Alexa Likis-James conjured images of a child’s innocent sense of security as she spoke last week to members of the Jefferson County Commission.
Likis-James explained Blanket Fort Hope, the organization she co-founded that aims to provide a fortress of safety for child victims of human trafficking.
She said her sons used to build blanket forts. “My boys … always felt safe and secure,” she said.
“We’ve planted our flag, our army is around us protecting the most valuable people in the world and it’s our children,” she said. “We envision a world where our children are not disposable but invaluable.”
Likis-James told the commission said there is no housing in Alabama for child trafficking victims, specifically for the ages of 11 to 14 years.
“These children have been raped 20 to 30 times a night, they could have been starved, they could have STDs (or) HIV,” she said. “And that doesn’t include mental and physical behaviors that they could show. It’s just really important for them to have a specific type housing in order for us to get the right services for them.”
Likis-James came to the commission looking for a short-term crisis home, hoping commissioners could point her to a property and possibly provide a grant to help Blanket Fort Hope acquire that property.
“That was part of my ask, if they knew of any structures and if they could fund us, could they give us a grant,” she said. “Jefferson County’s a hotspot for trafficking of children. It’s a $32 billion industry.”
The interstates that connect Birmingham to New Orleans, Atlanta and the state of Florida make the metro area a key corridor in transporting trafficked children. To make matters worse, the state is considered a “safe haven” by traffickers because the laws against that activity are not as strict in Alabama as neighboring states.
Likis-James paints a bleak picture for children who are being trafficked. The average lifespan of a child trafficking victim is only seven years.
“By the time they’re 21 to 22 years old, they’re dead because of HIV or STDs,” she said. “And there are so many emotional problems that are going on with these children. And there are boys also. It’s not just girls.”
Likis-James acknowledged there are homes for children who have been sexually abused or group homes if they are high-risk for drug use issues.
“But we don’t want to mix child sex trafficking victims with other children because of the trauma these children have experienced,” she said. “They possibly can become abusers themselves because it’s all that they know, or they can become targets to be re-abused.”