State law enforcement officials are looking to curtail human sex trafficking in Tennessee by increasing awareness and communication amongst the agencies most likely to encounter the problem.
Toward that end, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Attorney’s Office Wednesday held a one-day training session at TBI’s East Nashville headquarters.
After opening remarks from TBI director Mark Gwyn and U.S. attorney Jerry Martin, TBI assistant special agent in charge Margie Quin led the session.
Members of Tennessee law enforcement, social service workers and employees of the court system attended the session, which served as a crash-course on what officials called a billion-dollar sex industry, including details on the methods and terminology used by traffickers.
The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act defines “severe forms of trafficking in persons” as sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person forced to commit such acts is not yet 18-years-old. It also includes using such means to force a person into involuntary servitude, labor services or debt bondage.
Despite the prevailing perception that sex trafficking refers to minors or young adults bought from other countries and smuggled into the United States, officials stressed Wednesday that many trafficking victims are from right here in Tennessee.
The impetus for this and other similar sessions around the state was a statewide study released by TBI earlier this year, which looked into the presence of human sex trafficking in Tennessee and its impact on children.
The study’s approach was three-pronged: questionnaires were sent to members of law enforcement, social service workers, court officials and nonprofit agencies in each of the state’s 95 counties; focus groups comprised of individuals with relevant experience were assembled in West, Middle and East Tennessee; and case studies were done, profiling victims of human sex trafficking in the state.
A large portion of a presentation of the study’s findings Wednesday morning was devoted to convincing those in attendance of there legitimacy. Getting people to believe that sex trafficking is taking place in Tennessee is a hard sell, officials say, because the statistics and the crimes they reveal are startling.
In response to the questionnaire, 85 percent of the state’s counties reported at least one case of sex trafficking in the 24 months prior to the survey – slightly higher than the number of counties that report gang activity. Four counties – Shelby, Davidson, Coffee and Knox – reported more than 100 cases of sex trafficking involving minors.
Those plus an additional four – Madison, Lawrence, Franklin and Hamilton – reported more than 100 cases involving adults – which, officials say are often young adults who were first brought in to the trade when they were barely teenagers.
Quin said in several cases, police departments were caught off guard by the news that sex trafficking was occurring in their county. In these cases, Quin said, social service workers or nonprofit agencies may have encountered victims, and responded accordingly to the TBI questionnaire, without ever notifying local law enforcement. The disconnect in communication and cooperation between agencies is a problem Quin hopes will be solved by group sessions like Wednesday’s.
“Facilitating dialogue between all these entities has become critical. These agencies are not talking. Law enforcement is not being notified of the victims in our state and we obviously can’t address what we don’t know exists,” she said.
“One of the biggest goals we have for the training is to bring all these groups to the table and get them talking and working together. We can’t all work separately on the issue and have a significant impact. Obviously what we’re doing right now is not working.”
However, Quin did point out what she sees as positive developments in the state’s effort against trafficking. In June, Gov. Bill Haslam signed a series of bills aimed improving protections for minors caught up in the sex trade and further equipping law enforcement against traffickers. Among the changes brought by the new legislation was the decriminalization of prostitution by minors, harsher punishment for johns who pay for sex with a minor – from a misdemeanor to a felony – and the establishment of a sex trafficking tip line.
The study also found that 79 percent of the various agency members who responded to the survey said they do not feel adequately trained to address human sex trafficking. Quin said that given that fact, the amount of reported cases of trafficking is all the more alarming. Once the various agencies are more aware of what to look for, she said, there’s no reason to expect that the number of trafficking cases won’t increase.