BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – January is human trafficking awareness month. On Wednesday, CBS 42’s Sherri Jackson moderated a local panel discussion on the subject hosted by Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, federal and local law enforcement.

Natalie Wilson from the Black and Missing Foundation said they have seen an uptick in cases since the pandemic started and that women are disappearing at an alarming rate – with African American children steadily part of the sex trafficking ring.

“It’s just alarming that our children, our women are not getting the awareness through the media and sometimes through law enforcement to eradicate this issue,” Wilson said.

Homeland Security in Birmingham said law enforcement is getting better at what it does when following these cases, so they’re seeing more tips than ever before.

“We’re in a better position to address it today than we have been,” Doug Gilmer said. “I think that there has been so much attention placed on public education as to what human trafficking is and looks like.”

But Birmingham Police Chief Patrick Smith said his biggest concern is the reduction in funding the department gets to fight it.

“We should not lose sight of what we are trying to accomplish in taking individuals off the street in addition to recovering young women or young girls,” Smith said.

Deputy District Attorney for Jefferson County Ellie Friedman said Alabama’s anti-trafficking laws are some of the most progressive – with anyone under 19 considered juvenile, but the panel agreed the problem is calling children runaways.

“The most important thing is that we recognize that we have a child that is missing, it’s urgent, and we have to take immediate action to bring them back and also to save their lives,” Smith said.

The public plays a big role in alerting police to cases of human trafficking just by calling in suspicious activity. You can call federal law enforcement at 866-347-2423 to report it.