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Spring 2020 Commencement: Melody Higgins, MSW

Motivated by Child’s Victimization, MSW Grad Thankful for GRA Role on DOJ Grant

By David Miller

May 1, 2020

Melody and David Higgins have fostered and adopted children in Alabama for the last 11 years.

Two years would pass before Melody Higgins knew her daughter had been a victim of human sex trafficking.

The abuse was familial prior to Higgins and her husband, David Higgins, fostering and later adopting the girl, Melody said. Her daughter had disclosed the abuse to a Christian counselor at their church.

It was a crushing revelation to the Higgins family, who’ve fostered and adopted children in Alabama for more than 11 years.

Learning of this abuse, unfortunately, would unearth warning signs she’d missed previously while fostering another girl.

Nine years ago, the Higgins family fostered a girl who, along with her son, were in custody of the Department of Human Resources. The girl would eventually leave the Higgins’ home, and though the girl never talked about her abuse, Higgins later connected the dots and felt “a lot of guilt.”

“That particular young lady, I was very much emotionally attached to her when she left our home,” Melody said. “We didn’t speak for a long time – there was a lot of resentment from her towards us. And I still wonder, even though I do have a relationship with her today, could I have helped her sooner? Could I have said something different that may have helped her get out of that situation earlier?

“But, praise God, she’s no longer being trafficked.”

Melody has since channeled her guilt into a desire to educate other foster parents about human trafficking – how to notice signs of a child that is being trafficked or has been trafficked, and how to report abuse.

Soon after learning of her daughter’s abuse, Melody started volunteering at Blanket Fort Hope, a non-profit organization that advocates for youth who’ve been victims of human trafficking. Then, while nearing the completion of her BSW – with honors – at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Alexa James, CEO and co-founder of Blanket Fort Hope, introduced Melody to Dr. Javonda Williams, a University of Alabama School of Social Work researcher who’d just secured a $1.35 million grant from the United States Justice Department to improve outcomes of Alabama youths who are victims of human sex trafficking.

Higgins (right), and Alabama BEAMS research faculty and staff.

That meeting resulted in a transformative experience: a graduate research assistant position on the DOJ grant. From the funding to the scope of the work she would perform, in addition to becoming the first MSW student to receive a funded GRA position in the school, Melody gladly accepted.

“It was really cool to be recruited,” Melody said. “I hadn’t even applied [for graduate school at UA] at that point.”

This weekend, after two years of balancing her work for the grant project, field placements and a family with seven children, Melody will earn her MSW.

Melody said her GRA position was a privilege that isn’t afforded to many master’s level students, not just in the work she was entrusted to perform, like assisting in focus groups across the state and analyzing the data, but in the relationships she was able to develop with faculty. Melody had her own office on campus, which yielded “invaluable” learning experiences from faculty, she said.

“I was able to assist in co-authoring a book chapter,” Melody said. “I learned Concept Mapping, which very few people know how to use, thanks to Dr. (Kevin) Corcoran. I was also able to speak at a conference. My GRA experience opened up a lot of doors for me.

“The one thing I learned more than anything from Javonda was self-care, and the importance of it. I didn’t do a good job of that initially, when the work was so research-based in that first year.”

Melody plans to pursue a PhD, but, after four straight years without a semester off, she is eager for a break from school.

Recently, she’s worked with Health Connect America and continues to work for Blanket Fort Hope on a volunteer basis.

“I’ll continue to work with Alexa until I see housing come to fruition for these children, where they have an good option to go and heal from what they’ve experienced,” Melody said. “I’ll keep advocating and doing my part to see that happen.”