“I had a fun-loving, trusting, smiling, working 19-year-old daughter. December 2012, one of the worst things that could’ve happened to me happened,” says Selika Corley.
Her daughter, Brianna Ellis, was drugged and abducted Dec. 31, 2012, after meeting friends at a hotel in Jackson, Corley says.
Corley, who now serves as a crisis prevention specialist for the Hinds County Sheriff’s Department, believes that Brianna was the victim of human traffickers who are forcing women into modern day slavery.
Recently, law enforcement agencies and other institutions have become more aggressive in raising awareness of modern day slavery — considered any situation when people are forced to work against their will for the profit of others, such as sex trafficking and child labor.
This fall, Tougaloo College created an Institute for the Study of Modern Day Slavery, the first historically black college in the nation to do so.
In early 2013, Corley was uncertain about what had happened to her daughter. After many attempts to contact her, Corley reported Brianna missing to the Jackson Police Department.
After receiving an alarming text message from Brianna begging for help, Corley was convinced that her daughter had not simply run away.
Using GPS tracking of her cell phone, Jackson police surmised she likely was at a motel in Belle Isle, Fla., near Orlando. According to a police report filed by Belle Isle Sgt. Greg Grayson, Jackson police contacted Belle Isle police Jan. 5 with reason to believe Ellis was being held against her will.
According to the Belle Isle police report, an officer found Ellis sitting in a car alone outside of the motel. When the officer approached her, Ellis confirmed her identity and asked that he “please help her get home and to keep the other person away from her.” The other person was an older woman who also had been in the car. Because Ellis would not describe specifically what had happened to her, Belle Isle police say no charges were filed against the woman and Ellis was returned by bus to Jackson. She has since moved out of state and does not wish to speak with the press.
More than 27,000 cases of human trafficking have been logged by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline in the past eight years. As of June 30, 29 calls to the hotline from the state of Mississippi were reported by the resource center to law enforcement this year. Twenty-one of those cases were considered sex trafficking and 7 of those cases were thought to be labor trafficking. The majority of the cases involved underage females.
If you put yourself in the mind of a trafficker, a place like Mississippi is ideal for such a crime, says Special Assistant Attorney General Paula Broome, deputy chief of the Mississippi Attorney General’s bureau of victims assistance.
“We’ve got major highways that crisscross, we are on the major rivers and coastal areas, and we sit centrally between major cities like Memphis, New Orleans, Atlanta and Dallas which are huge hubs for trafficking,” says Broome. “We’ve got agricultural construction as well for easy labor trafficking.”
Also, it’s common for a trafficker to think “where is there less risk?” says Broome. Because Mississippi is a rural state, it’s easy to imagine that agencies, law enforcement and residents aren’t aware of the indicators.
The Mississippi Attorney General’s Office does not have a record of the number of arrests and prosecutions of human trafficking violations in the state, Broome says, but the agency is working on a database.
This summer, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded Tougaloo College a three- year, $550,000 grant to raise awareness and develop strategies to better combat modern day slavery. Stipends from the grant enable an interdisciplinary board of 12 faculty members to expand course content, research and action plans for students.
Tougaloo has earned a reputation for promoting justice through a variety of social issues, most notably during the civil rights era. Today, the private college is excited to continue revitalizing the role it played during that period of time, says Dr. Stephen L. Rozman, who heads the Institute for the Study of Modern Day Slavery and is the dean of the Social Science department.
Dr. Daphne Chamberlain, chair and assistant professor of history at Tougaloo, is adding a different angle to her course content this fall. She prepared a comparative curriculum to study the enslavement of children, ages 7 to 18, under the institution of race-based slavery versus child enslavement in the 21st century.
Through her mission to “reclaim lost voices” she instructs students on how to create an oral history repository of persons who have experienced these crimes.
“It adds authenticity, says Chamberlain. “You can glean from (oral histories) what the possibilities are to save people from becoming victims of human trafficking.”
Dr. Brenda Wilder, assistant professor of Music at Tougaloo, hopes to travel to Cambodia to join her friend Alli Mellon, founder of The Hard Places Community, a group of missionaries who advocate for victimized children. Encouraged by the success of that organization in Cambodia, Wilder plans to introduce the model into the institute at Tougaloo.
“There’s a rating system for countries, one through three. One is for those who recognize trafficking and are trying to correct it. Three is for those who don’t do anything. The third level is common for many countries like Cambodia,” says Wilder.
“A lot of children are taken against their will and used for trafficking over there and until we do something about the issue, trafficking will continue here in the state, in Asia and other countries if we allow it,” says Wilder.
In Wilder’s Introduction to Music class, students have been instructed to submit research papers on the topic of modern day slavery. In addition, students must describe five ways they personally intend to help resolve the issue. Wilder will use a variety of musical genres for students to create ballads to help survivors to heal.
In 2013, Mississippi’s human trafficking laws were strengthened to increase offender penalties and provide safeguards and protections for victims, such as safe harbors and confidentiality provisions.
But Mississippi still lacks sufficient services for victims, Broome says. Placements are difficult because teenage victims tend to run back to the traffickers and they can’t stay in group homes because victims have been reported to recruit other teenagers into the life, she says.
“There are no homes servicing the needs of victims, but there have been lots of discussions around how existing homes for minors can adopt specific services to help victims,” said Broome.
“Existing domestic violence women shelters in the state have expanded and will accept victims of sex trafficking,” Broome added.
Shortly after her daughter Brianna returned home, Selika Corley founded a non-profit organization called Without Consent. She visits churches, women’s shelters and other organizations in the Jackson area sharing the story of her daughter and educating Mississippians on how to better prevent a heartache like she endured three years ago.
In 2013, sex trafficking was as new to local law enforcement as it was to her, Corley says. During the investigation of her daughter’s disappearance, “mistakes were made, but I won’t point the finger,” she says. The following year, Corley joined the Hinds County Sheriff’s Department as a crisis prevention specialist to help investigate such crimes for other victims and mothers.