Dan Finnerty – Contributing Writer
At the monthly Macon County Commissioners meeting March 14, a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) on human trafficking was approved between the county and REACH of Macon County Incorporated. REACH of Macon was founded in 1990 and is a 501(c)3 non-profit service provider for victims of domestic violence and/or sexual assault. It also serves Jackson County and offers support in six main areas: Emergency, legal and financial assistance, counseling, housing, support, children, and community education. The resources offered by the organization are critical to addressing various types of issues. Its mission statement is to “eradicate domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking crimes in Macon County through prevention, intervention, and educational services.”
The MOA acts as a formal partnership between county government and REACH that will: Identify and assist victims of human trafficking and sextortion (extorting money or sexual favors from someone by threatening to reveal evidence of their sexual activity); ensure contact to a victim service provider when victims present within local government agencies; collaborate to provide outreach for victims of human trafficking and sextortion when appropriate; collaborate to assist with development and provision of training to county employees as appropriate; and, support outreach and awareness efforts as they relate to human trafficking and sextortion.
REACH Assistant Director Jennifer Turner-Lynn spoke at the commissioners’ meeting and briefed the board regarding the facility also being a haven for victims from other states because it is one of very few that is American with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant and accessible, as well as one that has private restrooms. Not having that privacy complicates an already traumatic situation when one is dealing with sexual assault or trafficking. Numbers in the local area reflect the growing problem nationally. Statistically, from July 2021-June 2022, REACH dealt with 38 human trafficking victims while providing 4,950 services in response to those cases. Additionally, there were 500 domestic violence and sexual assault victims, 102 of whom were provided 3,200 total nights of shelter.
For a national perspective, in 2021, the National Human Trafficking Hotline received a total of 51,073 substantive phone calls, text, Webchats, emails, or online tip reports nationwide.
In response to Commissioner Gary Shields thanking REACH for the services it provides within the county, Turner-Lynn pointed out: “If anyone is a part of civic or other organizational groups, especially working with youth, we would be glad to come and speak with them, specific to sextortion, which falls under the umbrella of human trafficking but is a really big issue with our teens.” She added, “The demand related to social media and access to youth is crazy and scary. We need to provide education for teen girls and even young boys who oftentimes can be approached and get caught up in activity through gaming systems where they are being specifically targeted. This is not an area we normally think about.”
Following the presentation, commission vice chairman Josh Young also acknowledged what Turner-Lynn and REACH means to troubled youth and adults.
“The numbers are staggering and I am guilty of being naive, myself. But I know you don’t do it for the money and thank you so much,” said Young.
In December 2022, a REACH shelter was damaged when frozen pipes burst and flooded an area.
“We are actively working with our insurance company and contractors to expedite repairs and are well into the process,” Turner-Lynn reported. “Our hope is that repairs will be completed around May.” In the interim, REACH continues to provide shelter for victims and survivors at an alternate location.