Style Home Page: The Fight Against Human Trafficking in Williamson County

Full disclosure, I have know Ondrea Johnson for over 17 years. We were neighbors for nearly a decade. This mother of five has always been a bright spot, whirling dervish who loves unconditionally.

Married to Glenn Johnson, deputy chief of Operations for the Franklin Fire Department, saving lives, hearts and even animals is a family ethos.

Classic Ondrea? She often fosters dogs from local animal shelters. One afternoon, Ondrea was walking one of her foster pups pulling an empty red wagon. A few minutes later, she walks down the block again, pulling a sleeping dog in the wagon. Because only Ondrea would foster a high-maintenance rescue dog that was narcoleptic. The dog would suddenly fall asleep at the drop of a hat, and Ondrea would patiently care for him until he roused.

So it is no wonder Ondrea tackles a problem as weighty as slavery and human trafficking, and tackles it with the same passion, and compassion, as everything else she touches.

Ondrea, I feel like I must have missed a major news flash. Didn’t slavery end in Tennessee after the Civil War?

Actually, Cathi, there are more reported slaves today than at any other time in human history. Slavery today just looks different than it did before the Civil War. Though occasionally we do see people here in Tennessee who are physically bound with ropes or chains, slaves today are more likely to face psychological bondage, which is often stronger than physical chains. Even here in Williamson County, girls and women, and sometimes men or boys, are being sold for sex. Yes, in Franklin! Just like in plantation times, these victims of human trafficking are kept for financial gain of their trafficker, forced to work in conditions and situations that aren’t of their choosing, often with little sleep, often having food withheld, and always under tight control of another person. Commercial sex trafficking is the second-largest and fastest-growing crime in the world. … When most people think of girls being bought and sold for sex, they think of overseas brothels and Third World countries. But the commercial sex trafficking of minors is THE fastest growing sex crime in the U.S. The only number that seems to be steadily decreasing is the age of the victims being uncovered. (Currently, the accepted national average age of first-time victims is 13.)

OK, I guess I thought human trafficking was something that happened in movies. Or at least in other countries. What does it look like in Tennessee?

In Tennessee, the majority of victims we see are sold for commercial sex acts. This can be anything from what we commonly think of as prostitution to massage parlors, children being photographed for pornography, or even online predators soliciting soft porn from our children over social media sites.

The common thread that differentiates prostitution from trafficking is that the victim has been forced, coerced or fraudulently entrapped to commit these acts. In the case of minors, force, fraud and coercion do not have to be present for human trafficking to have occurred. After all, according to our state laws, minors cannot even consent to sex. The misconception that is largely contributing to the perpetuation of this crime is the belief that victims are freely choosing to participate in these sex acts.

There are many ways a person can be lured into trafficking. The most common lure we see here in Tennessee is teens and young women being “boyfriended” by someone who wants to profit from them. These men (and sometimes women) gain the trust of their victims by pretending to care about them, perhaps showering them with gifts and affirmation until they have won their trust. At that point, they will begin to require certain things of their victims in order to stay in their good favor.

One thing every victim has in common is that this was not their choice. My two daughters have never once mentioned to me that when they grown up, they’d like to be a prostitute. This is no child’s choice.

How do you help heal these women and children who have gone through this nightmare?

This is the great thing about my role at End Slavery Tennessee. I get to be part of the process that take people from victim to survivor. We walk alongside survivors for as long as it takes, until they have rebuilt their lives and are restored to healthy living. Each survivor has an individualized care plan. They are allowed to dream about their future, sometimes for the first time in their life. And then we work with them to put together a life plan that helps them heal and reach their goals. For some, this is a GED and living independently. For others, it’s a college degree and regaining custody of children. Every plan looks as different as the survivors themselves. For everyone, our case managers and care coordinators make sure survivors get the best of the care they need for restoration: Dental, vision and medical care, counseling, recovery support, tattoo removal …whatever they need.

Why is this happening in Tennessee, and specifically Nashville?

No place is immune to trafficking. It happens in rural areas, suburbs and small towns as well as urban areas. In rural counties, low employment and lack of opportunity, drug use, and lack of resources are contributing factors. Believe it or not, we see parents trafficking their children for drugs and money throughout the state. In Nashville, we have a robust economy. When people have extra money to spend, it often funds a darker side. We have a lot of tourists and business travelers, who tend to bring their money and leave their morals behind. Lastly, big event venues like professional sports and music festivals, etc. also draw traffickers and demand for their “services.”

What do you need to help combat this horror? How can we help?

The number one thing we can do is educate ourselves, our children, and our community. Invite End Slavery to come to your church, business or organization to educate your sphere of influence. Education is so important in protecting our youth and ending the demand. It’s the simple law of supply and demand. If there is no demand for commercial sex, there will be no supply.

The second is to get involved with End Slavery Tennessee. There are many ways to be involved. We need volunteers to be presenters, man booths at awareness events, provide transportation, support groups and tutoring for survivors and much more You can find an exhaustive list on our web-site. We try to tailor our volunteer opportunities to your unique gifts and availability.

One fun way to support survivors of human trafficking is our upcoming No Show Ball. For just $100, you get dinner for 4 and a bottle of wine delivered straight to your door on Feb. 13. What a fun way to celebrate Valentine’s Day. Don’t fight the crowds trying to get a table somewhere, invite another couple to your house and have dinner in. And where else could four adults eat with a bottle of wine for only $25/person? You can check out our web-site for details. Don’t wait too long, we only have 200 deliveries scheduled for Williamson County and they always sell out.

How do you talk to your own children about the work that you do? And what can we do to educate other children?

With my teenagers, I am very open about the dangers and lures. I monitor their social media and discuss openly things that put them at risk. My teens are old enough to hear the reality of what happens to youth who are targeted. Sometimes, youth are at risk through no fault of their own, by being in state custody, being in an abusive home or living with parents who are substance abusers. Still other teens have been lured through their own activity that unwittingly left them open and vulnerable to a traffickers schemes. It’s important to be honest about what can happen.

With the younger children, I explain that there are bad people in the world and I give examples they can relate to of traffickers approaches online through PlayStation Network, gaming sites, and even Instagram. I don’t want them to live in fear, but the reality is that we have to raise our children to be aware. Our kids have access to so many more people these days, and that means those people have access to our kids. The more our children know about the lures of traffickers, the less likely they are to be caught off guard. Of course, kids are going to be kids. I monitor as closely as possible and try to limit access to the sites that are hard to control. And then I hug each of them a little tighter every night and leave them in God’s hands. I hope they see the work I do and know that they can be part of the solution when they see injustice in their own world.

Do you have success stories to share?

I would encourage everyone who reads this to visit our website and watch Taylor’s video.   Taylor is just one of the survivors we have worked with who have successfully escaped their trafficker and started the road to rebuilding their life.

It’s stories like Taylor’s and many other girls and women, who inspire me to keep going when things seem insurmountable. People ask me all the time if my job is depressing. I can honestly tell you that this is one of the most uplifting places I’ve ever been part of. I hate when I have to be out of the office because I always miss something (like a spontaneous dance party of which I am always the least coordinated, singing, laughing, crying, and endless stories of home, friends, family and children.) The spirit of each and every survivor we serve is unique and beautiful. I absolutely love every one of these women.

I wish everyone I know could experience loving someone who has survived something this horrific. It gives great perspective on so many things and it motivates me in everything I do to work harder and be more humble. You never know what someone else is facing. Cathi, I could go on and on about these women. They are truly all exceptional spirits.

I’m not going to lie, I think I would be emotionally drained every day. How do you recharge?

Being an extreme extrovert, spending time with friends and in the Franklin community is a huge boost to me. I love opportunities to tell people about my work so that more victims can receive help and maybe one less vulnerable person will fall prey. Whenever possible, I beg my husband to get us to the beach (that’s no small task with a family of 7 and three pets.) The beach always recharges me and I say there is nothing saltwater and a good book can’t cure.

OK, some fun stuff, tell us about some of your happy places. What is your favorite restaurant?

Can I have a tie? For lunch it’s definitely Gray’s On Main. You cannot beat the Farmer’s Daughter plate and Joni Cole is worth the visit, even if they didn’t serve food.

But for dinner, I have to say I prefer the bar at Cork and Cow with a burger and a glass of Cabernet. John and Zach keep the conversation going and somehow make everyone feel they are the only people in the room. I always finish my night with a nonino amaro. To me, these two places personify what I love about Franklin. A place where you can order your favorite dish and be greeted by people who know you. It just feels homey and comforting.

In three words, my life is :

Blessed, busy, intentional (did I mention busy?).

What goals do you want to achieve in 2016?

Be more intentional about spending time with my close girlfriends. Go on more dates with my husband. Have at least one outrageous adventure with my kids. And raise enough money for End Slavery Tennessee to open our Survivor Care Center. The architect’s rendering is on our office wall, just taunting us with the possibilities of what we could do with a permanent facility.

One of the core values of our office is that we let God do the heavy lifting. I am hoping this is the year He allows us to help Him build a building for these beautiful women.