What's up with that? Human sex trafficking in Birmingham

Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. It is considered to be one of the fastest-growing criminal industries in the world. About 60 percent of this crime is in human sex trafficking, involving children and adults.

Recently, one of Focus @ 4's Facebook friends posted this request:

J. Rachael Hardin wrote: I want to know what the city is going to do about the sex trade operations in Birmingham. You can't pretend it doesn't exist.

Hardin is right on target. A new billboard in downtown Birmingham carries the same trafficking is here. The billboard is on Interstate 20/59. Studies show I-20 is a major corridor for sex trafficking in our nation. Abuse of minors is being called an invisible problem. But the people behind this billboard hope it raises eyebrows and creates awareness and action.

The billboard asks a simple much for your daughter? Drivers can't see the girl's face and they don't know her name but women like Tajuan McCarty may know her story.

"If you think of the worse of the worse, I've been through it. My throat has been cut, [I've had] guns placed at my head and triggers pulled, [I've been] raped with inanimate objects that I won't even mention," McCarty says.

At age 15, McCarty ran away from home. On the streets, she became a victim of prostitution and later developed a drug addiction.

"The pimp or trafficker tells you that you have made this decision to run away so now you have to take care of yourself and no one at 15, no one, has the skill set where they can go out and just get a job," McCarty says.

Now McCarty, a survivor, helps other women. She runs the Wellhouse, a Birmingham-based shelter for women who have been sexually exploited.

Cases like that led marriage and family therapist Melea Stephens to put up the billboard.

"I have to do something to prevent further harm. A billboard is static, and people will be driving down and have a greater chance of that repeated exposure," Stephens says.

The billboard project is part of a national campaign with the group Morality in the Media. In Alabama, studies show 85 percent of runaway children are approached to engage in the sex industry within 24 hours of being on the streets. The Women's Fund in Birmingham works to combat the crime, it says, is too often hidden.

"We did a survey that really talked to people who are first responders, those that police, social workers and people in emergency rooms, and they give us every indication that it is here," Jeanne Jackson, president of the Women's Fund says.

The Women's Fund has hosted training sessions for law enforcement on how to identify the signs of sex trafficking as well as best practices to prosecute the crime.

In 2010, Alabama enacted the Williams-Coleman Human Trafficking Act, a law that criminalizes human trafficking.

"What's needed now is to be able to bring a case through the process to be able to prosecute someone," Jackson says.

That's what Stephens and McCarty would want to see as well. But until then, they'll use every tool possible to raise awareness and hope.

"We've been exploited for too long, in too many ways, and now it's time to stop," McCarty says.

To learn more about the billboard project visit: