June 22, 2019 9:58:17 PM
A kidnapped woman escaped from an 18-wheeler stopped in West Point after she'd been moved from place to place against her will for weeks.
Another young girl was found in a Clay County drug den after being reported missing in Arkansas and trafficked through multiple states.
Those are just two victims area law enforcement know of this year who were caught up in what the Mississippi Attorney General's Office says is the world's fastest growing criminal industry: human trafficking and modern slavery.
Several area law enforcement agencies and advocacy groups have formed the North East Mississippi Human Trafficking Task Force, which held its first meeting at Tupelo Police Department on Tuesday. The purpose of the meeting was for local, state and federal officers to begin networking and sharing information with each other and advocacy organizations, said Deputy Mary Huggins who serves as Lowndes County Sheriff's Office's domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse investigator and who represented LCSO at Tuesday's meeting.
"Our main goal is to protect youth from sex trafficking and what steps we need to take in order to do that," she said.
The task force allows law enforcement and advocacy groups such as the Center for Violence Prevention to pool resources and raise awareness of human trafficking -- particularly since many people have no idea how prevalent it is in small communities, said Chief Deputy Ramirez Williams, who represented the Clay County Sheriff's Office at Tuesday's meeting.
"A lot of people have no idea that this stuff goes on or comes through West Point, Clay County or even the Golden Triangle," he said.
'Small towns, small places'
Human trafficking occurs when an individual forces another person to do something against their will for financial gain, which in practice is often forced prostitution.
"(It's) sort of what you'd think a pimp does," said LCSO Lt. Tony Cooper, who handles cyber crimes and works closely with Huggins. "Puts them out there and gets all the money."
According to the AG's website, there are more than 27 million such slaves in the world right now, and some estimates say up to 300,000 children are at risk of being trafficked in the United States each year. Victims can be male or female.
Williams said he's seen or knows of cases where traffickers drug the victims to more easily control them and set them up in hotels in small communities.
"Sometimes you'll have people who are on drugs and they'll use their child as payment," he added. "... A lot of people don't think of that as sex trafficking, but you're still using that child to pay for your drug habit."
And contrary to popular belief, said West Point Police Department Capt. Virginia Rich, it's a problem in small communities as well as large cities.
"Small towns, small places," she said. "... Those could be opportunities for them to traffick people and house them. Who knows, it could be in a rental house somewhere or in a place anywhere that's halfway secluded."
In 2017, the Center for Violence Prevention, a Pearl-based advocacy group that aids victims of intimate violence, set up the state's only human trafficking shelter in Tupelo. In the last year, 22 women have sought shelter there, with another 31 using its outreach services. The group has also responded to 87 human trafficking calls.
It was those advocates who WPPD reached out to earlier this year when they found the victim who had escaped from the 18-wheeler in West Point. While Rich didn't go into details about the victim or case, she said it was extremely helpful to have a network of advocates who could ensure the victim stayed safe, leaving law enforcement to handle the investigation.
"If you've got a task force, you have resources," she said. "We can call and say, 'Hey, we have this particular situation here, we're not really sure what's going on with this person.' We can make sure that they're safe and (advocates) can come in with the resources and the expertise to find out what's going on with those people."
Clay County Sheriff Eddie Scott agreed that one of the major benefits to working with the task force was being able to send victims straight to the Center for Violence Prevention.
"You can't just say, 'OK, you're free. You can go now,'" Scott said. "You can't just turn them loose. You've got to be able to get them some help and get them in the right direction."
The task force
In addition to providing law enforcement a place to safely send victims, the task force also opens agencies up to a variety of resources, from federal databases to training, which Rich said is often conducted by former trafficking victims or their families. Because the task force is made up of state and federal agencies, it makes it easier to tackle an issue that often crosses county and state borders.
"Say if you rescued somebody who was trafficked out of Guatemala, the feds have got resources where they can get them to other parts of the country for help and treatment too," Scott said. "I think that's a big advantage to having them in the field too."
It's also helpful getting teenage runaways, who are particularly vulnerable to trafficking, back to their home states, Rich said.
The task force will meet monthly to train or exchange information about what's going on in different communities.
"Especially in these towns and areas in north Mississippi, if it's going on in your town, chances are it's going on in mine too," Rich said. "... A lot of times it can be the same people that may be trying to recruit and traffick, especially trying to target young people."
The officers said they hoped they could take what they learned from the task force and use it raise awareness of trafficking in their communities, teach the public to recognize it and give potential victims a way to get help.
"The more aware we are and the more educated we are, we can educate our own community and all of our people, and that's really what we're trying to do," Rich said.
'See something, say something'
Scott said it was a tip from the public that led his investigators to the Arkansas juvenile found in the drug den earlier this year -- meaning the public can help if they know what to look for.
"If for instance you're a clerk at a hotel and you know this young lady has checked in, and all of the sudden you're just seeing constant men going in and out the room, the first thing you're going to think is probably prostitution," he said. "And it may be a form of prostitution, but it may not be that this woman is willing to be a prostitute. ... A lot of times we don't find out the whole entire story until we get in there and investigate. So what we think may just be a prostitution case ... might end up being a ring and this woman is being held against her will."
Since trafficking victims are often children, Williams said to pay close attention to who children are friends with -- especially if those new friends recently moved into town. He also stressed that children may be the first to know if another child is being trafficked.
"A child will talk to another child before they will an adult," Williams said. "So if you have that relationship with your child, just listen to them. Then you can refer it to law enforcement and we'll take it from there."
Cooper and Huggins stressed that it's extremely easy for children to be lured into trafficking through social media, particularly SnapChat. Traffickers may reach out to children and request inappropriate photos or to meet them in person. Cooper said parents often find out about potential trafficking and exploitation cases when they find nude photos on their children's phones.
That's why parents have to talk to kids about online safety and make sure children know not to talk with strangers online, even if those strangers say they're children too, since they could be lying, Cooper said.
"What would a 30-year-old want with a (child)?" he said. "... Parents just have to be alert and watch what their kids are doing."
■ NATIONAL HUMAN TRAFFICKING HOTLINE
■ MS CHILD ABUSE HOTLINE
■ MS HUMAN TRAFFICKING COORDINATOR
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