(WAFF) - From a teen being traded for sex in the Shoals, to a prostitution operation in Limestone County, there’s been several recent cases of human trafficking in North Alabama.
A state group is working to create awareness as the fight continues to combat the problem.
The Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force sponsored Alabama Human Trafficking Awareness Day on Friday, January 11. The organization is asking city mayors to sign proclamations during the month of January in observance of National Human Trafficking Awareness Month.
“We seek to raise awareness about human trafficking in the state of Alabama, but we also work with service providers and governmental entities to not only establish a statewide protocol but also provide services to victims when they are found and identified,” says David Pinkleton, a member of the task force.
The state task force was established in 2014 and meets once a quarter at the Alabama State House. They also work to develop legislation to prevent, intervene, and treat human trafficking.
Pinkleton and other members of the organization spoke with media outlets across the state to help educate the public about human trafficking in Alabama; outline victim identifiers; and explain how to report potential human trafficking situations.
The coordinated effort is the fifth annual Alabama Human Trafficking Awareness Day.
“It’s Human Trafficking Awareness Day, not only in Alabama but across the country as January has been designated as the national human trafficking awareness month. So we are going throughout Alabama to raise awareness that unfortunately human trafficking exists in our state,” Pinkleton explained.
It’s not just a big city problem. Sex and labor trafficking cases are have been reported in rural counties.
"I think there's probably a common misconception that human trafficking is always something that's moving and just passing through. But that's not the case. It can have an effect on local communities as well. We had a recent case where young, drug addicted girls were being prostituted out for money but they were being paid in methamphetamine. That's a case of human trafficking," explained Deputy Stephen Young, public information officer for the Limestone County Sheriff's Office.
According to Young, several years ago, the VIP Spa in Elkmont was raided because women were being used for prostitution through the business.
[READ MORE: Raid conducted at VIP Spa in Elkmont]
Muscle Shoals police arrested a Colbert County man accused of trading a 17-year-old girl to a man for sex in exchange for drugs.
Bobby Joe Speegle, of Tuscumbia, was charged with first-degree human trafficking and giving false information to law enforcement.
Reports indicate the teen, who is a family acquaintance, was sexually assaulted by the man Speegle traded her to for drugs.
According to investigators, Speegle drugged the teen with a spiked soda, and she passed out.The teen told police when she woke up, a half-dressed man was sexually assaulting her. She tried to escape, but the man pinned her down.
Charges are also pending against the man accused of assaulting the girl.
But there’s good news to report as strides are being made in the fight to stop human trafficking in Alabama.
The School of Social Work at the University of Alabama was awarded a grant from the Department of Justice to create the Alabama Uniform Integrated Human Trafficking Initiative, a comprehensive and collaborative statewide guide of best practices for public and professional agencies regarding human trafficking.
The team writing the document includes researchers from the University of Alabama and representation from DHR, NCAC, CAC, FBI, DHS, medical, Public Health, churches and non-profit organizations.
They will have a draft of the document by the end of September 2019, followed by the implementation of it in three strategic areas in 2020 for evaluation.
The grant also will benefit the community by creating a resource website that can be used by the general public and professionals. This website will host a searchable database identifying resources that have been vetted as trauma informed and victim centered.
The third benefit of the DOJ grant is coordinating and enhancing human trafficking training statewide. Part of the training and education strategy includes partnering with the National Children's Advocacy Center (NCAC) on the 35th annual International Symposium on Child Abuse in March of 2019 on their Human Trafficking track.
"The success of our states efforts to combat human trafficking was just recognized nationally," said Chris Lim, Alabama Uniform Integrated Human Trafficking Initiative Project Director.
SharedHope recently released their 2018 report and evaluation, which grades and ranks each state based on their response to human trafficking.
In 2017, Alabama scored a "B" with a score of 83.5. In 2018, Alabama has been recognized as the second most improved state in the nation with an "A" and a score of 94.5.
“We’ve made great progress over the last few years but unfortunately, there’s a lot of work to do. There’s still a lot of people that don’t realize that human trafficking is going on in Alabama, but there’s also more services and gaps that we need to fill to make sure that victims, when they are found, not only are they identified, but they’re given the resources they need to be restored and rehabilitated,” Pinkleton added.
The state task force is having their annual human trafficking summit on February 8th in Montgomery. Presenters include: the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, University of Alabama School of Social Work, Safe Harbor Youth, Blanket Fort Hope, Trafficking Hope, Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, Renew Hope, Cullman County Human Trafficking Task Force.
“We’re encouraging citizens to come and learn about human trafficking. We’re going to talk about labor trafficking and hear from a male human trafficking survivor. We’re going to learn how individuals can get involved. Whether you’re a lay person, a service provider, law enforcement, prosecutors, all of us can be a part of the solution,” Pinkleton said.
The North Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force's next meeting is Tuesday, February 5, 2019 at 2 pm at the National Children's Advocacy Center in Huntsville.
Attorney General Steve Marshall released the following statement in support of Human Trafficking Awareness Day:
HUMAN TRAFFICKING FACTS FROM END IT ALABAMA:
• Human trafficking is the second largest criminal industry in the world (second only to drug trafficking).
• There are 27 million slaves in the world today—more than at any other time in the history of the world.
• It is estimated that 600,000 to 800,000 victims are trafficked in the U.S. every year.
• Approximately $150 billion is generated worldwide through trafficking activities annually.
• The average age of a human trafficking victim is 12 years old.
• Although 79% of all sex trafficking victims are female, the number of males being sexually exploited is rapidly rising.
• Within the first 48 hours of leaving home, one-third of runaway youths become the victims of human trafficking.
• I-20, I-85, I-10, and I-65 are major corridors for human trafficking. I-20 has been identified as the "super highway for human trafficking in the United States". These interstates bring significant trafficking activity into Alabama and along the Gulf Coast where Alabama children travel for Spring Break every year.
• Huntsville sits in the middle of six human trafficking “hot spots”: Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Atlanta, and Birmingham. This is one of many trafficking “circuits” across the United States.