“Having heard all of this, you may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.” ― British politician and abolitionist William Wilberforce addressing Parliament on the subject of slavery.
AUTHOR: Cindy Sanders
During the third annual luncheon benefiting End Slavery Tennessee on Sept. 22 in Nashville, nearly 800 audience members listened in stunned silence as guest speakers detailed the state’s slave trade. Far from being a history lesson about a past shame, the program outlined the very real … and very current … issue of human trafficking in the United States and Tennessee.
By legal definition, human trafficking is an act or attempted act of recruiting, transporting, transferring, harboring or receiving a person by means of force, abduction, fraud, coercion, purchase, sale, threats, or abuse of power for the purpose of exploitation.
“Human trafficking is the second – and fastest growing – crime on the planet after drug trafficking,” said Jeremy Finley, chief investigative reporter for Nashville’s local NBC affiliate, who opened the program.
In fact, those who have trafficked in drugs and weapons are finding it to be more profitable and less risky to sell humans. In sex slavery, an individual can be put on the market multiple times a day. In the case of labor slavery, goods are continuously produced without labor costs or laws hampering profitability.
But it isn’t a global problem that only happens elsewhere, Finley continued. “Ninety-four minors a month, on average, are estimated to be trafficked right here in Tennessee.”
In 2011, 85 counties in Tennessee reported at least one case of human trafficking. In Nashville that same year, more than 100 cases of minor sex trafficking were reported in Davidson County, and a similar number was reported for adults. Since July of this year, just a few of the headlines tied to human trafficking arrests around the state have come out of Knoxville, Johnson City, Franklin, Jackson, Clarksville and Murfreesboro.
The average age of trafficked adolescents is 12 years old. “The average life expectancy for children and young people who are trafficked is seven years – trafficked at 12, dead at 19,” said Finley.
He added, “The number one vulnerability that traffickers target is the desire for love and acceptance and a place of belonging.” To battle back, Finley said everyone must ask, “What are we willing to do to make children in Tennessee feel loved? What are we to do to help Tennessee’s children be less vulnerable?’”
Before turning the program over to Derri Smith, founder and executive director of End Slavery Tennessee, Finley noted the nonprofit organization is taking a lead role in answering those questions, helping survivors heal, and strategically confronting slavery within the state.
In her address, Smith recalled how she came to found the organization. “Once upon a time, I learned that 11- and 12-year-old children were being groomed and sold for sex right here in my beloved home state. There’s no way I could know that and not do something,” she said.
From educating the public and training professionals to providing victims and their advocates with a single point of contact for comprehensive, long-term services, the organization continues to grow and adapt its work to address needs.
“Even five years ago, our system of laws was an unintentional welcome mat for traffickers,” Smith said. “Most people thought trafficking didn’t happen here. Even many law enforcement agencies doubted it was a problem.”
Through work at the state level, letter and phone campaigns to legislators, and heightened community awareness, Tennessee now has some of the strongest trafficking laws in the nation. Smith pointed out, “In a few short years, Tennessee has gone from a mediocre response to human trafficking to a model state.”
One of the driving forces behind that change, she continued, is the work of Margie Quin of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Smith presented Special Agent Quin with the First Annual End Slavery Tennessee Human Trafficking Impact Award. Smith said human trafficking has become a major focus of the TBI largely because of Quin.
Grammy Award-winning musician Alison Krauss served as the event’s keynote speaker. In her talk, she passionately stated, “We live in a time where atrocity is often defined by arguing freedom against freedom, and I can’t tell you the privilege that I feel to be in the presence of people whose mission is to rescue and deliver those whose choices have been stolen from them.” She continued, “This organization is in a war not only against the loss of choice of freedom for these victims but against the devaluation of human beings.”
Although the current human trafficking crisis is often rooted in the sex industry, the loss of choice and devaluation of human life mirrors the slave trade of more than a century ago. Referencing a speech by British politician and abolitionist William Wilberforce before Parliament in 1789, End Slavery Tennessee Board President Bill Decker said hearing the story of those impacted by the slave trade forces you to make the choice to look away or to take action. ‘Do something’ was a recurring theme throughout the event.
In the healthcare setting, that could include being more alert to the red flags of trafficking (see box). For more information on the issue and how to be involved, go online to www.endslaverytn.org. If you suspect a case of human trafficking, call the Tennessee Human Trafficking Hotline: 855-558-6484.