By Maureen Smith
A new task force in the Diocese of Jackson is taking on the issue of human trafficking in America. The effort was started by Sister Therese Jacobs, BVM. Her order, the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, picked this urgent issue as one of its key social justice initiatives in 2014. She helped organize a workshop held at Jackson St. Richard Parish on Saturday, June 27.
Catholic Charities has developed the task force to take next steps to address the problem. A faith-based group out of Biloxi, Advocates for Freedom, provided speakers for the human trafficking workshop. Members of the task force also made presentations. Dorothy Balser, director of parish based ministries for Catholic Charities Jackson, said close to 50 people attended the workshop. “At the end we had pledge cards that gave people an opportunity to make a commitment to the effort,” said Balser. “They could request a speaker, host an informational event, form their own local task force if they were from out of town or join our task force,” she added. People were also invited to pray for the victims of human trafficking.
According to the Sisters of Charity website, “Trafficking of human persons is the buying and selling of people for any purpose, including sex, prostitution, forced marriages, servitude and forced labor. Trafficking is exploitation and a violation of human rights and human dignity and is intrinsically evil.”
Sex trafficking is the most common. “One statistic that stands out is that human trafficking is the second most prevalent crime, second only to drugs,” she said. “The picture that is before me is that you sell a drug once, but human beings can be sold multiple times a day – sometimes 20 times a day,” she said.
Sharon Robbins, one of the speakers from Advocates for Freedom said she became involved when she noticed strange activity in her own gated community. She came into contact with the founder of Advocates for Freedom when she was trying to figure out what to do about the groups of young girls being loaded into a van late at night. The information she was able to gather led law enforcement to open an investigation and take action.
Robbins urges everyone to pay attention to their surroundings, saying many people would be shocked at some of the cases happening very close to home. She said she has personally heard of stories of trafficking, even trafficking involving children, in Mississippi. She said acting on an uneasy feeling or reporting suspicious activities could save someone’s life.
Robbins said Advocates for Freedom has assisted in more than 100 rescues since it was founded five years ago and is always looking for volunteers. The group tries to help survivors immediately find a safe place to take shelter and later tries to assist with medical and legal fees as well as housing and job assistance.
“Eighty-five percent of missing children are being trafficked,” she said. She focused her presentation on tactics traffickers use to lure children who might already be in abusive situation, young people with low self-esteem or who might be shy and lonely. Advocates for Freedom has more statistics and contact information on the organization’s website, www.advocatesforfreedom.org.
“It is happening in Mississippi and we are trying to make sure those who are the most vulnerable are identified and targeted,” Balser explained. The task force wants to make people aware of the issue, engage law enforcement and advocate for the victims.
She said the workshop presenters said travel corridors are common sites for trafficking, especially in places where there may be a port or the intersection of two interstates. Traffickers lure young people, especially young women, through social media or they find runaways and promise them a better life.
Balser said once the group is able to identify potential victims, the task force will take on the role of identifying resources for them. “We don’t currently have safe houses. We need to identify resources and potential partners,” said Balser.
Anyone interested in joining the task force or getting involved in the effort can contact Balser, 601-355-8634, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Maureen Smith