Rescuing Human Trafficking Victims in Mississippi | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Rescuing Human Trafficking Victims in Mississippi

Mississippi Center for Violence Prevention Executive Director Sandy Middleton addressed the press at the end of the virtual ribbon-cutting ceremony of the expansion of The Tower facility to house victims of sex trafficking in Mississippi. Photo by Kayode Crown

Mississippi Center for Violence Prevention Executive Director Sandy Middleton addressed the press at the end of the virtual ribbon-cutting ceremony of the expansion of The Tower facility to house victims of sex trafficking in Mississippi. Photo by Kayode Crown

What started as an Instagram connection ended with one human-trafficking survivor becoming hooked on drugs and a victim of sex trafficking. The unnamed woman was the first to share her story in a video released by the Pearl-based nonprofit Mississippi Center for Violence Prevention, who announced it was doubling the accommodation space for human trafficking survivors and their children on Thursday, June 24.

"I met a guy. I met him on Instagram, and we talked for a little bit. He made me believe that he was going to take care of me, that he cared that we were going to be OK. I got hooked on drugs. He would crush it up, and he would put it in orange juice and tequila and give it to me. And I would go to the track (an area of town known for prostitution activity), and I would work all night," the survivor shared in the YouTube Video posted in February 2020, which also included two other survivors sharing their stories after receiving help from The Tower.

"The ladies themselves wanted to share their story and image, but not their names at this time," MSCVP Executive Associate Rebekah Olson told the Jackson Free Press in a statement on Monday, June 28.

Executive Director Sandy Middleton explained at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, held Thursday, in Pearl City Hall, that meeting potential traffickers on social media is common. It was a virtual event to keep the location of The Tower private.

"Because so many of our kids spend all their time on their telephones, (they) are connected to them all the time, and so they make themselves a big target for traffickers," Middleton said. "A victim may look like a 15- or 16-year-old girl who posts one time on Facebook that she's mad at her mama and hates her mama. And somebody may be right there to say, 'come, go to a party.' And that may be step one to recruiting her into trafficking."

Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch and House of Representatives Speaker Philip Gunn gave speeches at the event, and both urged continued support for the program.

"Everyone has stepped up to make a difference for these individuals," Fitch said. "We do want to be the state that says, 'you're not coming in for human trafficking here, we're not going to allow it.’"

"And they are victims, and you know, many times they don't know. They've been so brainwashed; the power has overcome them, (and) they don't know they can walk out of those hotel rooms," the attorney general continued. "They don't know that they can trust our law enforcement because they think, 'oh, it's just another one of those arrest warrants.' They don't understand that we're there to love them, support them and empower them."

"(The Tower) gives them the skill sets, the preparation to go back into society, new jobs, new areas, and that's key.”

'I Didn't Really Think I Was a Victim'

The first unnamed victim in the YouTube video said that she did not initially recognize that she was being used. "I didn't really think that I was a victim because I felt like I chose him, and I chose to be with him. I didn't think I was a victim until I wanted to leave, and he beat me up to where I just promised that I wouldn't leave,” she shared.

The woman explained that she eventually escaped from her trafficker in Texas and went to a Gulfport, Miss., shelter, where she came in contact with The Tower, where victims can stay for up to two years and benefit from different programs and therapies, including working with horses, yoga, individual therapy, dealing with addiction and helping reunite with a safe family environment.

Middleton explained that The Tower helped more than 150 victims in the past calendar year. "It's not a cookie-cutter approach; every person that we encounter has different needs. And so sometimes they need a little, and then they're recovered, and they're ready to go back to live their lives," she told the Jackson Free Press. "Or they've been suffering from complex trauma, and they need a lot, in which case they may stay with us for two years."

Watching for Signs of Human Trafficking

Fitch said the signs to look for in those trafficked include avoiding social interaction. "We've rescued 20 victims just across Mississippi in the last few weeks," she said. "Many times, you see these victims, maybe it is in a convenience store or in a nail salon, and they're being held by the arm, they don't make contact with you; they look down; they know that they cannot have any cell phone or any type of communication.

"Many times, they're dirty; they're just being moved from car to car," the attorney general added. "So when you see victims and young girls, and they won't make eye contact, they look like they are uncomfortable, we take that tip a hundred times over because that might save that young girl's life."

“We don't always win all the time. Some of them go right back because it is such tremendous brainwashing. It is heart-wrenching to see them go back, but we're going to keep going after maybe we get them to stay, but the majority of them are so thrilled to be back with their families, their loved ones, and to get to start over; it's a new chance,” Fitch added.

Middleton said that people should use the human trafficking hotline 888-373-7888 to report suspected incidents of sex trafficking.

"And there are law enforcement officers and actually our own staff who receive tips that come in from the National Human Trafficking Hotline," she said.

The executive director said human trafficking is very lucrative. "[I]n order to traffic drugs, and guns, you always have to have a new supply, but in order to traffic people, you can use that same little girl and sell her 10, 15, 20 times a night. And obviously, you don't have to go get another person."

“And so, because it's so lucrative, that's one of the reasons that it's such a growing problem around the country and around the world,” Middleton added.

Solutions for Trafficking

Speaker Gunn urged participants at the program to continue efforts to combat human trafficking and support survivors.

"The reality is that human trafficking still exists. We don't need to rest, ladies and gentlemen; we need to recognize it's still happening. It's still happening in this town, it's happening in towns all around the state of Mississippi, and we don't need to stop,” Gunn said.

The House speaker explained that the passage of HB 571, in 2019 and HB 1559 in 2020 helped to strengthen support for victims of human trafficking.

"'These two pieces of legislation (we) think are transforming the landscape and the human trafficking here in Mississippi," he said.

Center for Violence Prevention Board President Mike Byers explained in a video presentation at the Thursday ceremony that the center helped draft those bills that provide for law enforcement training to identify and assist victims and form rapid-assessment teams to respond to child victims. He said that The Tower is the only shelter for victims of human trafficking in Mississippi.

"[It] not only provides a safe physical location for these individuals, but also a comprehensive program of trauma-informed therapy, behavioral health services, educational life skills and vocational training," Byers said.

"And all of this is done with the intent that these individuals will successfully re-enter society and live a normal life. This new shelter is the centerpiece of this program because unless the victim is physically safe from their traffickers, they cannot take the other steps necessary on their road to recovery from complex trauma and exploitation."

In a June 22 statement, the Center said it facilitates Certified Advocates who respond statewide to help suspected human-trafficking victims. "The Tower Rapid Response Team responds in person across the state to law enforcement, hospital, and medical personnel, shelter, courts, and other safe locations to screen individuals and screen victims with immediate services," the statement said. "Adult victims have the opportunity to consider The Tower and other specialized programs throughout the country."

Family Members Trafficking Own Children

Fitch and Middleton drew attention to the big role family members play in human trafficking and that it is not just a cross-border problem. "Half of those traffic victims are done so by family members," Fitch said. "And we all know how alarming it is for a family to traffic their own children."

Middleton said some of the sex trafficking by family members is due to drug addiction.

"We do see a lot of what we call familial human trafficking, where maybe, the mother is a drug addict, and so she doesn't have any money, and so she's got a 15-year-old daughter, and so she'll trade sex with her daughter for drugs, and that's trafficking. So we see a lot of that," Middleton explained.

"Then, there are also situations where there are economic issues where maybe mom can't pay the bills. We've seen cases where daughters were forced to go have sex with different people in the neighborhood or whatever, so they could pay their light bills and keep the heat out."

Another of the women in the YouTube video lent credence to this by relating the story of what she went through at the hands of her father.

"My dad, when he needed to pay the bills, he would send me to a friend of his, and then things would go on, and our light bill would be paid, or there'd be groceries. At 6 months old was the first time (this happened). And they finally removed me from the home at 11," she said.

Email story tips to city/county reporter Kayode Crown at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @kayodecrown.

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