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Human trafficking in Mississippi

 

Jody Dyess, left, and Drake Bassett

Jody Dyess, left, and Drake Bassett

 

 

Isabelle Altman

 

 

When Leah Daughdrill was 18, she moved in with a family friend. The Leakesville, Mississippi resident was promised a stable home, which she'd never had, and drugs, which she'd been addicted to for years. The friend said he may ask her to do sexual favors from time to time, but Daughdrill was free to leave. 

 

Until she wasn't anymore. 

 

The man she lived with forced her to have sex with him and his family -- for which he was paid, but she wasn't. He beat her. Whatever friends Daughdrill might have been able to reach out to, she wasn't allowed to contact. Her abuser broke the one phone she ever managed to get her hands on. 

 

"I was afraid he was going to kill me," she said. 

 

After four years, she was able to get away. She entered a rehabilitation facility, kicked her drug habit and got a job. But it wasn't until the last year, when she heard Jody Dyess speak at a conference, that she realized she'd been a victim of human trafficking. 

 

Dyess works with Free International, an organization that fights human trafficking by providing training for law enforcement and school districts and which raises awareness of what Paula Broome, human trafficking coordinator at the Mississippi Attorney General's Office, called the fastest growing criminal industry in the world today. 

 

It's an estimated $32 billion per year industry, Broome said, though some experts have put it as high as $100 billion. United Nations organizations said in 2005 the number of trafficked people internationally was 12.3 million. By 2012, it was 20.9 million, she said. And it's only growing. 

 

When she heard Dyess speak, Daughdrill realized the human trafficking indicators he listed sounded familiar -- being traded for sex, people being brought into the house, feeling like she couldn't escape. 

 

"That's what happened," she realized. "There's no denying that." 

 

 

 

The problem 

 

What happened to Daughdrill isn't unusual in Mississippi -- except maybe that it usually happens to people even younger than she was. 

 

Dyess would know -- he goes into schools and hosts assemblies to teach kids and educators what trafficking is. 

 

"I wish I could say every time we've done (an assembly at a school), we could walk away and say, 'That was a waste of time'," Dyess said at the monthly meeting of the Lowndes County Republican Women, where he was guest speaker last week. "...But I have yet to walk away (without meeting a child) who said, 'You just told my story.'"  

 

He knows of a five-year-old girl whose father took her to be photographed by a child pornographer. He knows of a six-year-old girl who was sexually abused so badly she still has medical issues. He knows of more than 200 cases of trafficking personally -- and even one, he said, would be too big a number. 

 

What Dyess described is known as familial trafficking. But there's also pimp-led and gang-led trafficking, criminals and organizations that traditionally have trafficked in drugs, now running victims through what's known as a circuit -- going from city to city, stopping at major sporting or music events, looking for anywhere with large populations and advertising online at sites like Backpage.com. 

 

And because of its placement, Mississippi is a hub -- close to major cities like New Orleans and Memphis, with stops like Jackson in between. 

 

That said, it's hard to know specific numbers. Traditionally, law enforcement treated trafficking like prostitution, which would get the victim charged with a crime while the traffickers got off free, Broome said. And at least in Mississippi, district attorneys often give criminals the chance to plea down to a charge that's easier to prove, Dyess said. 

 

He and Broome are working on that. Both their jobs involve training law enforcement, first responders and medical professionals how to recognize trafficking indicators -- more home security than usual, doors that lock from the outside, victims with certain types of tattoos, minors completely controlled by an adult who may not be family. 

 

 

 

Progress in Mississippi 

 

In December 2014, Governor Phil Bryant created a task force bringing together non-profit organizations fighting human trafficking with state law enforcement departments and other state agencies to determine laws to change and ways to crack down on traffickers while making sure victims get the resources they need. 

 

Drake Bassett, CEO of Palmer Home for Children, sat on the task force, which, he said, was successful in the sense that it got a lot of state agencies and NGOs all on the same page when it came to human trafficking and treating victims. 

 

For Bassett, that means if a Mississippi social worker tells him of a child who has just been rescued from a trafficking situation, Bassett can get that child to special transitional home or rehabilitation facility that will give them the unique therapeutic care that child needs. 

 

"If we get a phone call tonight, I can provide a solution," Bassett said. "It may not be right here in Mississippi, but I can get that child to a safe place." 

 

Right now, there are zero safe places in Mississippi for those children to go, though some domestic violence shelters around the state can house rescued adults. But services for victims are the biggest thing Mississippi needs to combat trafficking, Broome said. 

 

"You're talking about people who have endured a great deal of trauma," she said. "(They need) long-term residential treatment ... Where do they go? You can't just put them out on the street." 

 

Bassett hopes to have a transitional home, or safe house, for trafficked children set up by the end of the year. It won't be permanent treatment, he said, but it'll be a safe place for them to stay while state agencies and social workers find them that permanent care. The home will house eight to 10 children and will cost about $300,000, half of which is operational costs. 

 

Expenses are the problem, he added -- not just for non-profits, which can rely on private donations, but for state agencies which are all strapped for cash. 

 

But as long as people like Broome and Dyess train more first responders and raise more awareness, there's hope, he said. 

 

"I think the more that people are aware, we can direct some of those resources (to helping victims)," he said. 

 

And awareness is important, said Dyess -- just because people don't know of any cases in their community doesn't mean there aren't any. 

 

"I guarantee you if you gave me four days in this county, I can find cases," he said. 

 

As for Daughdrill, she now has a job at the same faith-based rehabilitation facility that treated her after she ran away from her trafficker. She gives talks at churches and once at an assembly with Dyess where she tells her story. It makes her nervous to talk about it, she said, but she wants people to know. She sometimes wonders if her story would be different if only someone had recognized trafficking for what it was and offered her help. 

 

"If one person out of a whole school or a whole workplace ... will say something, it could change a life," she said. 

 

The Human Trafficking hotline 1-888-373-7888.

 

 

 

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