‘You cannot be unaware’: Tri-Cities mom, groups bring awareness to human trafficking in Northeast Tenn.

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – After a string of arrests about human trafficking attempts in the Tri-Cities, one mom wanted to help out however she could.

Callie Weaks has two sons, and told News Channel 11 she fears for their safety not only every time they leave the house, but also every time they use their phones or gaming consoles.

“The boys are very aware of people’s behavior, the questions that they would ask you, and they are completely 100%, come to me, ‘hey, this doesn’t seem right, I reported this person,’ or they’ll tell me about situations that their friends are in and I’m like, ‘hey, that doesn’t sound right,’ they’re like, ‘that’s what I said,'” Weaks explained.

As a real estate advisor for True North Real Estate, Weaks said she has to keep her personal safety in mind too.

“It’s a humbling experience to know that I am not in that position but even in my line of work. I’m afraid of going in areas in homes that I could possibly be encountering someone like that, that you never know who’s on the other side of the phone,” she said.

After the recent human trafficking attempts in the Tri-Cities region, Weaks said she hopes children and even adults become more aware of the reality of human trafficking.

Callie Weaks

“There’s things happening to children and they’re uncomfortable and we’re not talking about those things — that’s dangerous.”

Callie Weaks, mom & real estate advisor

“We’re in a world that, that’s dangerous and people are sick and evil and twisted. And it’s like, around the corner,” she said.

She said she hopes that people don’t just brush it off.

“You’re speaking out and people aren’t aware and they’re saying, ‘oh, brushing it off,’ you know, or there’s things happening to children and they’re uncomfortable and we’re not talking about those things — that’s dangerous. That’s something that we need to look out for and we need to be talking to our children and not be naïve, that you think your child safe, because I’m not safe, and I’m an adult, I could be going out to my car and somebody takes me like, we have to be aware of what is out there and what evil is out there and not be blind to that,” Weaks explained.

As a young woman, Weaks said she used to be unaware of her surroundings when out alone. Now, as a mother, she hopes other young women, and others, learn from those mistakes.

“You cannot do that, you cannot be unaware in this day and age, you just cannot. Something bad could happen to you and that, I mean, nobody thinks about getting in a car wreck and it happens every day, people die every day, people get kidnapped every day. Nobody thinks that’s gonna happen to them but it clearly does,” she said.

With the help of her brokerage firm, Weaks hopes to bring awareness to human trafficking by running a total of 90 miles through June. She’s working with an organization to raise not only awareness but $2000 for sex trafficking victims.

Local point-of-contact for human trafficking

Gabi Smith works as the Community Care Liaison for the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking in Johnson City. She explained that the coalition not only provides help for victims but also helps people get educated about human trafficking in Northeast Tennessee.

“We do direct services for both adult victims and youth victims. We also provide education we do free trainings for different professions like law enforcement health professional social workers. We also provide free community trainings for just anybody in the community who’s interested in learning more about human trafficking,” she said.

But Smith said there are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to human trafficking.

“You know, people usually think that it’s a danger it’s growing because there are more and more people going out and snatching you know individuals from parking lots and things like that. And that is not the reality that we see, not to say that that has never happened before. But it’s definitely not, not what we’re seeing, especially in the East Tennessee region,” she explained.

In rural and poor socio-economic communities, human trafficking might be much more closer to home than one would think, Smith explained.

Gabi Smith

“Anyone can be trafficked as long as they have a vulnerability.”

Gabi Smith, Community Care Liaison for the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking

“Unfortunately, in more rural areas, it’s going to be more familial trafficking, so family members who have been affected by some sort of, you know, economic disadvantage. They see trafficking their family members, as a way to make money for whatever their needs might be whether that’s a community that’s been heavily affected by opioid use just poverty, in general, they need the money for food, shelter, whatever,” she said.

Predators who seek to traffic people, especially children, manipulate their way into the lives of those they seek to traffic, so Smith advises that parents check on their children often.

“Making sure your kids feel like they can trust you that can come to you for whatever. And because a lot of the time what we see is those kids who do get trafficked it’s because they don’t feel like that they don’t feel like they have the support their needs are not met, and they kind of go out looking for it and other people, and that’s when they become really easy targets for trafficking. There’s lots that parents should know about social media and these apps that you know children can use to meet complete strangers on their internet we see a lot of that. And so being able to monitor your child’s phone is one thing, but also having that trusting relationship, and making sure that you explain to your children this is why you need to be safe online, is definitely recommended,” she said.

These instances of familial trafficking, Smith explained, generally happen at home, and kids running away from home is also not the most common way they get trafficked, she added.

“There are instances of familial trafficking where you can be trafficked in your own home by your family member your parent, your brother, your sister, whoever, so human trafficking is basically the exploitation of another human being for your own personal gain. So, you know that’s getting something from somebody by force for force, fraud, or coercion and there has to be that third party element in there. We also work with individuals who have been labor trafficked. So, you know, human trafficking, there, there doesn’t necessarily have to be that aspect of kidnapping or, you know, being taken away, moving away, running away…doesn’t have to be like that. There just has to be that exploitation of somebody through force, fraud, or coercion,” she said.

Smith said the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking in Johnson City saw the highest number of human trafficking referrals in 2020.

“The numbers are increasing, and I don’t think that’s necessarily due to the fact that the act itself is increasing. But I think it’s just people are becoming more aware, and it’s becoming easier to identify. There’s more plans in place there’s more screenings in place in places that there haven’t been before like mental health facilities, schools, you know, working with domestic violence victims, things like that. So I really think that’s why the numbers are going up, which is kind of a positive thing we’re catching it more, but it’s, it’s prevalent, I mean it happens way more than a lot of people would think,” she said.

TBI investigating sex trafficking in NE Tenn.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation in 2011 researched human trafficking in the state.

Among the report’s key findings:

  • 85% of Tennessee counties reported at least one case of sex trafficking in the previous 24 months.
  • 72% of counties reported at least one case of minor sex trafficking in the same time frame.
  • Four counties (Davidson, Knox, Coffee, and Shelby), reported at least 100 instances of minor sex trafficking in the previous two years.

“Just the thought that these people are coming for a child knowing their child to have sex with them, and knowing that you’re one of the multitudes of men that this child has potentially had sex with that day that week, that month, and carry, they’re seeing this victim as an object to be used, to be bought, to be used and then discarded as they walk out the room. There’s no humanity to it at all,” Jeremy Lofquest of TBI’s Human Trafficking division said.

Victims can be any type of person, he added.

“Victims can come from anywhere any socio-economic level, mainly because the perpetrators will be the master manipulator, they will be the person that your child might gravitate to through social media through gaming chats through any of that type of thing,” Lofquest said.

Traffickers will groom children to make the kids more comfortable with them before even committing the crime, he said.

“Traffickers look at and start pinpointing very specific things. Oh, your mom didn’t give you that brand new X Box for Christmas so you know I can provide that to you, or it can be as simple as providing transportation to and from a favorite activity or anything along those lines, but they just plant a seed early on and have learned to manipulate that and manipulate a child psyche to distance from parents and those that care about them into thinking this is the only person that cares and loves for you,” he explained.

When you hear “human trafficking,” Lofquest said people usually think of a big white van stealing young people from a parking lot and sending them overseas. Though he said that does happen, it’s much more likely that people – especially kids – are being trafficked by people they know.

“It’s usually in a hotel or a motel, or sometimes it’s out of their own home. It could be something that’s more family-oriented. A lot of times it’s early, grooming, from people they know or may not really grooming than a introduction into some sort of drug, or something like heroin. A lot of times that is used to then control a lot of the actions of that child. We’re talking, possibly, 10 to 15 years old when they’re starting, and just starting to live a life of living out of a bag, eating nothing but fast food, potentially any sex with 10,12 people a day for five, six, sometimes even seven days a week, and not knowing where they’re not knowing what city they’re in not knowing how they’re getting to the next place, they just are being told and controlled in every facet of their life,” he said.

To report a case of human trafficking click HERE or text HELP to 233733 (BEFREE).

You can also call the Tennessee hotline: 1 (855) 558-6484; or the national hotline: 1 (888) 373-7888.

To learn more about the warning signs of human trafficking, click HERE.

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