By Emily Williams
There is a silent and sinister industry at work from the farthest reaches of the globe to our own backyard, generating an estimated $150 billion a year, according to data provided by the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
The human trafficking industry relies on the enslavement of about 24.9 million victims at any given time, and 40 percent of its work in the United States occurs in the Southeast. One of the major thoroughfares for trafficking is the Interstate 20 corridor between Atlanta and Birmingham.
It is estimated that the average age of entry into trafficking in the U.S. is between 12 and 14 years old.
To better treat these child victims when they are saved from their situations, a facility is fine-tuning its operations inside the adolescent psychiatric unit at the UAB Hospital. The facility is the first of its kind in the Southeast, according to Julia Meyers of the National Center for Sexual Exploitation’s Birmingham-based Rescue Innocence Movement.
Inspired by an article about Rescue Innocence, Dr. Sara Gould of UAB’s department of orthopedic surgery and department of emergency medicine reached out to Dr. Yessie Yoon, child and adolescent psychiatrist at Children’s of Alabama, and Dr. Katherin Freeman, co-director of child and adolescent inpatient services at UAB.
Together, the three physicians have created a program within the 16-bed, inpatient adolescent psychiatric unit for ages 12-18 years that caters to the needs of human trafficking victims.
“Since we have a lot of good therapeutics already in place, we feel like this is the best place to house these victims while they are basically stabilizing,” Freeman said.
The unit already offers a variety of programs in the therapeutic environment, she said, dispensing any immediate medical treatment, physical or mental. Patients additionally will have access to a variety of therapy programs. There will be recreation activities, pet therapy, music therapy and occupational therapy – such as rehabilitation activities including creating artwork and poems or learning about emotions and expression.
“It’s really a good starting ground, because not only would the victims come to our unit. They would be assessed for psychiatric needs and they would be treated for any chemical dependency issues,” which are common for victims of sex-trafficking, Freeman said. “Personally, I’m not an addiction specialist, but we have great coordination with addiction specialists here at UAB at our facility in the Department of Psychiatry.”
The missing piece that the unit needs is to find and hire a physician who specializes in trauma and can better assess each patient’s needs. He or she also would work with the Department of Human Resources and any law enforcement involved in the cases to find the proper safe housing for the victims and connect them with appropriate follow-up care in the community.
In order to fund the search and hiring of such a specialist, the UAB unit has partnered with organizations in the community that specialize in human trafficking, including the Rescue Innocence Movement, The WellHouse and the Junior League of Birmingham. Together, they are working to shed more light on the issue of human trafficking in the community.
Efforts to promote awareness and fundraise recently culminated in the Rescue Innocence Movement’s second annual gala, which raised $50,000 for the new facility’s $250,000 operating budget.
“Last year when we hosted this event, we didn’t even know that this facility was going to be a thing,” Meyers said. “We were asking people to give money not even knowing where it was going to be, and people still donated, which was amazing.”
That Couldn’t Happen Here Syndrome
“It’s (the) kind of subject that people don’t always want to talk about because you don’t want to imagine that this is happening in your own backyard, but it is,” Freeman said. “I think if people read the stats, they would understand how serious an issue this is.”
A Mountain Brook native, Freeman first came into contact with human trafficking during her residency in Reno, Nevada. While there, she worked with two adolescent patients who were victims.
“We would stabilize some of these patients, but it is very hard to help,” she said. “They are mostly girls and it is difficult to incorporate them into regular society, because there is this stigma. They feel damaged. They have been coerced, and it’s very easy to slip back into it.”
Before her time in Nevada, she had no idea that the I-65 corridor was such a major player in the human trafficking industry.
When Meyers began working with the National Center for Sexual Exploitation to create the Rescue Innocence Movement, she was inspired by her late brother, Paul Meyers.
“He defended prostitutes in Jackson, Tennessee, for years,” Meyers said. “… In some cases, these women had even been sold by their parents when they were 2 or 3 years old.”
That wasn’t the case for every victim, Meyers said. Only about 1 percent of victims are actually abducted, and many are lured into human trafficking via social media.
Before the UAB facility, there was no place for law enforcement or DHR to take a child in the time period between picking them up and placing them in a home.
Much of the work Myers is conducting through the junior league’s human trafficking awareness program and Rescue Innocence is reaching out to law enforcement to properly train them in communicating with victims. This would be something the UAB unit would get involved with as well.
“A lot of these victims don’t really realize that they are victims, to be quite honest,” Freeman said. “They may feel like they are being punished by coming into the hospital – like their secret is out. And they want to protect their pimps, if you call them that. It’s re-educating the victims too.”
In addition, the unit’s specialist would work with ER doctors to better identify victims when they enter the facility.
“We’re not catching them, obviously,” she said. “We’ve had two in the last year and we are missing a lot of them. A lot of them do come to the ER with vague symptoms, and what Sara Gould is trying to do is help educate the ER staff, identify things to look for.”
Freeman noted that community involvement is also of major importance. Those involved must educate themselves on the effects of trauma to remove the stigma that makes the subject of human trafficking seem so taboo and isolates victims even more.
“People think that if they were in that situation, they would never go along with it,” Freeman said. “But it’s all about coercion (and) how easy it is to do when you are younger and vulnerable and perhaps are initially stopped with substances.”
According to Meyers, it is important to show these children who are victims that they aren’t in trouble and are not to blame for the trauma they endured at the hands of their captors.
The UAB facility is a mechanism to give them that much-needed physical care while beginning the work to rehabilitate their minds.
“For me, I think that in talking to DHR, the FBI and all of these big organizations, everyone has been excited that (UAB) is doing this and that this is going to be a reality,” Meyers said. “I truly believe that this is going to be facility that other states can use as a model.”
Freeman said that, on behalf of her entire unit, she is grateful to have the opportunity to put the resources already in place at UAB to good use to help the community battle human trafficking.
“The more you bring awareness to this issue, the more that avalanche starts to fall,” she said. “Then people will begin to recognize that they can’t get away with this victimization.”
To make a donation, visit rescueinnocencemovement.com.