Published February 3, 2021
Chattanooga, TN – Slavery is commonly thought to be a thing of the past. Yet human trafficking persists and prospers in the world today, including right here in the United States.
Some might be surprised to learn that the United States is ranked as one of the worst countries in the world for human trafficking.
The Interstate 75 Corridor running through Georgia is one of the most heavily trafficked areas in the country with the Southern Georgia portion of I-75 being the prime area for human trafficking, according to U.S. Attorney First Assistant Pete Peterman.
One woman, who survived her ordeal, has found sanctuary in Chattanooga and hopes that by sharing her story others will be helped and those that can help to put an end to human trafficking, will.
The young woman, who asked not to be identified, recalled the fear she felt as a victim of human trafficking and the constant fear for her safety in an interview with Channel 3, WRCBtv.
The victim states that she was only 16 years old when she was manipulated into leaving with her abuser.
She expressed that when her mother died, the rest of her family abandoned her and that her foster father molested her.
Feeling as though she had nowhere to turn, she at first trusted her abuser since he pampered her with gifts and befriended her in order to gain her trust.
Soon though, her abuser coerced her into engaging in sexual activities and then collected her earnings but the abuse grew even more over time.
“I was scared as hell the he was going to beat me up,” she said, “He had cut off all my hair because I was sleeping and he burnt me with a curling iron because I was taking too long to get ready….He was going to hurt me.”
Now, at 22 years old, she is traumatized by the abuse and working to overcome the mental and emotional impact her experiences caused.
Luckily, she was able to find her way out of the situation thanks to a Chattanoogan friend who helped her relocate and get established in Chattanooga by setting up a Facebook group called “M’s Army”.
The victim’s friend said that, “I received hundreds of messages and people setting up times to come and drop donations on my porch. It’s been so moving that complete strangers would reach out.”
Organizations like the 7th Well have also helped.
Tess Brandon, Executive Director of 7th Well, stated, “Restored from the past and have self-worth for the future, and that is our goal.”
The victim expressed that she is grateful for the help, especially, because there is nothing that is asked in return.
Unfortunately, she is only one of many children who have been sex trafficked in the United States.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation states that 94 girls on average are trafficked in Tennessee every weekend.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline also reported 180 cases from Tennessee in 2019.
According to TBI, human trafficking cases have been reported in every county in Tennessee. A large amount of them is reported in Davidson and Williamson Counties.
According to U.S. Attorney First Assistant Pete Peterman, “A lot of these victims are being sexually abused. They’re being used and prostituted because it’s easy money for the person who is taking advantage of them and they don’t know any other way of life.”
Trafficking of children is a sneaky crime. It often flies under the radar because traffickers are good at what they do.
“It is a huge problem. It’s like any other violent crime. The thing is, this isn’t obvious all the time,” says Special Agent Jeremy Lofquest with TBI’s Human Trafficking Unit.
Gabi Smith heads Johnson City’s branch of “Grow Free Tennessee” with the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking, located in Knoxville Tennessee.
They advocate for local survivors of trafficking, and argue that you will find child sex trafficking anywhere there are vulnerabilities.
“In more rural areas, especially in East Tennessee, we see a lot of familial trafficking in disadvantaged areas, areas where there is a lot of drug addiction, poverty,” said Smith.
That means the most common way for children to be trafficked in the state of Tennessee is not through abduction or kidnapping.
For the overwhelming majority of cases, it starts in the home or with someone the child trusts.
“The movie-style abduction where the white van is going to snatch you out of a T.J. Maxx parking lot, that is an extremely small percent of what we see. Does it happen? Yes. But that is not usually our main issue,” said Special Agent Lofquest.
“Some of the red flags, you can have a person or a child that is unusually fearful, anxious or submissive in the setting they are in. Showing signs of physical abuse,” said Special Agent Lofquest, “Another one is that they are being obviously monitored or controlled or they are almost guarded by someone else, maybe an adult that is or is not a family member.”
TBI reports human trafficking is the second fastest growing criminal industry in the United States, as well as in Tennessee, ranking just behind drug trafficking.
They state that every two minutes a child is bought or sold for sex in the U.S.
“Human trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar industry. With a ‘B.’ Billion-dollar industry,” said Special Agent Lofquest.
Since in Tennessee most children are forced into the sex trade by someone they know or a family member, it is clear they are tapping into a high-dollar industry.
If you or anyone you know has been human trafficked and needs help, TBI’s Tennessee Human Trafficking hotline is open to anyone who needs help on this topic at 855-558-6484.