On Your Side Investigation: Reaching the sex trafficking victim

On Your Side Investigation: Reaching the sex trafficking victim
Source: WBRC video

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - From Dixie Shannon's wide smile and infectious laugh, you'd never know the trauma she's survived. She escaped sex trafficking twice.

Shannon says a sheltered childhood did not adequately prepare her to enter college. As a 17-year-old college freshman, she met a man who would soon become her pimp.

"He just approached me so smooth and so calm and so I just believed every word he said," Shannon recalls.

Shannon says she was given a cell phone by one of his friends and told to answer it when it rings.

"They would call because they would want sex, they would want to spend some time with me," she explains.

She says the men buying sex, called "Johns," would pay in "gifts," negotiable for nearly each encounter.

This trafficking lasted months during her freshman year and Shannon said she did not have a way out.

"They would take me to a place that I didn't know or I couldn't just run away. It wasn't that simple," she says. "I was being forced to do things with people I didn't know in the back of a car."

Intervention from teachers would help Shannon escape the first time, but years later, she would find herself being trafficked again. And this time, it wasn't clear she would make it out alive.

One night at a hotel in Georgia, a John visited Shannon at her hotel room.

"When he went to go leave, he pulled out a gun," Shannon remembers. She says he put the gun to her head and ransacked her room, taking all her valuables.

"I remember crying and thinking, 'what is happening, please don't kill me,'" Shannon recounts.

Months later, Shannon was overcome with extreme depression. She stopped caring about her appearance and earning the $1,000 per day her pimp required.

Soon her pimp noticed Shannon's declining effort. So, he violently confronted her, choking her until her eyes bruised. When she didn't resist and respond to his abuse, he took a different approach.

"'You're a really good person, Dixie. You just messed with the wrong people,'" she remembers. That was her epiphany.

"God reached down and used the one person that I never would have thought in a million years to change my life."

She decided she had to leave and got help from volunteers and non-profit services, eventually arriving in Alabama at the WellHouse, a non-profit dedicated to rescuing and supporting victims of sex trafficking.

Since its founding in 2010, the WellHouse has helped 320 people. And statistics show there are thousands more.

Since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Hotline has received more than 140,000 calls. This year alone, NHTH identified more than 5,300 victims and survivors with "high" indicators of being trafficked.

The most recent effort by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, along with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, to stop underage sex trafficking yielded the arrest of 120 traffickers and recovery of 84 minors. In its eleventh year, it's called Operation Cross Country.

Efforts to rescue victims of the trade present challenges some may find surprising.

"They're initial response is not to cooperate, to be quite and not trust law enforcement," explains Angel Castillo, a special supervisory special agent with the FBI's Birmingham Office. "So we go out of the way to show them we're there to help them and to provide services to them."

That distrust of law enforcement is felt at the local level, too. Lt. Darren Beams of the Tuscaloosa Police Department explains sometimes victims do not recognize their own exploitation or are reluctant to talk to law enforcement for fear of being charged with prostitution.

"We don't just load them up and take them to jail," Beams says. "We find out if there is any force, fraud and coercion. If any of those elements are there, we try to get them as much social services as we possibly can."

To improve outreach efforts, Beams is on a mission to develop relationships with area hotels and motels, offering training to employees on recognizing signs of sex trafficking.

Just this summer, he oversaw an operation in which the department partnered with Best Western University Inn. A four-day operation yielded 33 arrests of men soliciting sex, two of them attempting to meet a child. Beams says two traffickers are waiting for trial.

Beams says he reached out to 10 area hotels to invite a partnership, but only the Best Western donated the rooms.

"We could not have performed or completed this operation without the help of your hotel and staff," Beams says to Reggie Lancaster, owner of the Best Western, during a recent presentation of a certificate of appreciation from Chief Steven Anderson.

While law enforcement works to locate the traffickers, arrest the Johns and build relationships with industries, volunteers work tirelessly to reach the victims.

"There are not many people in the United States that actually do the rescues," says Tajuan McCarty.

McCarty, who is also a survivor of trafficking, founded the WellHouse, the organization that helped Dixie Summer reclaim her life.

Today, McCarty continues work even outside the nonprofit, making herself available to victims on her own time. She coordinates with other rescuers across the country.

"It's an informal network of people," McCarty says.

The calls can come any time of the day or night.

"Years ago, it was hard. I was antsy. I could be on hold until 6 o'clock in the morning and not hear anything," says McCarty.

On a recent Friday evening, McCarty settled onto her sofa and turned on some music. She had gotten word that one victim was traveling through the state and possibly would be ready for a rescue.

The call for the pickup came less than 48 hours later.

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