By Bethany Adams
There’s a bear tattooed on her right arm. It’s faded, and the colors around it are only ghosts of what they used to be. Above it is the word “Charles”, the name of Sunnetta “Sunny” Slaughter’s ex-husband, who is now serving time in prison as a child molester. Who put him there? “That would be me,” Slaughter says. She shows off her tattoo with a sort of pride. “I wear it so I can teach.” The tattoo is a visual reminder of the tragedy that has touched Slaughter and her family. It is also symbolic of the work that she has dedicated her life to. Slaughter is a law enforcement instructor and consultant for the Department of Homeland Security, and she specializes in human trafficking. She has poured three decades of her life into the fight against human trafficking and, although the work is demanding, Slaughter does not regret her choice. “I did not know that this was my dream, but this is what I was born to do now. I don’t think I could do anything else.”
Slaughter was first exposed to the world of human trafficking when she was sixteen years old and living in New Jersey. “They told me I couldn’t go to school,” she recalls. “They told me the school was crowded, so I applied for a job.” She was hired by the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement, becoming the first and the youngest African American to do so. “That’s where I learned about human trafficking,” she explains. Slaughter worked at the front desk with the director, assisting with cases like that of the New York mob boss John Gotti. While she worked, Slaughter took night classes two nights a week for six weeks and graduated with double the credits needed. Afterwards, she began EMT school. At the age of sixteen, Slaughter became the first and youngest EMT to receive the Public Service Award for the state of New Jersey when she saved two small children who were thrown from a car.
“I’m a woman of many firsts,” she says of herself, and that reputation carried her into adulthood. Her marriage to her first husband, who served in the United States Navy, led her to become the Federal Women’s Program Coordinator for the United States Navy. Later, she served on three federally-led task forces against human trafficking and was one of seven members selected nationally to serve on the US Human Rights Network. Slaughter now divides her time between her work as an instructor and her own criminal consulting firm, which is based in Birmingham, Al. In addition, Slaughter is a subject matter expert for news on crime, having worked with ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox, as well as doing work as a crime analyst for CNN.
Slaughter’s work doesn’t stop there. “At my house, I have the exact same issues as any regular mom and person,” she says. As a single mother of four, Slaughter has dealt with personal struggles above and beyond what the average mother faces. Despite whatever struggles she and her children have faced, they remain a family. “I love my children with all of my heart,” she says. Recently, her son has been following in Slaughter’s footsteps, travelling to speak about violence against men and women, as well as doing work with My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, a program that aims to help young men and boys reach their full potential.
Although Slaughter helped to draft Alabama’s first state law against human trafficking in 2010, the work has only just begun. “We need more shelters, and there need to be more volunteers,” she says. And awareness is an important part of the issue. “The first thing that people think when they hear human trafficking is ‘international’,” Slaughter says, but she reminds people that it “happens to Americans all of the time.” Her advice? “We have to be vigilant.” She encourages people to be open and clear with their children about what is and is not okay, not only when it comes to strangers, but also with adults that their children know. She also urges people to be aware of threats that can be encountered within the home. “Predators come into your home now; they don’t even have to get you out in public.” She warns that people should be cautious when interacting with others on the internet. “Unless you have a direct relationship with a person, you should not be communicating with them.” The rule applies not just to teenagers, she insists, but adults as well.
In describing her own life, Slaughter uses the word “passionate”. “You have to be committed to this,” she says. “If I could choose something for myself, I would not choose this, because it’s very hard and you have to have compassion for people. But when they’re falling apart, I can’t fall apart when I’m trying to help them. …So I have to be passionate about what I do all the time, which can be difficult.” Despite the difficulty in both her professional and personal life, Slaughter continues to be passionate, as evidenced by the pride with which she wears her tattoo. “I was born to do the work that I’m doing,” she says. “It’s God’s purpose for me.”