Human trafficking is a $150 billion enterprise worldwide. And Huntsville is one of its hubs.
That sobering statistic was only part of the message Tennessee Valley Family Services Executive Director Lynn Caffery delivered to Team Redstone Thursday for the kickoff to Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month at Bob Jones Auditorium. Caffery shared her personal testimony and also educated attendees on the modern-day slavery of human trafficking.
“Anybody can be a victim,” she said.
Caffery was born into an unimaginable situation, being abandoned in an empty apartment by her birth mother at age six weeks. Her earliest memory is from age 5 where she was confined to a bathroom, and only removed to be sexually abused by whom she thought was her father. Caffery suffered sexual, verbal and physical abuse for most of her early life. After running away from her abusers at 11, she joined a motorcycle gang where she became addicted to drugs and used as a drug courier. She later became involved with a Mexican cartel, where she would transport drugs and firearms from Mexico into the United States. Eventually she was arrested and spent 12 years in Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Caffery had no education and was addicted to methamphetamine and heroin at her time of arrest. She said that without the grace of God in her life and one special social worker, she would not be here today.
“God saved me for a purpose and I believe that my purpose is to help kids that are in the same situation that I was in,” Caffery said. “They have no hope, I had no hope. There were no programs out there at that time.”
During that time, a social worker told Caffery “the only decent thing that had ever been said to me,” she said. She told Caffery that she saw something in her that she did not see in herself and it had a profound effect on her.
“I had always been told I was stupid, I was fat, I would never amount to anything, I was only there for money, nobody would want me and my self-esteem was so tore down that I did not have any belief in myself whatsoever,” she said.
That small seed of encouragement grew in Caffery to empower her to not only obtain her GED, but also a bachelor’s in criminal justice administration and she is studying for a masters of business with a concentration in nonprofit management. Caffery said that without that social worker and her faith, she would either be dead or in prison. Caffery now tries to be that same voice of hope for the children that she helps.
“I am not ashamed of where I have been, it has made me who I am today,” she said. “I am ashamed of the people who did the things that they did to me.”
In addition to her work with abused youth, Caffery trains law enforcement on human trafficking as one of only 12 Safe Place trainers nationwide.
“Right now human trafficking and the exploitation of youth is the number two crime in the United States,” she said. “I used to run from the law … now I work hand in hand with them. God has a great sense of humor.”
Atlanta has the highest rate of human trafficking in the United States and Huntsville’s proximity puts it at a higher risk.
“What they do is work a circuit and we are right in the middle of the circuit,” Caffery said. “This is why education is so vital.”
How do children become victims of human trafficking? Caffery said traffickers usually target children who are already victims of abuse and who have limited parental supervision. Homeless youth and runaways are also at a high risk to become victims. She said predators have been known to kidnap children in their yards or walking home from school. Or they might approach a child at a mall and act like a talent scout or modeling agent.
“What kid would not fall for that?” she said. “Especially if they come from an abusive home.”
What are the signs that a child has been a victim of sexual abuse? Caffery said that no eye contact, physical signs, a heightened fear or distrust can be indicators. A controlling adult, older boyfriend or a new tattoo or branding can also signify that the child is a victim of human trafficking.
“The one that gets me the most is the barcode,” she said. “Like you scan a product at Walmart … that is all they are – all I was, a product.”
As part of TVFS’ Transitional Family Services, Caffery helps youth who have been victims of human trafficking by providing therapy, schooling, medical care and a safe, structured environment – something many abused youth have never experienced.
Caffery said that often the traffickers receive “a slap on the wrist” in courts while victims serve the jail time. She is working with other advocates and legislators to establish tougher laws for human trafficking convictions.
While her work can take her into unsafe situations, helping victims is more than a job to Caffery – it is her calling.
“There is nothing that they can do to me that they already haven’t done, but kill me,” Caffery said. “If that is how I am going to go out, I am going to go out proudly … standing up for these kids because I had no one standing up for me. And that’s what we need the community to do too.”
Editor’s note: To learn more about Tennessee Valley Family Services and their mission to help at-risk youth, call 539-9440.