By Sarah Kuper
No one likes to think something as tragic and ugly as human trafficking could happen in an Over the Mountain community.
But Julia Meyers, Junior League chairwoman of the anti-human trafficking committee, said the problem is more prevalent than many would like to think.
“These people truly are victims. They don’t have opportunities. Most of these people would leave but they have nowhere else to go,” she said, “It is a very, very real thing.”
That’s why she is highlighting an event bringing Ed Smart to speak at The Club on Feb. 22.
At the Rescue Innocence Project Gala, Smart, father of kidnapping and sexual abuse victim Elizabeth Smart, will speak about the trafficking crisis and what others can do to fight it.
The February event isn’t the only way Meyers hopes to build awareness.
While researching the many Birmingham-area nonprofits helping victims of human trafficking, Meyers has also been working with the state legislative task force to get local government officials to declare January as human trafficking awareness month.
So far, Homewood, Mountain Brook, Vestavia Hills, Birmingham and Hoover mayors have all signed proclamations, with more mayors around the area joining in.
“I reached out to 18 mayors in Jefferson County and immediately Over the Mountain mayors responded,” she said, “That, for me, was very exciting. In the areas where we think this problem isn’t going on, they are actually taking action. Vestavia actually has a unit specifically for fighting human trafficking.”
Money raised at the Ed Smart fundraiser will go toward funding the National Center on Sexual Exploitation and providing local solutions in the fight against human trafficking.
In 2016, Alabama passed a “Safe Harbor” law, under which a minor caught prostituting herself will not be arrested. Meyers said that, while the law protects minors who may be being forced into prostitution by pimps or even parents, it creates problematic circumstances.
“Back then, they would take minors to juvenile detention. But now they aren’t under arrest so there is nowhere for them to go that is specialized to their needs,” Meyers said.
Now, minors either go back to the life they had before, or they are turned over to DHR.
Advocates say victims desperately need to be cared for by specialized staff who know how to navigate recovery from the trauma of sexual exploitation. That’s why organizations such as the National Center on Sexual Exploitation are raising money for training programs and intake facilities.
Through the Ed Smart event and the mayoral proclamations, Meyers hopes people’s eyes will be opened to this tragic issue that affects even the smallest populations.
“My brother was a public defender in a small town in Tennessee and he defended a lot of prostitutes. Many of the women prostitutes themselves had been sexually abused as a child and even prostituted by their parents for drug money,” she said. “They were denied education and have no skills. They don’t even have family to turn to.”
For more information on the Rescue Innocence Project, visit rescueinnocenceproject.com.
To learn more or purchase tickets, search for the Rescue Innocence Project Gala on Facebook. ❖