TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) 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 Tennessee Bureau of Investigation says like most organized criminal activity, child sex trafficking happens everywhere; including right here in the Tri-Cities region.
“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.
Trafficking of children is a sneaky crime. It often flies under the radar because traffickers are good at what they do.
“People think trafficking only happens in cities like Atlanta, Nashville, places with big airports and things like that,” says Gabi Smith. “I’d say it happens here just as much, it just looks a little bit different.”
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.
Familial? Yes, family-based.
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 gonna 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.
TBI looked into about 100 cases of human trafficking in 2019 statewide and received over 700 tips to their hotline. For 2020 so far, they have already received nearly 600; meaning the trend of reporting is going up.
“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.”
Child sex trafficking is defined as soliciting a minor for sex, but there has to be a commercial gain. This means money is being made off of the abuse of the child.
“Twelve to thirteen is a pretty average, young age we start picking up on this on the investigative side. We have had cases down to toddlers, 8 to 11 year olds. This happens under the radar because it happens often with guardian consent,” said Special Agent Lofquest.
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 say every two minutes a child is bought or sold for sex in the U.S.
“If they have some kind of vulnerability that a trafficker is able to take advantage of, they can easily fall into that life,” said Smith.
SO, WHY IS HUMAN TRAFFICKING SO PROFITABLE?
To understand trafficking, you have to look at it like a business.
There is a constant demand and traffickers are willing to victimize children to meet it, and make money.
“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.
“It is such a cash flow generator that it is constantly growing. As a trafficker you have a product, which would be that trafficking victim. You sell that trafficking victim but they don’t go away. You can sell that victim 10 times a day. For 5, 10 days a week,” said Special Agent Lofquest.
To put this in context, an example of a real life case investigated in Tennessee:
“A little boy who would be sent to the landlord’s house and the landlord was taking advantage of the child. Of course the child didn’t know why or what for. Upon investigation it came out that the mother was receiving money off her rent,” said Smith.
For solicitation of a minor to be considered trafficking, there has to be a commercial gain. Money, drugs, rent, car rides; all are seen as common transactions.
And to keep making money, traffickers are master manipulators of the most vulnerable.
HOW CAN YOU HELP?
Grow Free Tennessee says with a lot of misinformation and conspiracy about child trafficking spreading online, the focus needs to shift to exposing the real problem.
“You will never be able to stop it if you don’t know what you are actually looking for,” said Smith.
The organization has already taken 135 survivor referrals this year alone in East Tennessee.
They say one of the best ways to stop trafficking of children is to be educated, raise awareness and know what to look for.
The TBI lists several red flags in noticing something “off” about a child or the way they are interacting with an adult. This includes a suspicious physical appearance, fearing authority, a child acting out, and much more.
TBI has four dedicated human trafficking agents serving the 95 counties of Tennessee.
Investigators rely heavily on community tips to help them stop trafficking. If you have any suspicion, report it to their 24/7 hotline by calling 1-855-55-TNHTH (86484).
Attached below is a resource guide from TBI: