Crime

Can you spot a victim of human trafficking?

Sharon Robinson, president of Advocates for Freedom, said the faith-based nonprofit group has helped rescue 148 human-trafficking victims.
Sharon Robinson, president of Advocates for Freedom, said the faith-based nonprofit group has helped rescue 148 human-trafficking victims. rfitzgerald@sunherald.com

An observant person can spot a possible victim of human trafficking if they know the signs that can identify them, an advocate told police and firefighters Wednesday.

They may be a victim of sex slavery, forced into prostitution, said Sharon Robinson, president of Advocates for Freedom.

Or they may be a victim of labor slavery, forced to work long hours with little or no pay or brought into the United States without permission, she said in a Lions Club meeting at the Ocean Springs Fire Department.

Sex slavery, for instance, is happening among teens in the nicest of homes and the wealthiest of families in South Mississippi. Predators are looking for them at malls, grocery stores and school playgrounds and parents are unaware of it, Robinson said. The predators often are attracted to girls in revealing clothes, she said, and they also find victims on the internet.

“There’s things you can actually pinpoint: insecurity complex — they don’t do well in school and they’re probably already physically or sexually abused by someone else by the time they reach the age of 10,” she said.

Advocates for Freedom, a faith-based nonprofit group, was formed more than five years ago and has been following regional cases of human trafficking, including some that haven’t made headlines. The group has helped rescue 148 victims, Robinson said.

Local stories of trafficking

An Ocean Springs teenager was found recruiting other teens in her school to attend parties where the girls were given a colorless and odorless “date rape” drug, Robinson said. The plan was to film the teens being raped and then coerce them to have sex for money or face public exposure.

“She was being taught how to recruit other teenagers by her trafficker,” Robinson said.

In an older case, a Vancleave woman sold her 3-year-old daughter for sex dates to get money for drugs. Years later, the woman sold her child to her drug dealer. The woman went to prison, she said, and her daughter is in an institution because of the emotional damage.

“There are foster parents we’ve known of who have actually trafficked the children,” Robinson said.

She told a labor-trafficking story of a family of four that paid someone to get them into the United States. The father and son were separated from the mother and daughter, told they needed to work off their debt, “but the debt is never paid,” Robinson said.

“The I-10 corridor and the coastal areas are the prime places for picking up and dropping off victims, all the way from Jacksonville, Florida, to Los Angeles, California.

“When someone goes missing, if you don’t find a body, dead or alive, within 48 hours, this is usually what happened to them.”

So what are the red flags?

A potential victim may always have someone with them who appears to be controlling or speaks for them. The person may not make eye contact, and may have to ask permission to use the restroom or leave their companion’s presence.

A potential victim may show signs of physical use, malnourishment, severe anxiety or depression.

A victim may be “branded” by having a tattoo with their trafficker’s name, dollar signs or the words “Daddy’s Girl.” Or they may not seem to know where they are or why.

Or you may notice inconsistencies in where a person says they live or sleep. A victim may say they’re just visiting the area but won’t say where they’re staying or where they’re from.

She handed out fliers that business owners can use to make their employees aware of human trafficking. At hotels and apartment complexes, workers may see girls or teens coming and going from a man’s room or residence.

How can you help?

Members of the community can help by becoming observant, Robinson said. A place, a description of a vehicle, a person’s demeanor, clothing, location and other details are crucial information the FBI can use to find a victim.

AFF recommends people who notice suspicious activity call 1-888-3737-888, a national hotline. The number is used in an easy to remember way, in case a victim sees it on a billboard or a sign. There’s also a text number, BeFree (233733).

AFF recommends you don’t intervene, just place that call.

AFF has helped rescue 148 victims across the Gulf Coast, from Alabama to Louisiana, Robinson said.

The group is looking for schools and churches willing to allow “child appropriate” presentations. AFF also is looking for businesses willing to help pay for a billboard that displays the hotline number.

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