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Community gathers for human trafficking forum

CW File

Jessa Reid Bolling

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Nearly three months after Tuscaloosa Police conducted an investigation that led to 33 arrests in a prostitution bust, Tuscaloosa Police held a forum on human trafficking at Central High School Thursday night to educate Tuscaloosa residents on how victims can become trapped within the trafficking industry.

The forum began with a showing of CNN’s 2015 documentary “Children for Sale: The Fight to End Human Trafficking,” giving attendees an inside look into the various ways that trafficking victims are lured away from their families and thrown into a cycle of abuse and violence.

Tuscaloosa Councilwoman Raevan Howard partnered with local law enforcement for a Community Policing Week to plan this forum that explained how human trafficking hits much closer to home than they may think.

“A lot of people don’t know that I-20 going from Birmingham to Atlanta is America’s number one roadway for human sex trafficking,” Howard said. “This is a road we locals travel all the time. Sometimes, we’re just trying to get where we’re going and we don’t even realize the dangers that others are in that are traveling on that road.”

Howard said that she hopes the event encourages locals to be vigilant of potential trafficking crimes happening within their communities.

“This is a national pandemic,” Howard said. “Human trafficking is a $13 billion dollar industry. We really need to join the campaign to end it in Alabama and then further our awareness so we can help end it nationally.”

Lt. Darren Beams of Tuscaloosa Police Department said that the North Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force has investigated seven cases of human trafficking in Tuscaloosa since January. Beams said he was not prepared to hear the cruelty that some of the victims told him they faced, citing one victim who’d been trafficked since she was 12 years old. 

“When we encountered her, she was 19,” Beams said. “…She told us a horrifying story of when she was 16 and she had a child. Her trafficker placed the baby in a microwave and threatened to turn it on. She was terrified of this person, that’s what kept her in that industry.”

This led the task force to change the way they handle these cases, taking a more understanding approach to help victims get out of the trafficking practice rather than charge them with prostitution.

“[Victims] think every time they tell us that they’ve prostituted, that we’re going to charge them,” Beams said. “We’re not. We’re looking to get them away from that, so we want to hear their story, get it on paper and go after the person that [trafficked them].”

Beams said that traffickers often try to find young girls who have low self esteem or that seem to have problems at home, often looking for such girls on social media. Beams warned that the Internet has become a powerful tool for the traffickers, saying the department monitors websites like backpage.com for advertisements selling young girls. They do this in order to track down the perpetrators, or “Johns.”

“My words to the ‘Johns’ would be this: Be careful of those ads you answer,” Beams said. “One of them may be an undercover TPD officer.”

Jasmine Knight, a senior criminal justice major at The University of Alabama, said that the forum was very informative and that she now has a better understanding of how women end up in the trafficking industry.

“I’m part of the Criminal Justice Student Association and we’re really big on supporting efforts to end human trafficking and getting awareness out about the reality that these victims face,” Knight said. “I learned some things I didn’t know, especially with how some young girls are lured into [trafficking] by older men, and how to be vigilant of these kinds of crimes.”

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Community gathers for human trafficking forum