You may not realize it, but human trafficking may be happening around you in Mississippi.
Sandy Middleton is the Executive Director for the Center for Violence Prevention. The Center for Violence Prevention was funded in July of last year to open a victim services program for victims of human trafficking in the state.
“We were able to actually establish a program and open a shelter in September of last year and we named it the Tower,” said Middleton. “We are serving the state of Mississippi and we have assisted in forming a Central Mississippi human trafficking task force that is key in identifying cases, finding victims and holding offenders accountable so we are really busy right now because we are reaching into the Southern part of the state as well as the Northern part of the state to replicate the model that’s been working so well in Central Mississippi.”
As Executive Director, Middleton oversees all of the activities of the Center for Violence Prevention and and the Tower.
She said it’s been really shocking to them how prevalent trafficking is across the state.
“When we first became involved in working with victims of trafficking, we expected to find it only in the metropolitan area. However, we’ve been shocked to see trafficking even in some very small communities,” said Middleton. “We believe that’s probably because they can operate easily in secluded areas but we’ve actually seen some very prolific activity in some rural areas so it’s pretty much all over the state.”
She said that there are certainly warning signs that an individual is being trafficked. These can include signs of physical abuse, unexplained absences from school when it comes to children, dressing different, tattoos, sexualized behavior, withdrawn depression, distracted behavior, more money or flashy jewelry all of a sudden and mention of a boyfriend that’s older.
Middleton said these are all red flags that need another look from people who love and care about the children in these situations.
“Trafficking is a violent crime and these people are violent criminals,” said Middleton. “These traffickers have figured out that they can make more money by selling human beings than they can by trafficking drugs and guns and we simply have to pay attention to this crime and law enforcement and prosecutors need to be trained on how to work these cases and we need to continue to pay attention and offer specialized services for these victims, so it’s important to the safety of our children and our communities that we really put a focus on the crime of trafficking.”
Middleton said they have dealt with 25 human trafficking cases in just the last few months.
“There are many more that we’re hearing about across the state,” said Middleton. “We get calls from law enforcement all the time where they’re reporting cases and they need help with screening and they just have questions about how to proceed so there’s a lot of the activity out there.”
She said working with these victims is very challenging because it’s long term renewal and takes a long time to restore them because of the complex trauma they’ve endured.
“Many times they’ve come to us with addictions and multiple types of depression and anxiety and just all kinds of problems so their treatment is like peeling an onion, you just have to continue to love them and treat the different things that come up,” said Middleton. “As I said, it’s a long term treatment that can take up to two years but when you see these individuals begin to trust and then begin to love and they begin to realize that somebody cares about them, it’s very rewarding and it’s gratifying to see them begin to function and believe that they are a valued person.”
She also wants to encourage you to say something if you see something by calling the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888 or reach out to the Center for Violence Protection at 800-266-4198.
Middleton said that’s if you’re a private citizen and you see something that you’re concerned about, if you’re a law enforcement official and need some help with a case or if you’re a victim looking for assistance.