Trigger Warning: The content below talks about the human trafficking epidemic.
On Thursday, January 30, the Junior League of Nashville (“JLN”) hosted a panel about the current state of affairs around the human trafficking crisis in Tennessee (and America). Roughly 120 Junior League and community members joined in on the crucial conversation to discuss everything from what human trafficking looks like in Tennessee and hearing from those on the front-lines of what is being done now to eradicate the problem.
JLN President and moderator, Dr. Nahed Artoul Zehr, set the stage for the panel by highlighting that human trafficking awareness and prevention is one of two community impact focal points for JLN’s volunteer efforts and philanthropic investments. JLN members who serve with JLN’s human trafficking partners do so out of a passion to show unconditional regard for fellow women. The committee dedicated to partnering with local anti-human trafficking organizations has maintained a 95% retention rate, showing that members are dedicated to the cause and learn just as much by working with survivors and the organizations working to help them.
So, for those unable to attend, here is a recap of what our speakers had to share with the audience and their key takeaways about the epidemic and tangible ways to get involved and create real change within this social injustice.
Jeff Rowe has been a detective with the Franklin County Police Department for 25 years. He has completed over 100 hours of continuing education on the topic of human trafficking and works to educate his colleagues on the force as well.
According to Rowe, human trafficking accounts for $34 billion annually, placing it second behind narcotics worldwide. It is estimated that a trafficking victim can earn up to $2,000 per night, which equates to $500,000 per year. Because of this, more gangs and criminals are shifting to trafficking along with, or even instead of, their illegal drugs and weapons trading.
Sarah Wolfson is the District Attorney for Davidson County and specializes in prosecuting human trafficking cases. Sarah also works very closely with Cherished Hearts, a human trafficking diversion court, and Grace Empowered, a court-ordered prostitution intervention program.
In the state of Tennessee, both those who buy and those who sell sex are in violation of the law. This means the “john” (the person who pays or trades something of value for sex), the pimp (the person who controls the sex worker(s) through fear tactics), and the trafficked individual are all guilty and deserving of legal punishment. However, because most women who sell sex do so under duress, the Cherish Hearts court seeks to minimize their legal punishment and often diverts them to complete the Grace Empowered program rather than jail time.
While both Cherished Hearts and Grace Empowered have seen great success, Sarah explained that it is often difficult to prosecute these kinds of cases, often because most women fearfully back off of their testimony due to shame and distrust of law enforcement. Collaboration with nonprofits who care for these vulnerable women is invaluable to people like Sarah, because the missional staff at the organizations help rebuild the women’s self-confidence as well as their trust for advocacy systems.
Margie Quin is the CEO of End Slavery Tennessee (“ESTN”), though she began her career in law enforcement. Working first with missing children, Margie’s experience and expertise grew to include human trafficking as the two are often very intertwined.
Today, Margie’s focus is on caring for human trafficking survivors, but she continues to work closely with law enforcement to identify and rescue victims. In 2019, ESTN helped rescue and served 307 survivors in 19 of the 41 Tennessee counties it is tasked with overseeing.
ESTN’s 2020 goal is to ramp up community education efforts and to get into more spaces with minors who may have experienced trafficking or who may easily be targeted for trafficking in the future. Additionally, Tennessee State Representative Mary Littleton signed legislation that requires all educators in the state to go through a human trafficking prevention course that educates them on the severity of the issue and ways to identify students who may be victims and/or easy targets. Since this legislation was signed in October 2019, over 6,900 educators across the state have completed the program.
The next step, Margie says, is to flip the conversation to address boys and men. It is not just girls and women who are trafficked, and it is not just the victims who have trauma and mental health issues that require attention.
Rick Stout has spent 35 years working with various units in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, but today his focus is on human trafficking. Much like Sarah Wolfson, Rick is dedicated to proving that not all three participants in the prostitution act are criminals.
Using several graphs and charts, Rick showed that 78 out of Tennessee’s 95 counties have reported cases of human trafficking. Davidson County, home to Nashville, and Coff County, home to the Bonnaroo music festival, have over 100 reported cases of trafficking of minors.
Unlike what many may imagine, trafficking is just as prevalent in rural areas as it is in big cities. Lake County has a population of 8,000 people and close to 25 reported cases of trafficking of minors. It should be noted that most of the minors in these reported statistics were not abducted but rather ran away from home.
Rick explained that when law enforcement does find one of these missing, run-away kids, it is often hard to investigate a possible trafficking case since many of the kids don’t believe themselves to be victims. They come from such broken, dysfunctional homes and often have such rock-bottom self-esteem, that these kids often sincerely see their trafficker’s abuse as true love.
Despite the heartbreaking number of cases in Tennessee, our state is actually a leader in human trafficking awareness and prevention. In fact, Hope International has consistently named Tennessee as one of the top states in combating this crisis.
Stacia Freeman is the CEO of a nonprofit called Epic Girl, which strives to educate girls about sex and teach them how to fend for themselves against the bad guys. According to Stacia, most girls who fall into trafficking have not been properly taught about sex by the safe people in their lives. So, when charming but dangerous men pursue these girls, the girls are more easily manipulated and wrongfully educated to believe what the men need them to believe about sex.
In light of this truth, the best way to prevent trafficking of minors is for safe grown-ups to step up, step in, and beat the bad guys to the punch by educating kids about healthy sex and building up their sense of self-worth.
In collaboration with law enforcement, Epic Girl has developed screening tools to identify potential trafficking victims when a minor is booked for other charges. Additionally, Stacia is working to encourage and participate in more conversations around the human trafficking crisis, in hopes that increased awareness and education will elevate the urgency of the situation in society and bring about much-needed change.
The final panelist to speak is a survivor of human trafficking. She validated the other panelists’ presentations by providing her own first-hand account of her trafficking experience.
After 10 years of sobriety, she relapsed and was romanced by her dealer. Like many other victims of trafficking, she came from a broken home, and the compounded trauma she endured over many years, left her with a confused idea of love. Quickly, the dealer’s “I love you” turned into “I own you”, and she found herself in a position she never imagined.
Thankfully, her story isn’t over yet and has turned around. After years of hard work, and with the help of local organizations like ESTN and Thistle Farms, she is now sober, reunited with her son, in a healthy partnership, and making a difference in the lives of other women through her own advocacy work.
Following the panelists’ presentations, the floor was opened up for a brief Q&A session. Below are recaps from that session:
What is trauma bonding?
The term “trauma bonding” was originally used to describe the loyalty and bond often formed between kidnappers and their victims. It is also now used within human trafficking to describe the bond between traffickers and their victims. Relationships are complicated, and every one has good and bad ones. When you come from a dysfunctional home and finally meet a person who is willing and able to fulfill even a few of your needs, it is easy to form a disproportionate love attachment to that person.
Once the attachment bond is formed, the trafficking victim often remains loyal, truly believing they will not find a better relationship if they leave. Many perpetrators are able to empathize with their victim, because they too have had traumatic experiences. This empathy and mutual understanding of each other only strengthens the bond.
What is the profile of a trafficking perpetrator?
“Traffickers” includes buyers as well, not just the pimps. Pimps and buyers often have very different profiles, though both are charged similarly in court, especially when it comes to the trafficking of minors. Pimps have more street experience and a deep need to exert power, usually stemming from a form of mental illness. It is not uncommon for pimping to run in the family, passed down from father to son.
Buyers are usually the opposite – businessmen with families seeking something they are not experiencing at home. Youth pastors, football coaches, and CEOs have been caught buying sex from minors. Like pimps, buyers also have a need to exert dominance over their victim(s).
How are female traffickers prosecuted?
In the court of law, women who traffic other women are prosecuted as traffickers. Many times, female traffickers operate under duress, because they are less likely to be sold for sex themselves if they are finding another girl to take their place. However, it is often difficult to advocate for female traffickers to be prosecuted less aggressively, because they rarely see themselves as victims and are usually older than the girls they are trafficking.
The justice system is currently working to develop new guidelines that will offer some sort of protection for these women while still holding them accountable for their actions. At the moment, programs like Cherished Hearts and Grace Empowered are not equipped to take on female traffickers without compromising the safety of the other women in the program.
Where does mental health play into human trafficking?
Mental health plays a large role in human trafficking as almost every player in the cycle has suffered trauma. Additionally, people with mental health issues often self-medicate with drugs, which is largely intertwined with human trafficking. To help bring an end to this crisis, it is important to incorporate Adverse Childhood Experiences training, also known as ACEs training, into our community programs, so that safe adult and community leaders are equipped to identify and step in before a child’s trauma evolves into the hurting of themselves and others.
Do you see promise in the younger generation to bring an end to human trafficking?
More people are engaged in the conversation today, and greater awareness is spread through popular media outlets, like the Surviving R. Kelly documentary currently on Netflix. We are definitely seeing progress as both men and women acknowledge and step up to address the issue. The conversation is moving away from legal definitions to more informed, engaged conversations. Additionally, there are also more grants available to fund full-time positions for those working to combatting human trafficking.
Once you know about something as horrific as human trafficking, it is nearly impossible to ignore it. The crisis can seem overwhelming and scary, but knowledge is power, and collectively, we can bring this down.
There are many ways that you can spread awareness, take a stand, and make a difference in the fight against human trafficking. Here are just a few…
Shop brands that give back to anti-trafficking efforts.
Check out these local brands:
- View statistics from the National Human Trafficking Hotline
- Subscribe to End Slavery Tennessee’s blog
- Check out the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s online resources
- Attend JLN’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) training (Be sure to check the JLN website in the near future for event details.)
When unaddressed, the trauma from ACEs can significantly impair a child’s development and likelihood to succeed as an adult. ACEs training teaches adults to identify and address signs of trauma in children, so that they may grow-up to lead more healthy, productive lives.
Facilitate a conversation.
- Use your social media platforms to bring awareness to your followers
- Talk to youth about healthy relationships and sex
- Host a viewing of the No Girl’s Dream video
Invest in the solution.
- Donate to one of these nonprofits.
Next Steps for JLN Members:
- Email Ashley Wood, JLN Human Trafficking Public Awareness Chair, about volunteer opportunities.
- Attend the Placement Fair this Spring (March 10th) to learn more about serving on one of the human trafficking focussed committees.
If you would like to work with us on a blog post or are a member with a blog post idea, please email our Publications chair at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: Mary Olson, Publications Chair-Elect ‘19-’20