BY LYNN OLDSHUEemail@example.com
On a table in the corner of The Rose Center, a day shelter for victims of sex trafficking in Mobile, is a vision board filled with pictures of hopes and dreams for a better life. A picture of “I Want To Be Free” tattooed on an arm. Multiple images of broken chains. A Polaroid camera. A graduation cap and diploma. A house. A community having dinner outside at a long table. The statement: “If we care about human trafficking, we must care for orphans and foster youth.”
Crystal Yarbrough, director of The Rose Center, tells the girls who’ve made their way to her to “dream like there is nothing that can stand in the way. No dream is too small or insignificant. No dream is too big.”
“As they progress through the program, it’s incredible to refer back to the vision board as they conquer obstacles and see their dreams come true, little by little,” Yarbrough said. “We just had our first graduate from our program.”
Dreams displayed on that vision board are coming true because someone cared about human trafficking and sexual slavery. Invisible chains were broken because someone answered a calling to help set victims free. There was a graduation because someone asked the right questions about the past and saw a better future for the woman who is now a survivor.
The issue of sexual slavery is complicated. Helping victims isn’t easy. Their pain, anger and trauma is difficult to understand. It is easier to look the other way and pretend it doesn’t happen.
But a few people in South Alabama refuse to look away.
They have been called to help in dreams or by answered prayers. They know people change because they themselves have changed. They believe in the value of life and saving one at a time. They fight for other children as hard as they fight for their own.
They have opened homes and shelters for victims and an investigation agency to find missing children. They started outreach agencies to educate, movements to raise money and a crisis line to find the best places to help children heal.
Law enforcement says the biggest obstacle to saving victims is having no safe place to take them. Many areas have no shelters for victims of sex trafficking, but South Alabama will soon have three, meeting different ages and needs while all providing shelter, meals, clothing, counseling and help with job and life skills.
Following is a list and descriptions of the resources available to victims along the Gulf Coast:
Hope Haven opened in Baldwin County in 2014 as an immediate-needs shelter for adult victims of sex trafficking. It expanded in 2019 to offer longer and more in-depth care. Hope Haven has helped approximately 50 victims since 2014. Thirty-five were from Mobile and Baldwin counties.
The Rose Center
The Rose Center opened in Mobile in March 2018 as a drop-in shelter for victims of sex trafficking, or girls who are at risk. It receives four to eight referrals per month. That number is growing as staff and volunteers train first responders about human trafficking.
Groundbreaking begins this summer for Camille Place, an 8,600-square-foot residential and rehabilitation home for girls ages 6 to 19 who are the victims of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. The home for minors, in an undisclosed location in South Alabama, will be one of the first of its kind in the United States, and will house up to 16 girls. Each girl will receive counseling, education and training in dance, drama or culinary arts.
Founder and director Chris Ziebach says teams in Mobile and Baldwin counties have begun praying for the girls and law enforcement and government agencies are ready to make placements. She says the needs are here and Camille Place will open at total occupancy.
“Camille Place will be a place of healing, restoration and starting over,” Ziebach said. “There will be joy and laughter and the love of Christ. These girls are still alive. Their future can be better than their past.”
ZeroChild, run by Executive Director Ashley Haeusler from her home in Fairhope, is a crisis line for families that need help with a child. After assessing the needs of the child, Haeusler finds reliable, safe and restorative care, and the best place for healing, even if it is in another city or state. ZeroChild works with legal and medical advocates, Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASAs), children’s therapeutic homes and Catholic Charities’ agencies across the country.
“Healing isn’t one-size-fits-all,” Haeusler said. “A child who was trafficked will have different needs than a child who grew up abused or neglected. Finding resources for trafficked children is hard. In two years there will be more resources because we are beginning to understand the services trafficking survivors need. The caregivers are relieved to know they aren’t alone and that something more can be done for the child.”
Hotline: 1-833-40-CHILD (1-833-402-4453)
4Sarah is a faith-based nonprofit organization whose mission is to help change the life direction of women and girls who are adult entertainers, prostitutes, escorts, porn stars or victims of sex trafficking. 4Sarah was started by Kasey McClure, who grew up with her older sister, Rachel Cain, in Mobile. Sexual abuse by their father led to years of dancing in strip clubs in Mobile and Atlanta. McClure got out first and started 4Sarah in Atlanta in 2005 to help other women get out of the sex industry. 4Sarah provides an assessment house, program, care teams, outreach, intervention and scholarships for continuing education and job skills. In April 2019, Cain started a team to expand 4Sarah into Mobile and offers some of those same services to help women into a better life.
Advocates for Freedom
Susie Harvell retired but wanted to do more than sit at home in Gulfport, Mississippi. In 2010, she started Advocates for Freedom (AFF) to help end the exploitation, enslavement and sale of men, women and children.
“When we started, there was little awareness of human trafficking in Mississippi and no one wanted to talk about it,” she said. “We have lead the way with education to help law enforcement and communities look beneath the surface to find the truth of the fastest-growing crime in the world and to understand who the victims really are.”
AFF has helped 192 victims; 47 were minors. The organization provides medical care, hotel rooms, food, hygiene products and other necessary services. In 2018, they trained 840 police cadets and 79 law enforcement personnel. The agency also provides education programs for schools and community organizations. All training and victim services are free. AFF has 400 volunteers in Mississippi, and is expanding into Texas and Mobile in 2019.
Sandye Roberts was a CASA volunteer for many years. She noticed a rise in child pornography and talk of human trafficking. Roberts became a private investigator and opened Halos Investigations in 2010 to help solve missing-children cases and save victims of sex trafficking. Halos now has 22 volunteers and works cases anywhere in the country at no charge.
“Halos does the leg work and turns it over to the police,” Roberts said. “We are old-school grandmas and stay after the police and make sure they follow up.”
Halos is based in Vancleave, Mississippi, but Roberts’ family lives in Mobile, and she wants to expand here. “There is a lot of trafficking out of Mobile,” she said. “We have had cases of missing children who were trafficked or lured out of the area. We have seen girls recruited for Mardi Gras and Mobile girls being pimped out at the casinos.”
In 2018, Halos had 58 cases with 48 saves and four found deceased. “Parents are begging for help,” Roberts said. “We do what we say we’re going to do and keep following up with the families to make sure the children are getting the help they need after they return home.”
Chris Duff is a former special agent in Louisiana’s Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, and has arrested hundreds of internet predators and child pornography criminals. He started Innocent Eyes to provide free internet safety presentations across the Gulf Coast to schools, law enforcement and parents, from an undercover teen’s perspective. He teaches parents what to look for on phones, apps, games and in chat rooms, and how to protect children from predators. He also offers private sessions and individual guidance to parents who have concerns but who don’t know where to go for help or want to keep sensitive matters private.
The Little Tree Project
At the age of 12, Allana Chris was diagnosed with RSD, a rare disorder of the sympathetic nervous system with chronic, severe pain. The disease has been debilitating and at times life-threatening. While learning how to manage RSD, she became aware of human trafficking and found purpose for her life. She started The Little Tree Project, an online boutique of ethically made goods from organizations that provide support and empowerment for survivors. Proceeds are donated to A21, a global anti-human trafficking organization, Eye Heart World, an anti-sex trafficking organization local to South Alabama and Wisconsin, and The Little Tree Project.
Chris dreams Little Tree will grow to employ survivors of human trafficking and support a long-term safe home. “I can’t do a lot because of my health, but I believe in being faithful in the little things and God will give you the much,” she said. “Maybe I help one woman or girl who feels forgotten. I have been hopeless before. These women give me hope to hold on.”
The Penny Story
Kendall Phillips sat in a college class titled “Human Trafficking in America” and the professor compared the victims to pennies. Pennies are invisible but everywhere, the professor explained. Overlooked because they have no value. In the analogy, the copper coins represent the millions of unseen victims around the globe.
Phillips went to Greece to intern with A21 and to put hope and value into girls who were trafficked. After the victims were rescued in Athens, their next human contact was A21. “We were on the front lines of receiving the girls and loving them back to life,” Phillips said. She came back to her home in Gulf Shores at the end of the summer and wondered what she was supposed to do next. “I didn’t have a platform to speak from, but I knew I couldn’t go to sleep at night in my small town in Alabama and leave those girls behind,” she said.
Phillips said she remembered the penny metaphor and started making bracelets with the word “Worthy” stamped into the penny to signify the girls have worth no matter how society treats them. She hoped the bracelet would create awareness through conversation and raise money for A21. Sales began with family and friends who were obligated to buy a bracelet. Christian singer Kari Jobe asked to sell the bracelets in her merchandise, and sales took off. Approximately 30,000 penny bracelets have been sold so far.
“I will always see a victim when I see a penny,” she said. “I pick one up and pray to God, ‘picture one of your people in captivity and free them’. I will never see a penny the same way.”
How you can help:
-Volunteer or make a donation to any of these agencies.
-Recognize the signs of a victim: truancy; malnourishment; homeless/runaway; an older, controlling boyfriend; branding, tatoos or carvings; scars, bruises, burns or rope burns; sudden change in behavior; scripted answers/inconsistencies; and use of terms common to the sex industry.
-Report: If you believe someone may be a victim of human trafficking, report your suspicions to law enforcement by calling 911 or the 24-hour National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888.
–Report missing children or child pornography to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) at 800-THE-LOST (843-5678), or online at missingkids.com.
If you are concerned about sexual abuse or the sexual behavior of a child, contact one of these agencies:
CARE House in Baldwin County: 251-989-2555
Child Advocacy Center in Mobile: 251-432-1101
Lifelines Counseling Services in Mobile: 251-602-0909
This is the final installment of a six-part series on sexual trafficking in South Alabama. The full series can be read at lagniappemobile.com.
Author’s note: Thank you to all of the survivors who shared their stories. Thank you to the agencies and organizations who are working to save victims and help survivors and participated in this series to help raise awareness. Thank you to Thomas Harrison, Diana Brewer and Mike Dumas for editing these stories over and over and making them readable and Lagniappe for running them. Thank you to my family for support.
Thank you for reading this series and for caring about sexual slavery happening in South Alabama.
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