JACKSON, MISS– Human trafficking is defined as “modern-day slavery and involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act” by the Department of Homeland Security. What has gone unrealized about human trafficking is how much it has grown in the Magnolia State.
Sandy Middleton, Executive Director of the Mississippi Center for Violence Prevention, sat down with News Mississippi and said that many do not know or do not realize just how prevalent human trafficking is in this state.
“Almost every state is ramping up to fight this problem,” said Middleton. “What makes us think it isn’t happening here in Mississippi?”
The National Human Trafficking Resource Center released a map (shown below) that identified areas of sex trafficking activity across the state.
Middelton added that work has been done in the state legislature to combat this growing crime.
“In 2013 a slate of anti-trafficking legislation passed,” said Middleton. “However, statistically, criminalizing human trafficking does little to stop it’s existence.”
Middleton said there are a few things that have allowed human trafficking, particularly sex trafficking, to grow in Mississippi.
“Number one, we don’t have law enforcement trained to investigate the cases,” said Middleton. “This isn’t a knock on our law enforcement. They’ll tell you they don’t have the training. There’s an art to cracking the code traffickers use and how they operate, and there’s a lot for them to learn.” said Middleton.
Madison County Sheriff Randy Tucker agreed with Middleton on the lack of training.
“Sex trafficking is a lot like drug trafficking,” Sheriff Tucker said. “They follow the path of least resistance.”
Victims of sex trafficking often need a different type of assistance that local law enforcement isn’t equipped or trained to handle.
“With as fast as this problem is growing, no, we don’t have enough training or resources to deal with it,” Sheriff Tucker said. “We can never have too much information, we can never have too many resources.”
Tucker said that, even with the lack of resources, officers do what they can to explore the issue. Lack of availability on the state level has also hindered the growth of trafficking prevention
“A lot of our state agents, Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics are already overworked,” Middleton said. “We need more agents assigned specifically to these sex trafficking cases.”
Middleton noted a growth in sex trafficking in the last few years.
“We work with sex trafficking victims everyday,” said Middleton. “We did the needs assessment with Belhaven University and Shared Hope International in 2015 and found 90 sex trafficking victims just in the metro area.”
There is a presence of denial surrounding the growth of this crime.
“People just don’t like to think about the fact that these offenders that are using our children for sex–these people are in organized crime,” She said. “They have people to organize, people to keep up with the money, with the operations.”
Oftentimes gangs, or individuals selling drugs or guns, will turn to human trafficking as another income source.
“People are non-consumable,” Middleton said. “You have to get a supply of drugs and guns, but human beings have to be used time and time again.”
While gang-related sex trafficking is prevalent, familial trafficking is also on the rise; mothers will sell their daughters for rent money, or for money to buy drugs.
“Sex-trafficked children have a strong presence in our youth detention centers,” said Middleton. “They are labeled habitual runaways, but what are they running from? They were being sexually trafficked or sexually abused. Then we get them when they run off, they get in trouble, then we send them back to what they were running from. She’s looked at from an early age as being a troubled child or teen.. so then, we put them on medicine and then we send them back home or lock them up in our detention centers. Then we find out years after the fact that they were being abused or trafficked.”
The only thing that will reduce the growth of sex trafficking in the state is action.
“Here in Mississippi where we’ve got a church on every corner and we talk about protecting children, and we’re talking about doing the right thing and yet we’re sticking our head in the sand when it comes to this issue,” Middleton said. “We should be able to pass stronger legislation and put money into keeping our children from being sold as slaves, and it isn’t happening.”