March 1, 2018
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Human trafficking is a significant problem in Tennessee, with its size, number of interstate highways and relatively healthy economy. But it's not always easy to spot the warning signs when someone is a victim.
This week, the U.S. House passed legislation sponsored by Tennessee Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis that will provide funding and training to medical professionals to identify potential victims of trafficking. Derri Smith, CEO of End Slavery Tennessee, recalled the story of one young girl who came to the ER with a problem typically associated with sexual activity and sexually transmitted diseases.
"Nobody was stopping and saying, 'Why does a 12-year-old have severe pelvic inflammation?’” Smith said. “And she was being trafficked, and she ended up being trafficked for several more years when a trained medical professional could have stopped that in its tracks."
According to End Slavery Tennessee, 86 percent of trafficking victims actually encounter a medical professional while they're still being exploited. In 2017, Tennessee had 80 known cases of human trafficking, making it 19th in the country.
The state does get high marks for having some of the biggest penalties in the country for traffickers. The legislation has now moved on to the Senate.
Another piece of legislation that passed the U.S. House this week will enable prosecutors and state attorneys to sue websites that host ads and content linked to the sex trade. The bill is called "Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017" or FOSTA, and Smith said it will provide a valuable tool to law enforcement.
"There are websites that knowingly are promoting trafficking, but they can do that without prosecutors having access to information to be able to go after them,” she said. “So these laws are giving the tools that are needed to charge and prosecute sites that are knowingly promoting human trafficking."
FOSTA would amend the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which protected websites from lawsuits over user-generated posts. Opponents of FOSTA say it will instead hurt websites that unknowingly host content.
Warning signs that someone may be a victim of exploitation include signs of abuse, lack of identification, if the person has a number of hotel keys or if they aren’t able to speak for themselves.