NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Wednesday, February 6th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: The Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Even though Hurricane Katrina devastated the area in 2005, the coast is Mississippi’s wealthiest region, with a very brisk casino business.
EICHER: Regrettably, that economic prosperity has not solved some serious problems for children who live in the area.
State officials say the small three-county area accounts for more than one in every four children who are in state custody in Mississippi.
WORLD correspondent Kim Henderson visited the Mississippi Gulf Coast and met some people trying to help. Her three-part series begins with a profile of a woman who’s making progress in the fight against child trafficking.
REICHARD: Parents, please note there are details in this story that may be inappropriate for young listeners.
KIM HENDERSON, REPORTER: It’s overcast when I meet Susie Harvill at a hotel and casino in Biloxi, Mississippi. She’s petite with graying hair cropped closely around her face. And she’s recovering from the flu.
HARVILL: Casinos are all just like any other resort. The more people that gather there, the more people are on vacation, the more they will let their hair down, and if they ever wanted to do something…immoral or wrong, they will many times do it there, on a vacation.
Harvill is the director of Advocates for Freedom, a group fighting human trafficking in Mississippi.
As we talk on the landscaped porte-cochere (port co-SHARE), guests arrive in stretch limos and chartered buses.
HARVILL: We had a person come down to the Mississippi Gulf Coast on a convention and um, while he was here he actually ordered a 12 year-old and a 16 year-old. One was a boy and one was a girl. What we found out was this Montana man was a deacon in his church, was married and had two children at home.
Stories like this one are why she came out of retirement to fight sex trafficking. Last year, Harvill spoke more than 425 times to Rotary Clubs, police departments, schools, and church groups.
Human tracking is a $150-billion-dollar-a-year business. It’s often connected to organized crime and gangs.
HARVILL: In Europe, it’s the number one crime. I don’t want it to be the number one crime here.
Harvill believes prevention is a key component in the fight. That begins with teaching the public what human trafficking is and how it differs from prostitution.
HARVILL: If it’s a child, they are not a prostitute at all, even if they’re turning tricks. They are prostituted by somebody
Their situation is dire. No ID, no address, no phone. And then there’s the heartbreaking reality of what they’re being forced to do…
HARVILL: It’s my understanding that in the state of Mississippi, we have a thousand dollar quota that they have to meet a day. Can you imagine a 14-year-old having to meet a thousand dollars quota a day? They are the epitome of homeless and helpless.
Yet some 300,000 underaged Americans are lured into the commercial sex trade every year. Kyle Craig is a sergeant with the Pass Christian Police Department. He works with Harvill to train children about predators on social media.
CRAIG: People go, Oh, these human traffickers are master manipulators, but they’re not. It’s easy to manipulate a child. And then 5 years later down the line, they’re 17, they’re addicted to drugs. They have no job skills, no decision-making skills. It’s because their growth as a human being stopped when they got inducted into trafficking at 12.
Harvill emphasizes predators aren’t just on social media.
HARVILL: We had an 11-year-old who was taken from the bus stop. She told her pimp, “Kill me. Just get it over with. I’m not going to cooperate. I’m not going to do this.” He said, “I know your younger sister. I know where she goes to school. We’re going to get her. We’re going to season her and we’re going to make her do twice as much as you, and you’re going to watch.” And at that she just said, “I’ll do anything you tell me to do.”
Often, it’s a race to find victims. The average life expectancy is less than seven years once a person is abducted.
HARVILL: We’ve helped four 3-year-olds. If you have 3-year-olds that are trafficked, and you add seven years, by 10 years of age or before they will be dead.
And when they die, human traffickers often mutilate the body to prevent identification.
HARVILL: To keep you from recognizing them, they will cut off the bottom of the feet because that’s where many of the footprints when you’re born, they do footprints. They will cut off the tips of your fingers. There are so many things that they do just to have no trace whatsoever.
Rescuing victims is hard and expensive work. Hours of sitting at jails and clinics, providing transportation, clothes, and meals. Buying Depends for victims because they can no longer hold their waste.
HARVILL: A lot of people, it’s ugly and they don’t want to get involved. We’re churchy people, and we absolutely don’t talk about things like this.
But many people on the coast have gotten involved. They’re trained to spot victims by their burn marks and malnourished bodies. They teach young people to cover their drinks at parties. They emphasize mandatory reporting of suspected trafficking. And 300 pray.
HARVILL: They pray every day, 365 days a year, and they cover the whole gamut. We pray just as hard for the pimps as we do the victims.
Since 2011, Harvill’s group has helped rescue 192 trafficking victims. She describes what it’s like to reunite families. A long drive to Charlotte with a nervous 23-year-old stands out in her memory.
HARVILL: At 17 she was lured away, and she thought this was the guy that was going to love her forever, and she got there and he was just, he was an old man and he was mean and he was bad. So, she didn’t want to talk about that very much, but she couldn’t wait to see her mom and dad, and she asked me one question. She said, “How do you think they will be?” And I said, “I think they will not want to turn you loose.”
Harvill got to watch their embrace.
HARVILL: She just fell into their arms, and it was just really good. I saw a family I could imagine, what if it was my daughter?
For WORLD Radio, I’m Kim Henderson reporting from Biloxi, Mississippi.