Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of stories produced in partnership with the Montgomery Advertiser and The Fuller Project for International Reporting.
The cursive script scrawls down Claira’s skin, looping across the finger on her left hand that, at another moment in time, might hold a ring.
But for now, it still holds the name of her trafficker.
“It says ‘Life,’ because he says that he gives his women life,” she said.
Claira met him when she was 14. They were in a mall. She was with her friends, and he was with his.
There was an almost 10-year age gap between the two groups. It didn’t deter the older men. They started hanging out with Claira and her friends on weekends, drinking and playing dominoes. Claira, struggling in an abusive home, began spending time alone with him, a well-dressed 23-year-old. After knowing him for over a year, she moved in with him.
“In my situation, he was my hero,” said Claira. “My circumstances sucked. I was looking to be rescued. He came along, and that was my way out of my life at home.”
Within months, she was one of a cadre of young women he transported and sold for sex in strip clubs up, down and around the southeastern United States. She was in and out of the sex trade for a decade before finally getting help at a residential treatment center for survivors of human trafficking in Alabama, where she now lives.
“That isn’t life,” Claira said, touching her tattoo with her thumb.
Most people wouldn’t recognize Claira’s story as human trafficking.
“The general perception is that human trafficking is the movie ‘Taken,’ and that it happens in Southeast Asia and other countries, but it doesn’t happen here,” said Christian Lim, a researcher at the University of Alabama who studies the crime. “And if it does happen here, it’s a girl walking through the mall and getting grabbed and thrown into a van. Of course, that has happened. But it’s definitely not the predominant way that human trafficking happens.”
These misconceptions allow traffickers to operate unnoticed. Debunking myths around trafficking is one of the biggest challenges to addressing the problem, Lim said.
More than 200 cases of sex or labor trafficking have been reported in Alabama since 2015. Of these cases, which only reflect calls to the hotline and not every instance of trafficking, more than 70 percent were exploited for sex, 85 percent were women, and nearly 30 percent were children. More than 60 percent were U.S. citizens who were trafficked not across borders, but in their own neighborhoods — at homes and in schools, at truck stops and in massage parlors, in hotel rooms and at sporting events.
Lim believes the number of survivors in the state is closer to 1,000. Last summer, he and a team of UA researchers conducted a study to investigate the scope of human trafficking in Alabama. They held focus groups with 114 professionals who work with trafficking survivors locally. That research yielded an estimate of 908 potential survivors of human trafficking in 2017 alone, of which almost 60 percent were children.
“Almost every type of human trafficking that exists around the world is happening to some degree here in Alabama,” Lim said.
The U.S. Department of Justice defines human trafficking as a crime in which sex or labor are induced through force, fraud or coercion or, in the case of sex trafficking, if the person is a minor. Though Alabama represents just a small fraction of cases nationally — upward of 24,000 people are believed to have been exploited on U.S. soil between 2015 and 2017 — its proximity to trafficking hot spots like Atlanta; Miami; Tennessee cities Chattanooga, Memphis and Knoxville; and New Orleans means that traffickers regularly travel through the state. Interstate 20 has been called the Sex Trafficking Superhighway because survivors of trafficking are commonly forced to service buyers of sex at truck stops, restaurants and hotels along the route.
Getting justice for survivors is a challenge, not least because the scale of the problem isn’t fully understood. Data about prevalence has to be pieced together from hotline tips, arrest records, court filings, and referrals for treatment. Most experts agree that human trafficking is vastly underreported. Many survivors don’t come forward, either because they don’t identity as victims or, if they’re foreign nationals, fear deportation. The data is particularly sparse for labor trafficking, which receives far less media attention and fewer law enforcement resources than sex trafficking.
In Tuscaloosa, innovative police officers have woven together a human trafficking task force despite a lack of specialized training. The task force, the first of its kind in the state, recognizes the complex issue can’t be identified or solved by old-school street policing.
Tuscaloosa police Lt. Darren Beams heads the West Alabama task force, which made 108 arrests last year in local hotels.
“It’s no more prevalent in Tuscaloosa than it is anywhere else,” Beams said. “But we changed the way that investigations go in terms of [former] prostitution-related offenses.”
Beams, a former homicide detective, said he’s encountered more psychological trauma in less than two years on the human trafficking beat than in the entirety of his career before. Beat cops and even police units trained in specializations like vice investigations are not trained to handle the complexities and nuances of identifying trafficking victims and building cases against their abusers, he said. In years’ past, officers were trained to look for prostitution offenses. Today, Beams’ team asks women if they’ve had a recent meal.
“When we get out in the hotels, the officer doesn’t wear a uniform, they’re not waving a pair of handcuffs or threatening to throw them in jails,” Beams said. “It’s hard to get them to open up, but when you go that route they tend to respond a little bit. We had to stop looking at them as suspects and had to look at them as victims.”
Beams’ strategy uses a “johns-first” initiative, targeting demand for commercial sex. In the 108 arrests last year, the vast majority of charges were not, in fact, human trafficking related, similar to the widespread sting last week at Florida spas which charged New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft with two counts of soliciting prostitution.
Commercial sex buyers in Tuscaloosa often believe they’re engaging in a consensual adult transaction, Beams said, while overlooking red flags of trauma and coercion. But Beams believes by targeting demand, law enforcement can impact the entire trade.
Only one woman has been charged in Tuscaloosa’s initiative, a human trafficking victim herself. But the woman was a “bottom,” Beams said, a trafficking victim acting as sort of a manager for a trafficker, controlling other women by withholding food and medical care. The victim was also victimizing another, Beams said, illustrating the complex network of many sex trafficking cases.
When cases of human trafficking are identified, they’re hard to prove because traumatized survivors are often fearful of testifying against their traffickers. Only 30 human trafficking cases were filed in Alabama in 2017. That’s a tenfold increase since 2010, when only three cases were filed, but it still leaves dozens — if not hundreds — of cases unprosecuted.
Most of Tuscaloosa’s stings have targeted hotels and motels, one of the top venues for sex trafficking in the state according to the Alabama Fusion Center. Others include private residences, which are primarily connected to gang activity, as well as truck stops and illicit massage parlors. A lot of sex trafficking business is initially conducted through online ads, which Beams’ task force uses to their advantage.
When it comes to labor trafficking, many survivors are clustered in the restaurant and construction industries, as well as in agriculture — places like chicken processing plants. Female adults make up the majority of identified survivors, according to Fusion Center data.
Tuscaloosa has yet to deal with a minor trafficking case, Beams said: The survivors who come through Tuscaloosa have been between 18 to 25 years old, on average. But he “wholeheartedly” believes people are often victimized at younger ages, either sold by a family member or, like Claira, manipulated by so-called Romeo pimps.
One woman Beams encountered in a hotel sting was 22. But she had already been trafficked for years, initially sold by her mother in Memphis, Tenn., who fell into addiction. This kind of trafficking, known as familial trafficking, was surprisingly prevalent in Lim’s study. “A lot of times that would look like a mom selling her daughter to neighbors or someone she knows — boyfriends or whomever — to pay for rent, or pay for dope, or buy food or groceries,” he said.
Lynn Caffery understands these dynamics better than most. A survivor of sex trafficking herself, Caffery says she was destined for a cycle of abuse and crime until a social worker in Oklahoma took an interest in her two decades ago.
“You have no hope, and they break you down completely, mentally,” Caffery said of sex traffickers. “You have to go through the reprogramming of your mind: They don’t love you; they’re the ones who are hurting you. And coming out of prison … it’s hard when you walk out. There’s no program. Just like when I was a child, I had no place to go.”
Caffery couldn’t stand the idea of another child or teenager being targeted because of a vulnerability like an unstable home life, homelessness or a struggle with addiction. She now runs Safe Harbor Youth, a Huntsville-based organization that began as a transitional living program for 16- to 22-year-old runaways but has evolved into one of the few long-term residential programs for trafficking survivors in the state.
“For years, it wasn’t deemed trafficking — it was deemed prostitution,” Caffery said. “I hate that word — no 11-year-old, no 16-year-old decides they want to be a prostitute. Those aren’t choices. When you are in such need of being loved, of being accepted, they prey upon that. They know your weaknesses because you’re in the streets. And it’s hard to leave when it’s the only thing you’ve ever known, the only thing you think your life is worth.”
The state has taken steps in recent years to close loopholes in the law. In 2016, the Legislature passed the Alabama Human Trafficking Safe Harbor Act, which, among other things, protects minors who have been trafficked from being charged with prostitution. The law made it unnecessary to prove force, fraud or coercion for a child to be considered a victim of human trafficking. It also requires that sexually exploited children receive counseling, substance abuse treatment, medical care and other social services. Last year, the state went even further, passing legislation that punishes buyers of sex with minors and the business owners who enable it. The changes are part of a broader national movement away from laws that criminalize survivors, especially minors.
Shared Hope International, which grades states on the strength of their anti-trafficking laws, gave Alabama an “A” grade in its latest report and listed the state as one of two most improved states between 2017 and 2018 (South Carolina was the other).
Though her program originally began as runaway and homeless relief, Caffery has opened the doors to trafficking survivors, as well. Caffery receives referrals from law enforcement groups like Beams’ and state programs, as well as identifying potential survivors through her own community contacts. But Caffery’s program, which accepts all genders and particularly caters to LGBT youth, can only accommodate seven people — 10 when they eventually complete an ongoing remodel.
The WellHouse in Birmingham, where Claira sought refuge, also offers 24 beds for adult women, while an ongoing expansion campaign could boost their capacity to 40.
A new faith-based venture in south Alabama aims to open a group home for survivors age 19 and younger. Camille Place last month announced a $2 million fundraising campaign for its proposed 16-bed facility.
Advocates on the ground say additional resources are vital, particularly in terms of long-term residential programs for people who have nowhere else to go. The few resources available cater primarily to women, leaving a void for male survivors of labor and sex trafficking, and advocates often drive hours out of town to get survivors to treatment.
“We need sustained resources that last over a prolonged period of time,” Tuscaloosa task force leader Lt. Darren Beams said. “The ones we’ve got are great. But we need more. These individuals are the broken of the community. They’ve been preyed upon since they were young. It’s not the kids who have been looked after well. It’s the people who fall through the cracks. The ones nobody misses.”
Claira may have fallen through the cracks more than a decade ago, but now she’s rising. Her days are filled with work, caring for her daughter and a few college classes — she’s not sure yet what she will major in.
But she is sure of one thing.
No matter how many appointments it will take, or how painful it will be, it’s time to remove the tattoo from her ring finger.
She’s reclaimed her own life in Alabama.
“A year ago, I don’t think I would have been ready to let go of that part of me,” she said. “But I can tell that I’ve grown. This is a healing step for me, to get this removed.”