January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. While many have heard of this crime, few know much about it. Human Trafficking encompasses a variety of servitude including victims of the sex trade, forced labor and debt bondage. Sexual exploitation is the largest sector of the human trafficking trade. Because victims are coerced, separated from friends and family, or don’t have the means to support themselves, human trafficking often goes unreported. Non-reporting and difficulty in finding victims leaves much speculation as to the full scope of this crime. It affects people of every age, race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, nationality and educational background.

Information gathered from the National Human Trafficking Hotline shows a hotbed of activity throughout the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida along Interstate 10. Additionally, Interstate 20 has been dubbed the “Human Trafficking Super Highway” for its heightened activity—both are major Mississippi thoroughfares. The hotline receives an average of 150 calls each day regarding tips or cries for help. As the number of victims begins to rise swiftly—estimated between 25 and 40 million victims across the globe—we are starting to see more and more activity in our own backyard. Throughout the state, Canopy Children’s Solutions is stepping in to help victims.“Between July and October of 2019, Mississippi had 88 juvenile victims rescued from human trafficking,” said Krystle Hilliard, program director with Canopy’s South Mississippi Child Advocacy Center (SMCAC), which serves George, Greene, Harrison, Jackson and Stone Counties in south Mississippi. “That’s 88 kids that we know of in three months, but there are countless others still needing help. Our center worked with 13 child trafficking victims in 2019, which is a small glimpse of the gruesome larger picture. It is incredibly important that people recognize human trafficking is happening here.”

As part of her role with Canopy’s SMCAC, Hilliard helps to educate the community on human trafficking. Because of the mental toil these victims face, it is often because of tips from concerned citizens that victims are rescued from trafficking. Hilliard urges individuals to be aware of potential signs, and if you see something, say something:

  • Young person with an older adult whose behavior towards one another is unlike normal parent/child interaction (fearful or overtly sexual)
  • Person with a makeshift tattoo of a name, number or barcode in a very visible location such as neck, chest, shoulder or arm
  • Young person out late at night alone at gas stations or truck stops
  • An individual fearful of providing personal information such as name and age
  • Child alone at night without identification or belongings
  • Child whose appearance is highly inappropriate for her age such as hair extensions, revealing clothing, flashy manicures, or dramatic makeup
  • Sexual solicitation
  • Person with bruises, open wounds or swelling on very visible areas of the face and body

Through partnerships with Mississippi Department of Child Protection Service (CPS) and youth courts, Canopy also sees high rates of human trafficking in the children served by throughout the organization.

“Because our Warren County Children’s Shelter is located on the Mississippi/Louisiana line and on I-20, it isn’t uncommon for us to get a call about a human trafficking case,” said Canopy Senior Director of Solutions Christian Ware, LPC. “We have provided refuge and care for several children who have been trafficked. One of the hardest things about trafficking victims is that it skews their view of trust and love and their own self-worth. While children at the shelter are only with us for a short time, we make sure they know what it feels like to be cared for unconditionally—the way every child deserves. In trafficking, nothing is unconditional.”

Helping a child heal from trafficking is a lengthy and complex challenge. It requires them to accept that what they experienced isn’t normal, that the abuse they suffered isn’t their fault, and understanding appropriate displays of affection and means of conflict.

“Human trafficking creates a different level of trauma from other types of abuse, including sexual abuse,” said Christy Ainsworth, clinical director for Canopy’s CARES Center. “We use a trauma-focused approach to attempt to restore their social, emotional and psychological processes to where they were before becoming trafficked. What often makes this very difficult is that these victims have been so traumatized that they don’t see themselves as victims. In many cases, it’s their parents exploiting them. Traffickers are smart and recognize weaknesses that are easy to exploit, including their personal relationships, and use them to their full advantage. It’s hard to accept that someone who is supposed to love you would do anything to intentionally harm or devalue you. They believe it’s ‘just the way they show their love.’”

Individuals who have been approached by or believe to have witnessed a victim of human trafficking should immediately contact local authorities. Tips can also be supplied to the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-737-7888. For more information about human trafficking visit the U.S. Department of Homeland Security website, www.ice.gov/features/human-trafficking.

ABOUT CANOPY CHILDREN’S SOLUTIONS For more than 100 years, Canopy has provided innovative solutions to many of Mississippi’s most vulnerable youth through a comprehensive continuum of behavioral health, educational, and social service solutions. Learn more at mycanopy.org or call 800.388.6247.