By Emily Williams
The human trafficking industry is ever-present in the life of anyone living close to an interstate, and Vestavia Hills is ready to do something about it.
In an executive work session Nov. 18, the Vestavia Hills City Council met with representatives of the Children’s Policy Council of Jefferson County to see what can be done to classify the city as a TraffickingFree Zone.
According to Jordan Giddens, community engagement coordinator for the CPC’s Child Trafficking Solutions Project, every aspect of obtaining the status of TraffickingFree Zone is designed to spread awareness through the community.
Giddens is fresh off of five years spent lobbying the Alabama Legislature across both parties.
“We can enact as many changes as we want on the state level, but if it’s not a grassroots effort, it’s not going to be uniform,” Giddens said.
The new program has been created with help from the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking, based in Tampa, Florida.
It begins with a proclamation declaring the city a trafficking-free zone. The city then must work with CPC to coordinate human trafficking training for all city staff, as well as implementing a policy that clearly prohibits the purchase of sex during work.
“If we say the city of Vestavia Hills takes this very seriously and becomes a trafficking-free zone, that sends out a message to the entire community that we are going to be a trafficking-free zone as well,” Giddens said. “Although we can’t mandate that every business become a trafficking-free zone, we can walk in with that proclamation and say, ‘Your city is taking this seriously and, for liability’s sake, you should take this seriously too.’”
Closer Than You Think
“Most people don’t understand what human trafficking is,” Giddens said. “They’ve seen it sometimes every day in their life, but they just don’t know what to look for.”
It’s personal for Giddens, a former Mountain Brook resident and graduate of The Altamont School.
In 2015, he was drugged and kidnapped while at a local bar in downtown Birmingham.
“That was how I learned about human trafficking,” he said. “I got pulled up behind a U-Haul. Inside, people had their mouths duct-taped, hands behind their backs.”
For whatever reason, his captor decided to keep him. It wasn’t until after Giddens was taken to a residence and assaulted that he realized he still had his cell phone and called for help.
The captor’s identity was compromised, so he drove Giddens back to Birmingham and released him.
“I didn’t even know for three years after it happened what I had almost experienced was human trafficking,” he said.
More Common Than You Know
Giddens, in some macabre way, was one of the lucky ones.
Human trafficking is the second-largest illegal industry behind drug trafficking, according to CPC Human Trafficking Advocate Barbara Fowler. “The reason why it is second to drugs right now is because drugs can be sold once,” said Fowler. “A human being can be sold over, and over, and over again.”
The two major forms of trafficking are sex trafficking and labor trafficking, both forcing victims to work against their will.
CPC’s awareness efforts will initially focus on the sex trade, in which a national average age of entry is 15 and one in six victims is under the age of 12, even younger for boys.
Once a victim enters that new world, it is hard to escape. Traffickers typically move their victims on what’s called a circuit, traveling among a handful of cities, never staying in one location for too long.
“The more they move them, the more confused their victims are,” Giddens said. “Oftentimes the victims don’t even know what city they’re in or what day it is.”
Interstate 65 and I-20 are portions of a prime circuit between Atlanta, Nashville and Birmingham. The section of highway from Birmingham to Atlanta is identified as the most trafficked section of highway in the nation, according to CPC data.
What Is Being Done
The classification has been achieved by less than 10 cities in Florida and one in Nevada. Vestavia Hills could be the first city in Alabama to receive the designation.
The program is implemented by the city government, first responders, businesses, schools, organizations, churches and the media, using technology to reach buyers and victims on a massive scale.
“It’s similar to when we started the Freedom from Addiction Coalition,” Vestavia Hills Mayor Ashley Curry said. “Initially, there was some reluctance by the other cities to divulge numbers, but I think they realize that, unless you tell what your problem is, you’re acting like it doesn’t exist.”
The Vestavia Hills Police Department has had the human trafficking issue high on its radar and has conducted reverse-sting operations in town.
“In July of this year, Operation Independence Day was a three-day operation here in Vestavia,” said Police Chief Dan Rary. “Usually when we run our operations, they go anywhere from four to eight hours. In less than three hours, we had to shut it down because we were full. … We had too many customers.”
In August, the VHPD, working with the FBI, made 49 arrests associated with sex trafficking in the cities of Homewood, Vestavia and Pelham. Seventeen of those were made in Vestavia.
What People Can Do
“The number one way to decrease this issue is to decrease the demand,” Giddens said. “Supply will always be there if the demand is there.”
The initial goal of the new TraffickingFree Zone program is to have each municipality in Jefferson County signed on by 2021, just in time for the World Games.
“It’s major events where suddenly you have an increased demand,” Giddens said. “If you get hundreds and thousands of people coming into the city, these suppliers want to take advantage of the increased demand.”
According to a January 2019 article published by ESPN, there is a clear link between major sporting events and increases in demand for human trafficking. A nationwide sweep held over the course of several weeks leading up to the 2017 Super Bowl resulted in approximately 750 human trafficking-related arrests, 100 taking place in the host city of Houston.
“We’re not sticking our head in the sand and saying, ‘Oh, well that doesn’t happen in Vestavia,’” Curry said. “Yes, it does. And we’re going to do something about it.”
The Vestavia Hills City Council signed this proclamation at its Nov. 25 meeting.