Human trafficking still a problem in MS, experts say

Human trafficking still a problem in MS, experts say

MISSISSIPPI (WDAM) - Last year, Mississippi received a "B" rating on human trafficking from the prevention group Shared Hope International. That rating is an upgrade from the "D" rating the state was given in 2011.

According to Shared Hope International, the common age a child enters sex trafficking is between the ages of 14 and 16.

One woman, while she was not a human trafficking victim, says she has made it her duty to help those who finds themselves in that situation. The woman chose to remain anonymous.

"When I was 9 years old, there was not a time in my life when I did not remember being sexually assaulted by two relatives," she said.

She said that as a child, she believed what her predators told her, saying "predators know how to control children."

"Predators are really smart," she said. "They told me, 'If you tell, your daddy won't love you. If you tell, we're going to get in trouble, so you can't tell. This is our secret,' and when you have that drilled into your head, that is your belief."

The woman said she never told a soul until one of her abusers passed away. When asked why she didn't tell, she said "it happened" and she wanted to move forward from the situation.

"My father would have killed them if he knew what they did to me," she said. "And I said, "Why would I break my father's heart?'"

Unfortunately, she said what happened to her is common in Mississippi.

"This is not a pretty story," she said. "There is nothing that you can look at in sex trafficking in children and see good."

She is now an advocate for human trafficking awareness. She said when she started advocating for the cause years ago, there was little awareness on the topic.

"Because, at that point, even the attorney general's office said that there's no trafficking in Mississippi," she said. "There just wasn't enough awareness."

In 2001, the United States enacted the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000. In 2006, Mississippi followed suit with the Human Trafficking Act. It wasn't until 2013 that the law was amended to further prevent and protect from human slavery.

According to Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood's Office, while human trafficking comes in several forms, it is mainly categorized as either labor trafficking or sex trafficking.

According to Mississippi's Human Trafficking Act:

"A person who recruits, entices, harbors, transports, provides or obtains by any means, or attempts to recruit, entice, harbor, transport, provide or obtain by any means, another person, intending or knowing that the person will be subjected to forced labor or services, or who benefits, whether financially or by receiving anything of value from participating in an enterprise that he knows or reasonably should have known has engaged in such acts, shall be guilty of the crime of human-trafficking."

The law also states that any person who knowingly purchase or benefits from the services of a trafficked person, either financially or by receiving anything of value, shall be guilty of procuring involuntary servitude.

Penalties for trafficking and procuring involuntary servitude, according to the Attorney General's Office, is two to 20 years of imprisonment or a $10,000 to $100,000 fine. If the victim is a minor, the penalty is five to 20 years of imprisonment or a fine of $20,000 to $100,00.

"A person who knowingly subjects, or attempts to subject, or who recruits, entices, harbors, transports, provides or obtains by any means, or attempts to recruit, entice, harbor, transport, provide or obtain by any means, a minor, knowing that the minor will engage in commercial sexual activity, sexually explicit performance, or the production of sexually oriented material, or causes or attempts to cause a minor to engage in commercial sexual activity, sexually explicit performance, or the production of sexually oriented material, shall be guilty of procuring sexual servitude of a minor."

Punishment for procuring sexual servitude of a minor is punishable by five to 30 years of imprisonment or by a fine between $50,000 to $500,000.

"Any child under the age of 18 is, per say, a victim of human trafficking," said Heather Wagner, Special Assistant Attorney General and human trafficking prevention advocate. "For purposes of our human trafficking law and our prostitution statute, someone under the age of 17 cannot consent."

However, some don't feel enough is being done. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, the number of Mississippi trafficking cases reported to the national hotline went from 33 cases in 2013 to 53 reported cases in 2016. In 2017, 39 human trafficking cases were reported.

Out of the 39 reported cases, sex trafficking was the most common type of trafficking, with 37 of the cases being female victims. Fourteen of the 39 reported cases were minors.

Dora Harbin, Regional Coordinator for Advocates for Freedom Pine Belt, a faith-based organization dedicated to ending the exploitation, sale and enslavement of men, women and children, said trafficking happens in our own backyard.

"Two boys from this area were taken to New Orleans for Super Bowl weekend in 2013," Harbin said. "They went to a hotel, and they were sold to men from Australia who had video equipment. They were raped and abused all night and filmed for the Internet."

Harbin said the boys and other victims were rescued by the FBI, and the men involved were arrested.

Wagner said Mississippi has been working with other state and law enforcement agencies to improve the awareness, training and education surrounding trafficking. But, the resources for victims to get out of the situation, remain out of the situation and then receive the therapeutic care that is needed is lacking.

"It's something that still remains a concern here in Mississippi, and that we do not have sufficient resources for individuals who have been identified as victims," said Wagner.

Right now, there is only one designated shelter for human trafficking victims in the state; The Tower in Pearl.

Wagner said funding more shelters is important, but educating the public is even more important.

"Those shelters are not the most appropriate places for those individuals," Wagner said. "Because, in some circumstances, those individuals might require a more in-depth type of service."

Safety is also an important factor to consider when it comes to creating shelters, according to Wagner.

"Individuals that are trafficked, their traffickers may be attempting to recover them," Wagner said. "Victims of trafficking may be more inclined to reach out to their traffickers."

Wagner said education is the level that they're trying to work on, because not all therapists or licensed counselors are fully aware of the extent of the types of trauma that may be experienced by trafficking victims.

The victim we spoke with said that while the state has made improvements, there is still a long way to go.

"Until the judges on every level who deal with these crimes step up and say, 'Mississippi, we value our children. You cannot rape and abuse our children and walk away free.' Until that day comes, then we are not going to see the improvement that we need," she said.

Mississippi has a mandatory reporting law in both its human trafficking and prostitution statutes.

If you suspect a person is being trafficked, contact the national and state trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888. Any person with reasonable cause to suspect a minor is a trafficked person should report to Child Protection Services at 1-800-222-8000.