On Tuesday, Alexa James, CEO and Co-founder of Blanket Fort Hope, and James Barret, Director of Development, held a seminar in the Moody Civic Center on the prevalent and lucrative criminal enterprise of human trafficking and how their organization has worked to combat the trafficking of children in Alabama.
Based in Birmingham, Blanket Fort Hope has worked over the past four years to develop programs for the victims of child trafficking. Most recently they’ve implemented the Foster Care Trafficking Training Program for social workers and foster parents, providing a plan for best practices when assisting children who bear the specific trauma of trafficking.
According to Alexa James, Blanket Fort Hope’s next ambition is to plan and build Alabama’s first Child Trafficking Support Crisis Center to fit the needs of those victims who currently have few avenues of refuge from the often-vicious cycle of the trafficking lifestyle. Alabama lacks any such centers, and victims of human trafficking often find themselves in residential group shelters where they do not receive the support to address the extremity of their trauma.
Nationwide, 87 percent of trafficked youth return to their previous lives.
In Alabama, and specifically the greater Birmingham metropolitan area, over 10,000 reported individuals are trafficked for sexual exploitation each year, approximately 57 percent of whom are children according to research conducted by the University of Alabama School of Social Work.
The I-20 corridor, which stretches from South Carolina to Texas and cuts through St. Clair county, is a “sex trafficking superhighway” and the most heavily trafficked interstate in the U.S. according to the Homeland Security Investigations Resident Agent in Charge, Doug Gilmer.
The $110 million spent on commercial sex in the Greater Birmingham area contributes to the $150 billion per year global human trafficking industry; $99 billion from sexual exploitation alone according to the International Labor Organization.
The need for specialized centers and training in handling the victims of child sex trafficking is inherent in the nature of the lifestyle. Many victims are brainwashed into believing their traffickers are their only lifeline. Traffickers can take many forms beyond the stereotypical “shady men in white vans.” Victims can be romanced by prospective partners, lured into vulnerability by the manipulative individual and before long blackmailed or brainwashed into a precarious situation from which they feel they have no escape.
An important component of handling victims is recognizing their victimhood. One vicious cycle of sex trafficking is when a victim is arrested for commercial sex, only for their trafficker to bail them out, feeding into the belief that their abusers are their only lifeline, and those on the outside cannot be trusted. This loop can only be broken with the proper care from trained individuals in a setting that facilitates their release from this lifestyle.
Currently, there are no facilities in Alabama, which can provide such services. In Birmingham, when a victim of child trafficking is identified they are typically sent to either a group home or foster care, neither of which are currently capable of addressing the therapeutic needs of child trafficking. Many of these children suffer PTSD from physical and emotional abuse. Sex trafficking also carries the dangers of STIs, especially HIV/AIDS which often go untreated in these settings.