TBI Head: Scope of Human Trafficking in TN Still Unknown

Although the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has been vocal about the issue of human trafficking over the past few years, the agency’s top official told Gov. Bill Haslam during budget hearings recently the actual extent of the crime in the state is still unknown.

“It’s a problem that I don’t think we even know how large it is yet, in this state and in this country,” TBI Director Mark Gwyn said last week during his agency’s fiscal year 2015-16 preliminary budget presentation. However, he added, as his agency increases awareness they’re seeing an increase in human trafficking calls and cases.

When the TBI did their 2011 human trafficking survey, law enforcement officers told them they’re “not adequately trained to even recognize human trafficking,” Gwyn said. For law enforcement to better address the problem “we had to change the culture,” he said.

Gwyn added that before they raised awareness, a girl would be arrested for prostitution, spend a day or two in jail and be back on the street. However, because the girls are victims the state should focus on” services for these young ladies to put them — to make them productive citizens, not treat them as prostitutes,” he said.

A report on human trafficking released by the TBI in February showed trafficking was being encountered in both rural and urban areas, and that social workers report trafficking more often than law enforcement does. The definition for human sex trafficking the TBI used for its 2011 survey was “a for-profit sex act that is induced by force, fraud, or coercion OR in which the person performing such an act is under the age of 18 years.”

Gwyn told Haslam the picture of human trafficking varies depending on the locale.

While the rural trafficking problem might be parents “trafficking” their children, the problem in urban areas will be “a pimp that just gets control of some young runaways” and “just starts trafficking them out,” Gwyn said. These pimps will use personal ads and the internet, as well as “hook up” with other pimps and “just start trafficking them throughout the state and down into Georgia and back and forth across state lines.”

Gwyn also suggested “major sporting events” tend to attract a lot of human trafficking activity — a claim law enforcement and government officials make almost annually in relation to the Super Bowl that has been shown to be grossly exaggerated.

Sex trafficking victims are usually runaways who “don’t have anything,” and can be from within the state or from elsewhere, like Georgia, North Carolina or South Carolina, Gwyn said. “They’ll bring these mainly young females all up and down the circuit,” Gwyn said. “And that’s the hard part, is because they may bring a young girl in and only stay here a day or two.”

However, there’s also evidence the problem is not as serious as it’s made out to be, or at least that government agencies and officials are unaware of how to best tackle the problem.

A 2008 study of underage sex work in America by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice was unable to find an epidemic of young teens forced into sex work. Instead, the researchers found the commonly-held notion of teen runaways being lured and then forced into sex work by violent pimps was rare, and didn’t describe the reality of the situation of most underage sex workers.

Additionally, while a mid-2000s Atlanta Police Department task force formed to tackle the problem of human trafficking afflicting the city reported it had found more than 200 victims, a U.S. Department of Justice audit could only confirm four of those cases, and federal auditors found victim over-counts by task forces around the nation.

And a 2009 article in the Guardian, a United Kingdom newspaper, characterized the commonly repeated numbers associated with U.K. sex trafficking as “stretched to their most alarming possible meaning and tossed into the public domain.”