Federal grant to fight human trafficking awarded to School of Social Work

There are an estimated 20 million slaves in the world today, according to the International Labour Organization. Of those 20 million, about half are children, forced into a life of abuse, hard labor or sexual exploitation. 

For The University of Alabama's School of Social Work, human trafficking is an issue that must be addressed, and they recently received more than $1 million to do just that. 

The United States Department of Justice has teamed up with the School of Social Work to help save children from human trafficking, awarding them a $1.35 million grant to connect law enforcement, prosecutors and treatment facilities to better serve human trafficking victims. 

Javonda Williams, an associate professor of social work at the University, said the grant provides opportunities to students to work with her and other professors on trafficking research. The grant's primary purpose is to train members of the community to combat trafficking and make sure that Alabama has a uniform response to human trafficking cases.

“We have human service professionals that help treat victims but we also have law enforcement involved, as well as prosecution services,” Williams said. “What the grant attempts to do is to have more training in all areas involved so that everyone at least understands what everyone else is doing in those different areas. It helps us see if there are gaps in services across the state and how to address them.”

Williams said that a major part of the grant is the creation of a database called SMARTY (Safe iMmediately Accessible Resources for Trafficked Youth) that will allow treatment services, law enforcement and prosecutors to be able to communicate more efficiently and help coordinate their efforts in providing resources for trafficking victims.

Currently, there is no standard protocol in Alabama for the handling of human trafficking cases involving underage victims. The grant funds research into developing projects like the Juvenile Victims of Human Trafficking Project, an effort to improve the interaction of law enforcement and organizations that connect victims with treatment services.

Williams said she hopes the grant funded research will help see where these rescued children are being sent and who takes on the custody of a child that has been rescued from the human trafficking industry.

“It’s so complicated because, with child victims, we have to return them to the proper legal custody, be it to their family or into the custody of a different state,” Williams said. “So that’s why we’ll be working with people like [the Department of Human Resources], so that when that happens, there will be a consistent approach to figuring out where these children belong and seeing that they get the proper care, regardless of where they end up.” 

Carolyn Potter, executive director of WellHouse, a Birmingham area emergency shelter and social service center for women seeking to leave prostitution, trafficking or other sexual exploitation, said that while WellHouse is unable to shelter underage victims, other similar shelters throughout the country are able to serve minors and these facilities can be a valuable asset to a victim’s recovery. She said the research grant will help trafficking rescue and prevention professionals collaborate and come up with solutions.

“The more resources that are available, the better chance for giving a victim their life back,” Potter said. “Services like WellHouse can provide victims an emergency shelter, help them get upfront medical care, help obtain documents that have been lost and long-term programs can include trauma counseling, substance abuse therapy, job skills training and in some cases, they can help to reunite victims with their family.”

Pat McCay, secretary of the End It project of the Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force, said a standard protocol would help victims have immediate access to the best resources available by connecting treatment services with law enforcement.

“There are local task forces that do the best thing that they know of at the time, but it may not be the overall best thing for the child to get the best services and treatment for that child at that point,” McCay said. “A statewide protocol can ensure that any child rescued anywhere in Alabama still has the best resources available to them.”

While raising awareness and training individuals to handle human trafficking cases is key to saving those already in the industry, McCay said more prevention methods are needed to deter buyers and there needs to be harsher punishments for buyers and perpetrators.

“What we’re hoping to see is that the buyers face very stiff fines, they have significant prison time and they have to file as a sex offender,” McCay said. “When surveys are done that ask buyers what it would take to deter them from being buyers, nearly all of them say that prison time would have stopped them, and even more answer that having to register as a sex offender would have stopped them. I think we’re on to something if we can get these kinds of things in our legislation.”

With various departments of professionals working to combat human trafficking and each victim facing different situations, working toward standard protocol to serve them is no easy task. But Williams said that she and others in the trafficking prevention and treatment fields are up to the task.

“There is no such thing as a simple trafficking case,” Williams said. “All of these issues are going to be complex, especially when dealing with children, so with this assistance we can properly address those complexities.”

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