The origins of Mississippians Against Human Trafficking (MSHAT) begin in Florence. MSAHT has since grown to cover the central Mississippi region, including the Florence, Jackson, and Brandon areas. They are self-described as “a coalition that was formed about three years ago to bring all the [local and state government as well as law enforcement] players in the human trafficking world to the table.” Collectively, this coalition realized that there were a lot of people doing things on small scale, but not a lot of people communicating and collaborating on a state level. Thus, MSAHT came into existence to facilitate this vital sharing of information. Since its inception, MSAHT has successfully bridged the communication gap, with increased education and awareness via in-person training sessions, as well as online training videos.
They are also committed to correcting misconceptions about human trafficking.
“We are trying to break the barrier of people that believe that this just doesn’t happen in this state. It absolutely happens in Mississippi. The I-55 corridor that runs through Jackson where it intersects with I-20 is a huge trafficking area in the State in general. And that includes any type of trafficking…this is not something that only happens in big cities. This is not something that only happens in foreign countries. It is happening in small towns in Mississippi,” says Sarah Fullen, a representative of MSAHT.
MSAHT also works diligently with the state legislature to get pro-victim bills passed. Most recently, they were part of the effort supporting Speaker Gunn to make charging a child under the age of eighteen with prostitution illegal. MSAHT also assists law enforcement, including the attorney general’s office, with education and training.
Resources and education
MSAHT works hard to provide vital information to law enforcement, to attorneys, to judges, “to say, hey, this is an issue that we have probably been seeing, they just didn’t know what it was…but what we call human trafficking today, ten years ago, we probably just called prostitution.”
Fullen continues to explain that, “There’s a huge misconception that trafficking, because of that word, that a victim must cross county or state lines - they do not have to be moved at all. Trafficking happens out of the home in a lot of Mississippi cases. The actual definition of trafficking is ‘any recruitment harboring, transportation provision or obtaining someone for a sex act in which that is forced on them by fraud coercion or whatever and there is an exchange of value.’ The exchange of value may be financial or a service or something else entirely.”
The State of Mississippi currently has five task forces that exclusively work on human trafficking cases. Over the last few years, they have made serious strides working with state and local law enforcement officers, fostering more awareness and inclusion.
Know the signs
A nuanced approach to victims is required because they typically remain silent. Therefore, it is very beneficial for people within the community to know the warning signs: how a person carries themselves; the kind of things that they say, or do not say; and visual clues such as certain tattoos.
MSAHT training videos have consequently been created as an important resource to address this. Available to anyone who has internet access, their website provides multiple videos geared toward different professions. The bottom line is, a child that is trafficked is going to show some signs at some point, whether it be consciously or subconsciously. There is going to be trauma there.
Steps to take
There are some definitive steps that the general public can take to assist law enforcement, depending on the situation. Visit MSAHT’s website to view the training videos that instruct on identifying the signs. Even if there is only a suspicion, MSAHT highly recommends contacting The National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888. The hotline will then contact the appropriate state officials. If a situation feels urgent, Fullen urges to always call 911.
What MSAHT does not encourage an engagement of any sort. They will never encourage the general public to engage directly in what is a suspected case of human trafficking. MSAHT advises to always let law enforcement handle the situation.
As far as resources go, MSHAT welcomes professionals who can donate time - not just for MSHAT, but for anyone in the state who is dealing with human trafficking. The women who currently participate in the rehab program through the Center for Violence Prevention are always in need of attorneys who can take some pro bono cases, as well as doctors and dentists who are willing to donate time and/or resources.
Fullen assures that “anybody who is willing to help, we will find something they can do to help.”
Currently, MSHAT is preparing a shelter for the youngest segment of trafficking victims - ages eighteen and under. To date, no shelter exists in Mississippi for them.
They hope that by opening this shelter, it will start a snowball effect, that it will encourage someone else in north Mississippi, in south Mississippi, and the Delta to say ‘you know, we can do this, too. We now have a model for it.’
In five to ten years, the goal is for Mississippi to have five to ten more shelters open and catering to different segments of the population, including not only the thirteen- to the eighteen-year-old range for girls, but also a shelter for boys, and shelters for even younger victims - newborns to ten-year-olds, girls and boys.
Fullen parts with these final thoughts, “We hope as the right information gets out there and people become more informed than those that are out there will come forward and see that there are resources for them and that there are people who want to help. And that that would give them the strength to say something.”