TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) – January marks the national “Human Trafficking Prevention Month,” a time to raise awareness for a crime that is very misunderstood.
Shining a light on this dark topic is crucial, as experts say the best way to fight the crime in our community is through education.
Human trafficking happens in every corner of Tennessee and Virginia, as well as the entire country, but it so often flies under the radar and coexists with other crimes.
“Human trafficking is basically three parts. You’ve got a person that is being sold for sex or labor, there is an exchange of goods, services or money, and the third part of that would be force, fraud or coercion,” says Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Special Agent Jeremy Lofquest, who works in the human trafficking unit.
When it comes to local trafficking, it is not always what you think it might be.
“Human trafficking is happening here in our backyard. The unfortunate thing about trafficking is that it is extremely underreported because it is very hard to spot the signs,” says Brittany Fleenor with the Branch House in Sullivan County, an organization that works with victims.
In this region, sex trafficking rarely has anything to do with kidnapping or abduction. Most often for children, it starts with those close to them.
“It is a family member or a parent who is essentially selling their child for gain,” says Fleenor.
Many adults are tricked into sex trafficking against their will as traffickers are master manipulators of vulnerabilities. Locally, that is most often seen in areas hit hard by poverty and the drug epidemic.
“Simply put, it is modern day slavery. We have human beings who are being sold for profit against their will,” says Fleenor.
Human trafficking is not just sex trafficking. The Branch House reports from their experience, people are just as likely to be trafficked for labor in this region.
“It’s very similar to sex trafficking, you are going to have a person that is being coerced or forced into working,” says Agent Lofquest.
This happens most often with illegal immigrants and has been tied closely to the agriculture industry in cases identified locally.
“It’s saying you have to work this many hours and if you have a problem with not getting paid, I will turn you in and we will have you deported,” says Fleenor.
When looking to stop trafficking, it is important to know the warning signs. Those can include a huge behavioral change, signs of physical abuse, a detachment from things once enjoyed, a total dependency on another person, someone being controlled completely by another person, a general sense of fear and someone being very unaware of their surroundings.
“The most important thing is community awareness. If you see something, say something,” says Fleenor.
Tips can be called in to the Tennessee Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-855-55-TNHTH and also the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1 (888) 373-7888.
Local law enforcement and police can also be called to report a human trafficking suspicion or tip.
The TBI has created a website dedicated entirely to the eradication of human trafficking, which includes more red flags, resources and ways the community can help.
If you are a victim in need of help, The Branch House in Sullivan County works with survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, elder abuse, overdose, and human trafficking to begin the healing process from a position of safety and support. They have access to every resource to rescue victims from the dark cycle of human trafficking.
They are located at 313 Foothills Drive in Blountville, Tenn. and can be reached by phone at 423-574-7233.