A conversation with Lindsey Simmons on human trafficking

Lindsey Simmons, a Madison native, is a graduate of Mississippi State University and Mississippi College Law. When she isn’t working her “day job” as a lobbyist, Simmons does nonprofit work as the executive director of Mississippians Against Human Trafficking. She recently spoke with Sun staff writer Nikki Rowell about the organization, which serves to connect various agencies in the state to spread awareness about trafficking and provide resources for victims.

When was Mississippians Against Human Trafficking formed?

“We formed about a year ago. It was several people in this phase who have been service providers and law enforcement who have been seeing victims and realizing that we didn’t have a cohesive umbrella organization. We have a lot of people out there doing good work training, prevention and some rescue. So, a lot of different things, but not everyone is well informed. We also have a lot of people out there who still think this doesn’t happen here. We really saw a need to come together. We have law enforcement task forces all over the state that have formed, but there was really no one over service providers providing that awareness piece. We really got rolling in the spring and AWARE is our first big event.”

What exactly is human trafficking?

“Human trafficking occurs when someone causes a commercial sex act to occur with an adult under force, fraud or coercion. So, if an adult is defrauded or coerced into committing a sex act for something of value, that’s human trafficking. If it’s a minor, you don’t have to prove force, fraud or coercion. Any commercial sex act with a child under 18 is human trafficking. Whether they think they consented to it or not. A commercial sex act is sex, pornography or any sexual act performed in exchange for something of value. Generally, that’s cash, but it could be drugs, rent, a ride. Mississippi law actually changed this year to say that if someone is under 18, then they cannot be a prostitute, you’re a victim. What we look at is why they felt they had to choose prostitution, such as drugs, abuse in the home. What pushed them to that? We want to step back and look at getting them services to help them.” 

How did it come about? What made you want to get involved and help form something like this?

“I was doing grant work for the Center for Violence Prevention several years ago. They are a domestic violence shelter here in central Mississippi, and they were seeing human trafficking victims. Working with them really educated me on the issue. We were able to write a grant two years ago for them to open the state’s first human trafficking shelter. I have learned a lot with them. I do a little bit of training with them on human trafficking on the laws and things like that. Them and some other involved people were the ones who realized we need to come together and asked me to help them put it together.”

Tell me a bit about the function of the organization and what you guys are able to do through bringing all of these people together.

“What we want to do is serve as an umbrella organization for anyone who is interested, whether that is individuals, nonprofits, shelters, children’s homes. We want to provide policy, procedure, best practices and support and figure out how we can all work together. Say you have one group who can provide services, but not a home. Maybe another group could provide the home. Maybe another group could provide volunteers to bring meals. We want to help everyone do what they do best and come together and fight this together, instead of each individual group feeling like they have this huge burden they have to shoulder on their own.”

How many members are there?

“Right now, we have a board of directors, but do not have members. We hope to grow into that. Right now, we only have one shelter in the state. But, down the road when we hopefully have more shelters, we could come together as a coalition, much like the Domestic Violence Coalition. For now, we thought the best thing to do is start with awareness. That’s where we are now to kick off this organization. We hope people will rise up from (this event) and through following us on social media.”

How often does the board of directors meet and what are some of the ways you guys are working toward these goals you mentioned?

“We meet monthly. We have a great board. We have the pastor at Fondren Church, Sandy Middleton from the Center for Violence Prevention, Pearl Police Chief Dean Scott. They’re super supportive and very well connected. They will be the ones that, as we grow, they have great knowledge and experience to bring to the table. They just all have a lot of experience in this area. We hope to come alongside law enforcement who are doing good things and support them.” such as who you expect to attend and what will be discussed.

“We have targeted medical professionals, law enforcement, teachers, parents. It’s like a TED Talk format, where each of the speakers has 10 minutes. We will have a parent 10 minutes, and a teacher 10 minutes and so on. Then we will have a panel at the end, where we will be open to questions. We are expecting 300 to 500 people. The response on social media and registering has been crazy. I think people are hungry for this information.

Trafficking has almost become a trendy topic, and you’re hearing about it in the news a lot. But people don’t have a lot of tangible information about what they can do. It is hard, because people in the field, such as law enforcement officers are doing the work in the day-to-day. If you work with these victims, it has to be day in and day out, really committed. But there are things we can all do. We need volunteers and mentors. We need people for prevention, which just means getting in your community and working with kids and building relationships.”

How many people are affected in Mississippi by trafficking yearly?

“That’s one of our goals as an organization. We don’t know, because there hasn’t been any mechanism for reporting human trafficking. A lot of times it is reported as domestic violence or sexual assault and it is those things, but we don’t have a designated way to report human trafficking.

This year, the legislature passed a bill that the human trafficking coordinator at Mississippi Bureau of Investigation will now develop a means to report that. Going forward, we should have more accurate numbers. What we do know, is that our one shelter, which houses six women, has stayed full for two years with a waiting list. We have no shelter for children in Mississippi. Any time a child victim is found, they have to be placed out of state. People in this field are seeing it every day, but we don’t have numbers.”

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