Dr. Tamara Hurst, assistant professor in The University of Southern Mississippi's School of Social Work, has been appointed to Gov. Phil Bryant's task force on human trafficking.
The task force was created in December 2014 and is facilitated by the Mississippi Department of Homeland Security. Hurst's current role is to educate other members about opportunities, challenges and research related to trafficking. She has also been asked to chair a subcommittee responsible for reviewing call center practices and reporting protocols.
“The number of risk factors known to increase vulnerability to human trafficking are rampant in this state,” said Hurst, a licensed clinical social worker and forensic interviewer. “For example, research indicates that one out of three children in Mississippi has experienced two or more adverse childhood events such as abuse or neglect. These experiences can increase the chances of youth falling prey to manipulation by exploiters.”
Hurst listed other contributing factors, such as poverty, a lack of legal economic opportunities, entry into the foster care system, exposure to transient populations, and caregiver dysfunction such as domestic violence and substance abuse.
“We hope to provide targeted training for child welfare, law enforcement, foster parents, medical professionals and others,” said Hurst. “The vast majority of professionals and others who might identify victims of human trafficking have not had the benefit of training. Additionally, whatever training they have received has not been evaluated or followed up to determine its effectiveness. Implementing widespread training must be appropriately timed.”
Hurst said there is no organized or efficient means of reporting to law enforcement or child welfare and there is a lack of therapeutic or other resources that can respond. “These challenges are complex and it will take the entire task force along with subcommittee members to make an effective and sustainable change,” said Hurst.
The task force and subcommittees will present their findings to the Governor by July 1, 2015.
“One of the most significant challenges we have in our communities is changing the perceptions of professionals and citizens who view sexually exploited youth as ‘bad kids,'” said Hurst. “It is much easier for some people to feel compassion and outrage when young children are exploited. Once these children become adolescents and teenagers we seem to engage in blaming the victim. Honestly, many of these youth do not engender much sympathy from people.”
“We sometimes view victims as responsible for their own exploitation,” said Hurst. “I'm hoping that efforts at building awareness will help change these perspectives.”
Hurst was appointed to the task force due to her clinical practice and experience in addressing child sex trafficking. She has also been facilitating a work group comprised of state agency representatives. The group is dedicated to addressing issues related to human trafficking and has made progress in uncovering challenges and resources in Mississippi.
For more information about the School of Social Work at The University of Southern Mississippi, College of Health visit, www.usm.edu/social-work.