Brentwood Home Page: Williamson County Not "Immune" to Human Sex Trafficking

Just five months into 2015, authorities report there have been two human trafficking stings in Williamson County, with 10 arrests and five victims rescued.

Four of those arrested lived in Brentwood and three resided in Franklin -- now all face some varying charge related to human sex trafficking and prostitution.

But police say when the suspects weren't involved in forcing women to have sex for money, they appeared regular members of the community; shopping at the same grocery stores, eating at the same restaurants and living in the same neighborhoods.

The incidents, which occurred in February and May, happened in places residents pass daily: one at a local Brentwood hotel in the busy Maryland Farms office district, and the other at two massage parlors in Franklin, one across the street from a high school.

And of course, there are those who use such "services" and perpetuate the demand for women to be forced into sexual slavery. As part of the most recent sting, a pastor who is an expectant father, an Army lieutenant and a small business owner were arrested in Clarksville.

It's these unsettling details that Ondrea Johnson, director of education for End Slavery TN, said bring home the threat and presence of the illegal exploitation of women and children across the country for the purpose of forced sex work -- a $32 billion annual industry involving an estimated 4.5 billion victims globally.

Johnson, a Franklin resident, said when people live in an affluent county with low crime rates, it's sometimes easy to think those things don't affect your community.

"I do think we tend, as Williamson County residents, to feel like we are somehow protected from some of the ugliness that goes on in the world," Johnson said. "But the reality is there is human trafficking happening in our county. It's not something that just happens down the road."

Johnson said Nashville has quickly become one of the country's largest hubs of human trafficking because the city is centrally located with interstates in all directions, plus the fact there's a good deal of tourism - a market human traffickers want.

"Human trafficking and sex slavery in Tennessee is more common than previously believed possible," Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director Mark Gwynn has said previously. "In fact, results show that human trafficking is a larger problem in our state than gangs ... involving more counties."

However, Johnson said a sliver of good news is 36 news laws have been adopted over the past four years to combat the sex trade, making Tennessee the second strictest state in terms of stringent laws against human trafficking.

Some of those initiatives include more special agents, the allowance of electronic wiretapping, increased jail time for violators, more protection for victims and efforts to tackle the larger problem of the wide network of trafficking.

But with these great strides in legislation, Johnson said there is still so much more work to be done, most of which is the treatment and care for the victims who come out of sex ring.

And that's where End Slavery TN comes in. It's a non-profit that not only helps victims, but also engages in a larger education program that advocates for the prevention of the illicit activity.

"We trained about 9,000 individuals last year to be able to identify victims, and to be able to confront the issue through things like youth education programs," Johnson said.

"But the biggest bulk of our focus is on after-care services for survivors of human trafficking."

After a sting occurs, investigators determine the identities of the perpetrators and the victims in a prostitution operation. Those deemed under forced control of traffickers are sent to be cared for by End Slavery TN and the many services it offers.

There, victims receive immediate needs, such as food, clothing and shelter, but also long-term services that include therapy, medical care and a safe house. Sadly, Johnson said, many of those in the non-profit's care are very young girls.

"The only number going down in human trafficking is the age of the victim," she said. The average age of victims is between 12-14. "That's drastically younger than what most people's perception is."

However, Johnson said there are ways to help. Now through Saturday, July 18, American Jewelry Company, in Brentwood's CityPark, will donate $1 for every customer who comes in for a jewelry cleaning.

Also, there is a 'Ride for Refuge' bike ride to raise money for the organization, and a luncheon in September that is End Slavery TN's largest fundraiser. Anyone interested in volunteering for the cause is encouraged to visit http://www.endslaverytn.org/join/

"No little girl or young woman steps out as a career goal to become a prostitute, and on some level, whether it's a last resort, a means of survival or they're under someone's control," Johnson said.

"And it really touches every demographic. The more you dig into it, the more you become aware there's really not a community that's immune to it."