work was a 10-week mission trip to Thailand she took when she 20 years old. Comacho was spending time with Thai girls, learning about them and their religious faith, but what she saw in Thailand changed her forever.
“I walked a lot through neighborhoods where young boys and girls were exploited by Western men, and seeing that every day took a major toll on me,” Camacho says. “Seeing the face of evil really shook me up and made me want to do something.”
The trip also reshaped Camacho’s religious faith. “I went into it being taught about the spoken word of evangelism, but I came out of it a completely different Christian than when I entered, because I believe that doing the work of injustice and fighting for those who don’t have a voice is a huge testimony, because I believe that this is essentially what God is about.”
Laura Mitchell was also inspired to fight trafficking at least in part by a trip to Southeast Asia. She spent three months in Cambodia and Thailand in 2009 with a Colorado-based group called Youth With a Mission. She learned a great deal about the way men, women and children are trafficked for sex. “We worked in a safe house for women in Cambodia who had escaped it,” Mitchell says. “One girl I was working with was only 5 years old.” She met Camacho shortly after her return to Birmingham and began working with FTT.
The current focus for FTT has been to help pass a state anti-human trafficking law in Alabama to make it easier for law enforcement to pursue traffickers. Human trafficking is a federal crime, but Alabama is one of only six states without its own statute, according to Camacho. “There is not HT legislation on the books, so pimps are getting away with misdemeanor crimes essentially and the victims are probably being named prostitutes,” she says.
There are presently two anti-human trafficking bills in the Alabama Legislature, including a House bill (HB 432) sponsored by Rep. Jack Williams (R-Vestavia Hills) and a Senate bill (SB372), introduced by Sen. Wendell Mitchell (D-Luverne). At press time, according to Camacho, the bills had passed their committees, and the backers of the bills were hoping for floor votes in the remaining days of the session.
Camacho agrees with Vance that human trafficking is a growing problem in the area. “People who are trafficking drugs currently, they are seeing that the money is in human trafficking,” Camacho says. “With drugs you have a one-time product, but with humans, you can exploit them eight times a day and your profit just increases.”
Camacho expresses confidence in the efforts of the U.S. Justice Department to aggressively attack the problem. “Thankfully, Joyce Vance is very, very passionate about finding and prosecuting these cases, so we will see a lot of these cases come to fruition over the next couple of years” she says.
According to Camacho, it is also important that advocacy groups, social service agencies and law enforcement learn much more about the nature and extent of the problem. “Research is needed,” Camacho says. “We are partnering with the [non-profit] The Womens Fund and doing a rapid needs assessment. We are doing a lot of interviews of parole officers and law enforcement, asking ‘How are these kids entering the system? Are they accessing any services? Is there a current protocol? Do you know that you call the FBI, because we don’t have a state law right now?’”
It is also important that victims of trafficking get the help they need to transition successfully back to society, Camacho says. “It will take a community response to provide services for these kids, because it takes specific services for these kids to really thrive after their victimization,” she says. Among the elements needed are counseling, life skills training, and an understanding of the emotional and psychological issues caused by the victimization.
Other resources and information:
• The JustUs web site is www.justustoday.org.
• To learn more about Freedom to Thrive, visit www.freedomtothrive.org or www.freedomtothrive.wordpress.com.
• Freedom to Thrive is a program of SENetwork, a non-profit that provides training, technical assistance and advocacy support to organizations that serve youth and families. Their web site is www.senetwork.org.
• Learn more about trafficking and efforts to stop it at www.notforsalecampaign.com or www.polarisproject.org.
• The toll-free National Trafficking Hotline is at (888) 373-7888.
• There is a local Spanish-language victims’ hotline at (877) 298-3220. Available 24 hours a day, the hotline is geared to victims of rape, sexual assault, family violence and human trafficking.
The JustUs benefit concert will take place at Urban Standard, 2320 Second Ave. North, on Friday, April 9, from 7-10 p.m. Donation requested is $10.
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