Human Trafficking Awareness Month: What is sex trafficking?

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(Left to right) Kenneth Woods, Stefanie Weaver and Randy Hames currently face human trafficking charges in Cullman County. (Cullman County Sheriff's Office)

CULLMAN, Ala. – January is Human Trafficking Awareness month across the United States, and the Cullman County Human Trafficking Task Force is working with its media partner The Cullman Tribune to help the public better understand the complex issue of human trafficking. Task Force chairperson Kathy Wilson begins with the well-known but often misunderstood topic of sex trafficking.

According to Wilson, “Sex trafficking occurs when someone uses force, fraud or coercion to cause a sex act with an adult or causes a minor to commit a commercial sex act. A commercial sex act includes prostitution, pornography and sexual acts done in exchange for any item of value, such as money, drugs, shelter, food or clothes.”

Supply and demand

“We have a huge problem,” said Wilson. “Sex trafficking thrives because of the demand. Without demand, there would be no product.”

Meeting the demand

The “hiring” practices of traffickers are among the more misunderstood issues related to human trafficking. Thanks to the entertainment industry, the popular image of trafficking almost always involves young women being snatched off the street or abducted by force from their homes and driven off into the night in a nondescript van. Some Tribune readers have even drawn on that image to question the task force’s concerns and efforts, since “that doesn’t happen here.”

While it is true that street-level abductions are not a common issue in Cullman County, the reality of human trafficking is far more complex, and often much more subtle, than the popular image. Traffickers in places like Cullman do less kidnapping and more recruiting.

Wilson said, “Traffickers find their victims through social networks, internet, school or even in a home neighborhood. They then lure them in with the promise of gifts, protection, housing and love. Once they have secured their victim, the traffickers use threats of violence, fear and intimidation to make certain the victim complies with their demands.”

Wilson also noted, “The common age for a child who enters sex trafficking is 12-14 years old.”    

Cullman County cases

Cullman County has three pending human trafficking cases. None appear to have involved forcible abductions, though one involves the alleged transportation of a minor across state lines.

All three Cullman County cases are still pending.  Defendants are considered innocent until proven guilty in court.  The Tribune presents the formal charges and allegations, while offering no opinions on guilt or innocence.

  • May 9, 2017 – Kenneth Loyd Woods, a previously registered sex offender, was arrested on two counts of first-degree human trafficking along with electronic solicitation of a child, second-degree rape, transmission of obscene material to a child and enticing a child for immoral purposes.  According to the complaint, he supplied alcohol and drugs to students at Fairview High School, then demanded payment from them in the form of sex acts.  In the words of the law, Woods allegedly recruited, enticed, solicited and induced a minor for the purpose of sexual servitude.
  • Sept. 1, 2017 – Stefanie Nichole Weaver of Vinemont was arrested on one count of first-degree human trafficking along with second-degree sodomy and facilitating the travel of a child for an unlawful sex act. According to the complaint, she met a minor on Facebook, traveled to Ohio to have sex with her, and brought her back to Alabama to continue their activities.  The minor was reported in Ohio as a runaway. In the words of the law, Weaver allegedly obtained, recruited, enticed, solicited, induced, harbored, transported and maintained a minor for the purpose of sexual servitude.
  • March 5, 2018 – Cullman attorney Randy Hames was arrested on two counts of second-degree human trafficking.  According to the complaint, he requested rent payment from two female residents at a trailer park he owns in the form of sex.  On March 10, while out on bond, he was re-arrested on an unknown number of additional human trafficking charges, including at least one in the first degree. In the words of the law, Hames allegedly attempted to subject another person to sexual servitude through use of coercion and attempted to solicit another person for the purpose of sexual servitude.

 

Alabama law has, for several years, criminalized human trafficking, and for victims under the age of 19, proof of coercion or deception is not required.   

Wilson concluded, “Thanks to laws like this one, Alabama has an A (94.5 out of 100) for the 2019 Shared Hope International report card. In 2011, we had a D (66). Progress is being made in our state to combat human trafficking.”

Unless the public and government agencies are well-informed, though, she warned, “Victims go unnoticed and unidentified, so they are instead treated as drug addicts, delinquents and criminals. It’s time that we stand up and stop human trafficking once and for all.”

For more information

To learn more about human trafficking:

Around the world, visit the website of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime at www.unodc.org/unodc/en/human-trafficking/index.html?ref=menuside

In the United States, visit the Department of Justice website www.justice.gov/humantrafficking

In Alabama, visit the Alabama Human Trafficking Task Force website www.enditalabama.org

In the Cullman area, visit www.facebook.com/Cullman-County-Human-Trafficking-Task-Force-870585096352748/.  

 

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W.C. Mann

craig@cullmantribune.com