January marks Human Trafficking Awareness Month, a 31-day period when dozens of organizations and advocates enlighten the public on the “modern day slavery” happening in their own backyards. While the #MeToo movement has become the forefront of sexual harassment crimes the global epidemic of sex trafficking continues to get swept under the rug. With efforts of foundation’s like Selah Freedom lead by Elizabeth Melendez Fisher, who’s been instrumental in providing residential programming, outreach, and prevention for survivors, there is certainly progression towards ending the exploitation.
We spoke with Fisher recently to discuss some of the alarming statistics, major targeted areas, and how her foundation works to get the victims back on track after the traumatic experiences.
What prompted you to launch Selah Freedom and what is the focus of the organization’s work?
I did not wake up one day and say, “Oh! My purpose is to start this organization.” Rather for me, I [simply] was trying to do a woman’s event and find an underdog charity. I had just moved to Florida from Chicago and was told our local kids are being sold for sex.
Coming to Sarasota, Florida from a market like Chicago where you know your crimes –– we’re pretty notorious for what we do. To hear in Sarasota and the whole Tampa Bay region that our children are being sold for sex and purchased by our own people –– that is the definition of sex trafficking in America (Florida is number three in the country).
One out of every three little girls is being sexually abused and one out of every five little boys is being sexually abused.
They are coerced in and sold for sex [between] 15 and 40 times a day [affecting] over 300,000 of our American children at any zip code.
I literally just wanted to write a check but there was no one to write a check to –– it just snowballed. You can’t hear something like that and turn away.
Will you share with us some of the emotional and physical effects survivors deal with as a result of their trauma?
What I think is interesting is that people say, “Aren’t they choosing this?” What I can say is [most of our] survivors that have come through our residential outreach program have [gone to] drug or alcohol rehab usually around 20 times. Throwing a kid or a young adult into drug rehab to get better is the [equivalent] of trying to band-aid a symptom. The truth is until the root is healed they will just walk out of rehab and become numb again because they don’t want to think about all the things they feel. For us, the success has been really helping them get to the root and undue that trauma. We have an amazing partnership with Dr. Jason Quintal. The level of trauma these girls have is like nothing you could imagine.
How do you work to build trust with the survivors?
As I mentioned, we have a prevention arm which is to help kids from even getting into this. Our residential arm would not even have anybody in a bed if we didn’t have the outreach program. Our outreach program is literally in conjunction with: state attorneys –– judges –– courts –– law enforcement. We will sometimes pursue relationships with a girl that’s on the street, in jail, or in the court because of the circumstances of her being sold for sex.
How are health care providers, and emergency medicine physicians, in particular, uniquely positioned to help victims of human trafficking?
I think that it’s the first point of contact that walks in with the girl so if we have a girl that is needing medical care then having somebody that she trusts to go with her really helps. We trained a thousand law enforcement trainers just this past 12 months –– 40 of them in the state of Connecticut. First responders need to be trained so they can quickly shift and put on their compassion hats. If girls don’t look like victims but they are victims first responders need to change the paradigm of how they see this population. From the beginning, in 2011, cops were like, “We hate this population!” Now they are relentlessly running after them and helping them realize that they know. It was like if their daughter had something happen and they didn’t know and she ran into the hands of someone who’s been abusing her for six years on the street.
The average victim of abuse gets five to seven times of intervention before they will receive help because of the trauma and inability to understand that they need it so high.
Our girls will say it took two years of Selah telling me, “I’m worth more.” It took 20 times [before] getting me to take a bed. We have such a dedicated staff and community network in all of our markets around the country that are relentlessly pursuing these girls. It’s so hard to get them to trust –– two years of investment usually.
What percentage of recruiting happens via social media?
The percentages are increasing so rapidly. It’s interesting because a girl that’s been abused when was she’s little, now, her uncle may have used her for his fun or with a friend, and now, he [film’s] her for child porn-ups where anybody can buy it. He can advertise her through online sites where there’s code that people use when ordering a kid, almost like ordering a pizza. Many of the girls were escorted and driven into homes with people waiting to buy sex with them when they were 15 years old. Although the adult will claim, “I didn’t know she was 15!”
We have made it a commodity to buy sex anytime you want and there is plenty of places to look for it. Even with our children, the access that they have. I always tell people to beware of the power of the portal. The predators are so much more skilled on it then we are at reaching our kids.
What are some of the common trends you’ve noticed in terms of the victims the predators seek?
With international trafficking, it’s very different. Parents are deceived and they think they’re sending their kid off for this great opportunity or they can’t afford to eat so they sell a child. In America, it’s purely because of the epidemic and the secret of childhood sexual abuse.
For every girl that we’ve ever worked with, the statistics will tell you 92 percent of survivors of sex trafficking are also survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
Of the 3800, that we’ve worked with since we’ve started the organization in 2011, 100 percent of the abused kids was from someone they knew. It’s impossible to have a child be sexually abused and not have affected them in one way or another. Almost every woman I know has been abused. Our prevention program is my heart and soul because I believe every kid should have an opportunity to have an intervention to shut this down before reaching that point.
What is it about Atlanta that makes it the number one hub for Human Tracking in the United States?
I think that Atlanta is the same as Chicago and New York –– major metro cities. We’ve had a lot of girls run away from other markets to Atlanta. It’s just like the other major cities, it’s shared numbers. The bottom line is anywhere you go it’s happening but Atlanta is one of the forerunners.
We have one of the organizations their called Wellspring Living, which got [sex trafficking] on the radar by noting the numbers. It’s an epidemic and it’s happening everywhere. Atlanta is a destination city.
The International Labour Organization estimates that there are 40.3 million victims of human trafficking globally, about how many of the victims are rescued?
That’s a hard question because until a few years ago they weren’t even tracking it correctly with a system for the law enforcement to identify. They were convicting people with old slavery laws. In the last six years, they’re a [number] of laws that have been changed and is drastically improving.
The numbers are astronomical and they say half a million American kids are sold in any zip code. The very tip of the iceberg is what we are finally starting to reveal. There’s never been a 7-year-old that grows up and says, ” I want to be a sex worker.”
Will Essence Communications regain its “essence?” Richelieu Dennis steps down as CEO
Richelieu Dennis has reportedly stepped down as CEO of Essence Communications following claims from former and current female staffers that the Sundial Brands co-founder, 49, is the primary culprit behind the publishing company’s toxic work culture.
The courageous women boldly penned a benumbing essay under the byline Black Female Anonymous via Medium.com on Sunday (June 28) detailing a chilling account of Dennis’ ongoing abuse of power, including sexual harassment, intimidation, colorism, and classism.
The authors intently demanded the resignation of Essence‘s board members whom they also accuse of contributing to the unbearable working conditions.
Essence: “We demand the immediate resignation of Chief Executive Officer Richelieu Dennis, Essence Ventures board member and former Essence Communications CEO Michelle Ebanks, Chief Operating Officer Joy Collins Profet, and Chief Content Officer Moana Luu.”
The essay described the atmosphere under CEOs Dennis and Ebanks as a “surface-level commitment to Black women” and that Dennis is “driven by greed and a debaucherous sexual appetite”.
The now-former CEO allegedly has “a history of sleeping with women on the Sundial staff, (the parent company of Shea Moisture he sold to Unilever in 2017) and for the women who don’t seemingly consent, he openly sexually harasses them at private company events.” Staffers expressed their fears of filing complaints on his inexcusable behavior due to his spouse (Martha Dennis) leading the company’s human resources department which they have called a “conflict of interest.”
On Monday (June 29), Essence Communications promptly released a statement denying all accusations.
However, on Tuesday (June 30), Essence Communications released a follow-up response stating Dennis will be stepping down as CEO.
“Out of an abundance of caution and an unwavering commitment to transparency, ESSENCE is in the process of hiring law firms and other independent external experts to assess and review the company’s policies and practices and conduct comprehensive employee interviews,” the statement reads.
Dennis, who founded Shea Moisture products, purchased Essence magazine from TIME magazine in 2018.
New Stimulus Package proposed by House Dems would pay Americans $2,000 a month
Succeeding President Donald Trump green-lighting the historic $2 trillion stimulus package, House Democrats are now proposing a new bill to keep the financial ball rolling for American families plagued with hardship amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Tuesday (April 14), the Emergency Money for the People Act was introduced, aiming to provide Americans 16 and older a $2,000 stimulus check each month for the next six months. It was introduced by Rep. Tim Ryan and Rep. Ro Khanna and has 17 other Democratic co-sponsors, per Business Insider, including Rep. Barbara Lee.
“The economic impact of this virus is unprecedented for our country. As millions of Americans file for unemployment week over week, we have to work quickly to patch the dam – and that means putting cash in the hands of hard-working families,” Ryan said in a press release. “Many Ohioans are just receiving – or about to receive – the first cash payment we passed in the CARES Act. Now it’s time for Congress to get to work on the next step to provide relief for those who have been hardest hit in this pandemic.”
Currently, the CARES Act provides one-time cash payouts to qualifying Americans. That includes singles with an adjusted gross income up to $99,000 and couples up to $198,000 with payments being reduced by $5 for each $100 above the $75,000/$150,000 thresholds with restrictions on dependents over the age of 16. Under the Emergency Money for the People Act, all Americans over the age of 16 who make less than $130,000 and married couples making less than $260,000 would receive a stimulus check. It also extends payouts to those who were excluded from the CARES Act, such as college students and adults with disabilities who are still claimed as a dependent.
Singles earning less than $130,000 would receive at least $2,000 per month, with married couples receiving at least $4,000 per month. Qualifying families would receive $500 per child for up to three children. Deliverable via direct deposit, check, or mobile apps such as Venmo, the payments would be guaranteed for at least six months or continue longer until the employment to population ratio for people ages 16 and older is above 60 percent.
“A one-time, twelve hundred dollar check isn’t going to cut it,” Khanna said of the current stimulus plan. “Americans need sustained cash infusions for the duration of this crisis in order to come out on the other side alive, healthy, and ready to get back to work. Members on both sides of the aisle are finally coming together around the idea of sending money out to people. Rep. Ryan and I are urging leadership to include this bill in the fourth COVID relief package to truly support the American working class.”
Mark Cuban’s Solution to NBA Suspension over Coronavirus
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is making arrangements to financially support the team, employees and arena workers who won’t be able to work due to the NBA’s suspended season amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cuban has not provided the specifics or his emergency plan, but he revealed during a press conference on Wednesday that he has “already started the process of having a program in place” to pay workers whose household income is dependent upon NBA game days.
“It’s stunning, but we are where we are,” Cuban said, according to ESPN. “We have to be smart in how we respond. This is people’s lives at stakes. This isn’t about basketball; this isn’t about the Mavericks. This isn’t about when do we start, do we start? Or how do we start? This is a pandemic, a global pandemic where people’s lives are at stake. I’m a lot more worried about my kids and my mom, who is 82 years old — in talking to her and telling her to stay in the house — than when we play in our next game.”
Cuban added that the Mavericks’ program might require employees to do “volunteer work.”
“I reached out … to find out what it would cost to financially support people who aren’t going to be able to come to work.”
Amid the Mavericks 113-97 win over the Denver Nuggets on Wednesday, league officials learned that Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz had tested positive for COVID-19. The Jazz’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder was subsequently postponed, and shortly after the NBA was suspending play until further notice.
During the Mavericks’ game on Wednesday, sideline cameras captured Cuban’s stunned reaction to the news that the NBA would not play games until further notice.
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