How to Prepare for Human Trafficking During the World Games

The Well House is a residential facility for female survivors of sex trafficking. They offer therapeutic programs, life skills classes and a medical clinic. (Photo by Miranda Fulmore, WBHM)

The 2022 World Games will bring together 3,600 athletes from more than 100 countries over an 11-day period in Birmingham. There could be up to 500,000 visitors to the games, according to games CEO Nick Sellers.

Whether it’s hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands, there’s sure to be an influx of visitors to town. So what does this mean for crime?

“I think there will be an increase in traffic during the World Games,” said Ellie Friedman, assistant district attorney for the Birmingham Division of Jefferson County. “Statistically, we know that must be true. Trafficking is a business. With an increase in demand, there will inherently be an increase in supply.


Interstate 20, which runs through Birmingham, is nicknamed the “sex-trafficking highway”. Indeed, Birmingham connects Atlanta to Dallas and intersects with Interstate 65, which connects Nashville to the Gulf Coast.

Friedman not only pursues these types of cases, she also co-chairs the Anti-Trafficking Committee of the Junior League of Birmingham. Over the past few months, JBL has partnered with World Games to train staff and volunteers in recognizing human trafficking.

“People don’t know what it looks like. They don’t know how to recognize it. They don’t know the signs,” said Kathy Boswell, vice president of community engagement for the World Games. “When you think about this event – it just made sense – to be able to help 3,300 (volunteers) return to their more human trafficking aware communities.”

Law enforcement is also involved.

Patrick Davis, the FBI agent in charge of the games, said the event is classified as a Special Event Assignment 1 – or SEAR 1.

“We have components within the Department of Justice, the FBI, ATF and the US Marshals Service are all involved in the security plan,” he said. “As such, these federal partners will work with states and local authorities to ensure that the human trafficking component does not escalate further.”

Davis said they were working in the background on anti-human trafficking plans, but he cannot share details.

“Keep in mind that we have athletes coming from over 100 countries around the world, where some of these events may be legal in those countries, so we need to make sure they understand the importance of the law,” Davis said.

So what is human trafficking?

There are a variety of types ranging from debt bondage and work to family and sex. But for this story, we will focus on the sex trafficking of women because over the past four years it has accounted for over 70% of all trafficking.

But deciphering what is prostitution and what is sex trafficking can be quite difficult.

Friedman said sex trafficking involves a sex act for something of value, something like money, drugs, or even food. But it must also involve force, fraud or coercion. If the person is a child, prosecutors don’t have to prove these things.

“About 90% of what we once called prostitution is now legally trafficking,” Friedman said. “If a pimp is involved, if there is any use of force, then we are looking at trafficking. So you want to know if there is a third party involved in this transaction rather than just the girl and the John.

Jeans” ? What is that? Let’s talk about ‘jargon’ traffic.

A “John” is someone who pays or exchanges something of value for sexual acts. Turns out milking has its own language and knowing what to listen for or watch out for can be helpful.

Some popular terms include brand, Romeo pimps, a stack/quota, and circuits. Here is a quick debrief:

Branding: is a tattoo or engraving on a victim that indicates ownership of a trafficker, pimp or gang.

“You want to look at the wrist, the chest, the neck. It can be symbols – anything, a crown or a rose in someone’s name. But it needs to be visible in a visible place so other traffickers know who this girl is with,” Friedman said.

Romeo Pimps: lures victims into thinking they are dating and will sometimes shower them with gifts. Friedman said these pimps usually reach out to the girls via social media or their “underwear” recruits the women.

“A lot of times this type of trafficking is misidentified as domestic violence because they say, ‘He’s my boyfriend.’ But in reality, he has six other ‘girlfriends’ who all live in the same motel,” she said.

Stack or quota: a fixed amount of money that a victim must earn each night before they can return “home”.

“And if there is a pile or a quota, who imposes it? Is it a quota that they impose on themselves that evening? Probably not,” Friedman said.

Circuit: a group of towns generally within a driving distance of each other. The traffickers will advertise these women in multiple cities, then travel to where they get the most responses.

A circuit could be Birmingham, Montgomery and Auburn. Or even Birmingham, Memphis and Nashville.

“So they’ll post those ads on those locations on their circuit and then take the girls to where they have the most demand. Like any business,” she said.

How and where are these women “sold” for sex?

“People always think of Liam Neeson’s ‘Taken’ – like the white van… but that’s not what it is. Human trafficking and human smuggling are very different,” Friedman said.

Less than 3% of trafficking victims are kidnapped. Instead, many are runaways, and 41% of trafficked children are forced into it by a parent or family member, according to the US Department of Justice.

These women are usually sold on websites that anyone can access. Previously, they were sold on backpage.com before it was shut down by the DOJ.

“The visual of stepping on a (pregnant) spider and a million exhausted spiders, that’s how it was when they closed backpage,” Friedman said. “Then all of a sudden, instead of one site where you can buy and sell sex, there are now at least, in the Birmingham metropolitan area, 25 at any one time.”

Friedman said that’s when knowing traffic “jargon” can come in handy.

“The snow bunny will be a white victim. A ‘new, young, fresh’ can be a language for someone underage,” she said. “When you string the code together, you can figure out what they’re selling and maybe who’s selling it. And then there are law enforcement techniques to identify victims that I can’t talk about.

Who are these women ?

“The most common thing we see is that a young woman has been sexually abused as a child. She could have been in the foster care system. But this childhood abuse has yet to be cured (and) makes her very vulnerable to a human trafficker,” said Carolyn Potter, CEO of WellHouse.

She said the traffickers lure these women by providing them with love, food, clothing and shelter.

“By the time (the trafficking) happens, she’s already bonded to him in some way, and that’s called a traumatic bond. Kind of like Stockholm Syndrome,” Potter said.

The WellHouse was founded by a victim of trafficking. It’s a Christian residence for survivors of sex trafficking.

“The healing really starts when they recognize they’ve really been victimized,” Potter said.

The WellHouse serves an average of 25 to 30 residents at a time. It aims to show Christ-like love through therapeutic programs, life skills classes, and a medical clinic.

“You don’t have to be (Christian) to come to WellHouse,” Potter said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re straight, gay or whatever… You’re welcome here.”

Typically, women stay for around six months, but they can stay for up to three years. The goal is to make them independent of their previous lives in sex work.

“We’ve had young girls here from all over Alabama – Mountain Brook, Vestavia, Homewood. To the worst parts of town and the worst parts of the state. Human trafficking does not discriminate,” Potter said.

Women are referred to the WellHouse by hospitals and the court system.

“Quite frankly, we’re entirely dependent on the legal system to intervene – whether it’s the World Games or just everyday life – and when I say legal system, I mean law enforcement,” Potter said.

According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, about 65% of cases in Alabama in 2020 came from advice given by the public.

What are the signs you should watch out for?

Friedman, the assistant district attorney, said there are a number of signs of potential trafficking. But she adds that seeing a single sign is not necessarily a sign of trafficking. Here are some of the possible signs:

  • They are not dressed for the weather. Consider a bikini top on a cold, windy day.
  • If they are belittled or controlled.
  • Someone who doesn’t make eye contact, especially with men.
  • Visible tattoos or branding.
  • Big age differences. But Friedman adds that not all trafficking involves a big age difference.
  • Minors in hotels during normal class hours.

“If something is wrong in an interaction, there’s a reason why you feel that way. So whenever you feel bad, I always encourage people to call the police or the helpline number homeland security,” she said.

Resources:

National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1 (888) 373-7888 or www.humantraffickinghotline.org/chat

FBI Birmingham Office: (205) 326-6166 or https://tips.fbi.gov/

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children: 1 (800) 843-5678 or https://www.missingkids.org/gethelpnow/cybertipline

US Department of Homeland Security: 1 (866) 347-2423

The WellHouse: 1 (800) 991-0948

Editor’s note: The Birmingham Junior League is a sponsor of WBHM, but our news and commercial departments operate independently.

This story was produced with the assistance of the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

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