Children below age 17 are targets for human trafficking

Living within a dysfunctional home of mental, emotional and sexual abuse resulted in Anne (not her real name) running away when she was 13. For the next couple of years, she was trafficked before she headed to Nashville to live with her father. At 16, she married, was introduced to drugs and became a full-blown addict. Her husband eventually sold her to a trafficker where she lived that life for 28 years. During these years, Anne was in and out of jails, prisons and other institutions.

While incarceration at the Tennessee Prison for Women, Anne’s life took on new meaning when she began the Magdalene on the Inside program of Thistle Farms that supports incarcerated women through informed care, encouragement towards healing, and a structured place to live after their release.Magdalene on the Inside began in December 2013 at Tennessee Women’s Prison under the leadership of Sheila McClain, a Thistle Farms graduate and survivor-leader. The program meets twice a week at the prison and meetings consist of licensed, trauma-informed care, as well as volunteer supported groups: life-skills development, coping & self-care, and cognitive skill development.

Through this program, Anne began to see a glimmer of hope. She excelled in furthering her education and career. After her release from prison, she graduated from Magdalene’s two-year residential program and determined that she would help other survivors. Today, she is part of End Trafficking Tennessee (EST), a non-profit that works to promote healing of human trafficking survivors as well as strategically confronting slavery in Tennessee.

EST provides victims and their advocates a single point of contact to long term, comprehensive, specialized, trauma-informed aftercare. It also serves as the single point-of-entry for human trafficking victims through state, federal and local law-enforcement, the courts and the Department of Children’s Services.
Human Trafficking is a devastating human rights issue of our time and, according to statistics, the reality is that there are more slaves today than at any time in our past history.

Every month in Tennessee, 94 to 110 children below the age of 17 become victims of human trafficking. These victims are as young as four! Sadly, parents often ‘sell’ their young children — as young as five or six — for sex in exchange for drugs, etc.

Nationally, on average, a child is bought or sold for sex every two minutes. One study determined that minors who are trafficking victims are sold 10 to 15 times a day, six days a week. Eighty percent of victims are female; however, boys are also victims of human trafficking for both labor and sex. In fact prostituted boys typically begin at an even younger age than girls.

Additionally, the International Labor Organization estimates that there are 20.9 million victims of human trafficking globally, with 55 percent being girls and women and 86 percent being U.S. citizens. Last year, an estimated one in 6 endangered runaways that were reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were likely child sex trafficking victims.

Slavery and human trafficking has become an epidemic, not only internationally and nationally, but also locally. The safety and well being of our youth must be taken seriously. Parents, grandparents, family members, and teachers alike can no longer buy into the myth that human trafficking and slavery only happens in the big cities — never in “my neighborhood.” It happens! It happens in rural and urban areas; large and small cities; next door, in every zip code. It crosses all racial, socioeconomic and educational lines. It is real!

How does this happen? How did it become an epidemic?

The Internet makes it much easier for these so-called ‘hidden in plain sight crimes’ to go unnoticed, shares Lorraine McGuire, director of Development at End Slavery Tennessee. “The perpetrator remains anonymous and feels safe. Those involved in this criminal act against men, women and children, find it as easy as ordering a pizza,” she adds.

Secondly, it becomes “normalized.” McGuire says that perpetrators and traffickers compare notes through the Internet and are of the mindset that everyone lives this way; therefore, it’s normal behavior.

“Third, we live in a culture that advertises everything as sexy. Advertisers tell young girls to wear this or that; use this product; drink this drink, etc.,” McGuire shares. “Girls buy into the notion that their goal in life is to be sexy and desirable. Young people need conversation that being kind, smart and true to self are more important than looks.”

Too often, messages in songs and advertisements that are meant to sell products aren’t what our young people need to buy in to.

Just like Anne and organizations such as EST and Thistle Farms, local and state police officers are striving to save victims and prevent others from becoming victims.

EST supported legislation that in few short years brought Tennessee’s human trafficking laws from mediocre to having a number one rating for the strongest laws in the nation at combating human trafficking. The organization’s CEO and founder Derrie Smith and members of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) have spoken about Tennessee’s model at the White House, U.S. Capitol and the United Nations. EST has also trained groups from around the country to equip them to work with efficacy in their region.

With public support, human trafficking can be stopped through training professionals to recognize victims, prevention programs for at-risk youth, addressing needed systemic changes statewide and providing comprehensive, specialized aftercare for survivors of this horrific crime.

For additional information about End Slavery Tennessee, go to To volunteer, call 615-806-6899.

To get help or to report suspicious activity, call the Tennessee Human Trafficking Hotline at 855-558-6484. For an emergency, call 911.