Hope for 27 Million
Published: July 31, 2014
By: Paige Townley
While the faces of sex trafficking are always different – a 32-year-old woman, a 13-year-old girl or even a young boy – the stories are usually the same. A victim is identified by a new “friend” who gains the victim’s admiration and trust, sometimes even the trust of the victim’s family, and eventually convinces the victim to run away from home. At that point, the trap is set.
The victim, who on average is a teenager between the ages of 12 and 14, is forced into a lifestyle of prostitution with no way out. “It just isn’t what you think it is, some poor, abused girl running from a troubled family life,” says “Jenny,” who answered a want ad for a modeling job and spent the next three years captive as a sex slave. “No, it’s clean and it’s nice. These pimps are altering their techniques to snare vulnerable girls any way that they can. It could be anybody. Some new friend you made on Facebook. Some really awesome guy you meet at the beach or at the mall. It could even be your best friend.”
For “Anna,” the person she thought was her best friend, Maggie, turned out to be a “bottom girl” – someone who recruits for traffickers. When Anna confided in Maggie she was unhappy with how strict her parents were and that she needed a job, that’s all it took for Maggie to snare Anna into five years as a sex slave.
“That’s where it all started,” Anna says. “Three months from that time, life as I knew it was over. I went on several dates and I finally met this guy and he introduced me to a whole new world. He bought me DVDs and clothes and perfume, just anything I wanted. I loved him. I mean, this guy was the one. He convinced me to leave home and I guess I was willing to do anything, so I did. And he said we should go to Vegas and that I needed to sleep with several guys in in order to get the money. Just do that one thing and we’d have our dream life.
“He began questioning me about the money I was bringing in and he began beating me and took all of my identification away. It was over. He wasn’t my boyfriend; he was my pimp. And the scariest part is I didn’t even see it coming.”
These scenarios aren’t just happening in other countries or just other bigger cities around the United States. They are happening right here in Birmingham, in our own backyards. “Sex traffickers are all over the place – in our schools, in our church, at our airport, at our bus stops,” says Alexa Likis James, development director of the WellHouse, a faith-based and Christ-centered nonprofit organization that works to rescue individuals being trafficked.
“Your son or daughter can still be living at home but someone may be pursuing them, maybe even their best friend at school, saying ‘hey, do you want to make more money than you could ever imagine?’ That’s why you must know what is going on with your kids. We had one little girl we rescued who came from a great family, but she wanted to go to the mall and decided to hitchhike and the wrong person picked her up. These traffickers are everywhere, and they are trained to look for these kids. They just know who to pick on and who to target.”
Not only is sex trafficking a $13 billion industry in the United States alone, but also it’s the fastest growing criminal industry in the world, second only to drugs and weapons. Approximately 27 million people a year are trafficked worldwide for labor and sexual exploitation, 80 percent of which are female and 50 percent are children. Four times the number of people were sold as slaves in 2013 as the year before the Civil War, with 75 percent of them being trafficked as sex slaves.
A “Superhighway” of Human Trafficking
Much of this trafficking goes directly through Birmingham along Interstate 20, a road dubbed the Super Highway of Human Trafficking. In fact, I-20 between Birmingham and Atlanta is the number one road in the country for human sex trafficking. This fact is one of many that drives the work of the WellHouse, a nonprofit founded by Tajuan McCarty, a former sex trafficking victim. The WellHouse team is devoted to rescuing women and children who are being sexually exploited not only in the Birmingham area but also across the country.
“Seventy-seven percent of the women and children we have rescued are from Alabama,” James says. “The other 23 percent we have rescued have been as far away as Washington or as far south as Boca Raton, Florida. Even the women we’ve rescued outside of Birmingham, outside of Alabama, have been through Birmingham at least once.”
The WellHouse made its first rescue in 2011, rescuing 14 total women that year. Then in 2012, 19 were rescued. “In 2012, we had over 1,100 calls on our 800 number, which is our crisis line,” says James, adding that the ages they have rescued have varied from 13 to 54. “Last year, over 100 women and girls, including two males, were rescued, and we had over 2,850 calls on our crisis line.”
The WellHouse actually receives more calls on its crisis line than the national human trafficking hotline. One reason for this, James notes, is that of the 150 total beds in the United States that are available to human trafficking victims, 27 of those are at the WellHouse’s shelter. The organization is hoping to increase that number to more than 50 by the end of the year.
Another reason the WellHouse is so frequently called upon is that it is the only 24-hour shelter offering immediate housing assistance to victims. “We are the only agency that doesn’t require identification,” says James. “We know these women aren’t going to have their identification because that is always taken away from them immediately so that they will be completely dependent on the traffickers. That’s one thing that is sometimes hard for people to understand. I get the question a lot, ‘why don’t they just leave?’ Well, they can’t. They get stuck in that situation when they don’t have a birth certificate or a drivers’ license. Those are the first things taken away from them, and you can’t do anything without them.”
In addition to rescuing victims and providing immediate, safe housing, the WellHouse also focuses on getting sex trafficking victims back on their feet. They help victims get their drivers’ license, birth certificate or other identification back, provide them with necessities they need such as clothing and toiletries, take them to a doctor and to get any medications they may need, as well as get them access to mental healthcare, detoxification and trauma counseling. Because they refuse to take any money from the victims, if they even have any to help pay, the WellHouse relies solely on donations as they don’t receive federal grants.
While most victims stay at the shelter on average 30 to 45 days, the WellHouse doesn’t put any requirements or restraints on them. “Some certainly stay longer than the 30 to 45 days,” James says. “We never put a ‘you have to do it this way’ rule on them because of the trauma they have been through and the post-traumatic stress many of them have. Some recover faster, some recover slower. Then once they are done at the shelter, they can decide if they want to go join our programs.” The WellHouse’s programs include all sorts of learning opportunities for the women to learn to be independent. “We focus on job development, life skills, anything from finances to how to change a flat tire,” James explains. “And we teach them to save money so they can eventually get their own place.”
While striving to help so many women rebuild their lives on a daily basis, the WellHouse team never loses sight of the urgency to rescue victims by any means possible. Locally, the team organizes a weekly “Special Ops,” an outreach effort initiative in which the team hits the streets to initiate personal encounters with women and children in need as well as spread the word in the community. “We work strategically in a variety of areas to try to get the right relationships with people, like motel owners, for example, so that they will let us come in and talk to any victims they know are at their motels,” James explains. “We’ve had several rescues from that.”
Thanks to the organization’s longstanding commitment, the Birmingham division of the FBI awarded the 2013 FBI Director’s Community Leadership Award to the WellHouse. But the real award for everyone at the organization would be putting a stop to sex trafficking. “If we don’t stop it here, we can’t stop it,” James says. “We have to look in our own backyards. Alabama has to wake up. We’re seeing women and children come in here who have been tortured. We picked up one girl from an emergency room who had splinters in her body. We had another girl who was literally born to be trafficked. And it’s happening right now. And for every one we save, there are so many more still out there.”
For more information about the WellHouse, sex trafficking or to watch their video, I-20: The Sex Trafficking Superhighway, for more stories from survivors like the ones included here, visit www.the-wellhouse.org.