Carrie Hill, a juvenile probation officer at Jefferson County Family Court, says that central Alabama may be supplanting Atlanta as a hub for child trafficking.
Traffickers “are slowly starting to move to Birmingham,” Hill said.
Against that backdrop, nearly 40 people gathered for the Child Trafficking Solutions Project Summit Tuesday at Family Court.
“We have been trying to find solutions to the problem of human trafficking of our kids in this state,” said Hill. She said entities have come at the problem from different angles, “doing their own thing. We’re trying to get everybody together and corral everyone so we can have a single focus and mission.”
Hill said Atlanta has been a hub for child trafficking largely because of the international airport there. Central Alabama’s problem may be growing because of its perceived lack of understanding of trafficking and lack of coordination among agencies, she said.
“It was reported by a trafficker that Alabama is a safe haven because the police don’t know what they’re doing, they don’t know what they’re looking at,” according to Hill.
“They’re looking at these victims and saying, ‘She’s just fast. She wants to be on the street. She’s just doing what she wants to do,’” the probation officer said. “In reality, that’s not the case. These kids are being exploited. They are children. They can be manipulated easily and that’s what we have to wrap our heads around and really get law enforcement and first responders to see.”
More Counselors Now
Tuesday’s discussion addressed challenges that have been faced. Statewide, there were 23 trauma counselors two years ago and just three in Jefferson County. With an emphasis on training, that number is now 58, with the majority in central Alabama.
The need for trained interpreters to communicate with potential victims was also addressed, as was the question of where victims are placed when they are taken into custody. Space is allotted at the G. Ross Bell Juvenile Detention Center for short-term stays. Wellhouse, which serves victims age 18 and older, and Blanket Fort Hope are agencies that look to address that matter.
Alexa James, vice president and co-founder of Blanket Fort Hope, said her organization used a therapeutic foster care grant to establish its Care and Prepare program to train foster care parents in challenges of working with victims of trafficking.
Once foster parents are trained and certified, authorities will have homes in which to place victims.
“It gives us an opportunity to give a child a safe home,” she said. “Then Blanket Fort Hope will continue to help with services. In the next few months, we hope to open a day center where these foster families can bring these children and drop them off for the day. That will give them a respite.”
Chris Lim is administrator of the Alabama Statewide Human Trafficking Protocol Project at the School of Social Work at the University of Alabama. He spoke about problems that lead to someone being victimized and solutions for helping victims.
“Those are the things that are universal,” he said. “A lot of times, they’re longing for unconditional love and healthy relationships with the adults in their lives and the peers in their lives. There are economic factors, educational factors, job opportunity factors.”
Lim’s operation at the University of Alabama aims to establish statewide protocols for addressing child trafficking.
“We have an opportunity as a state to create something that’s unique,” he said, “and that could be a model for other states.”
In Jefferson County, authorities have a check list. If a child who is thought to be a victim of trafficking meets three risk factors, they are automatically referred to mental health for an assessment.
Also, Family Court has established a Voices Docket that gives special attention to victims of child trafficking.
“Here at Family Court for so long we’ve been on the backside of everything,” Hill said. “We had to wait for everything to happen before we could step in. Why not now be on the front end and try to prevent something from happening? That’s where I see this docket going, trying to prevent these kids – mainly females – from falling into the trap of trafficking.”
The probation officer, working with Children’s Policy Council Executive Director Jan Bell, said those who attended Tuesday’s summit need to “ramp up and amp up.”
“We are making, albeit small steps, we are making steps toward progress, Hill said.