KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Human trafficking doesn’t look like what Hollywood portrays it to be, according to April.
April, whose last name is not shared for privacy reasons, is an East Tennessee local and a survivor of human trafficking.
For Human Trafficking Awareness Day, April told her story.
April had lost all of the important things in her life: her family, home, job and car.
“Through a series of bad choices, I had fallen into homelessness and addiction,” April said.
April said she always loved helping people. Even during her experience of homelessness and nursing an active addiction, she wanted to help people, which she said offset her feeling of worthlessness.
“That trait out there among so many, so many needy people, really gravitated, everybody gravitates toward that,” April said.
She said she often let people talk her into things and, because she had so much self-guilt and low self-worth at that point in her life, she didn’t talk herself out of doing those things.
“It started out being a couple of ‘friends’ in that lifestyle that ‘oh let me help you; I’m going to protect you; you don’t deserve to be on the streets; you don’t deserve to be talked to like your trash; you don’t deserve this, let me help you; you’re so much better than this, let me do all the things,'” April described.
Then those nice comments or offer of help, turned into requests of reciprocity.
“And then it started, ‘OK I’ve got you a hotel room, now what are you going to do for me for it?’ Or, ‘OK, I’ve got you these new clothes, what do I get out of it?’ And so it slowly spiraled from there,” April said.
April said at that point in her life, she didn’t feel she deserved any of that “kindness,” so she felt obligated to pay it off.
She did so however she was able to, whether it was cleaning, sexual favors or secretarial work.
April said she was looking at it more like a relationship or a business deal.
“‘OK, I’m helping you, you’re helping me, we’re in this mutually,’ even though none of that’s what I signed up for. And I had, my self-worth was so low, I didn’t think I deserved to tell them no,” April said.
When April wanted to say “no,” she was told everything she had would be taken away, or even worse, her family’s life was threatened.
“That was the only thing that made me pause walking out of that room. It’s like, ‘nope, you do know where my family lives, you do know where my children are, I’m not going to do that. So, let me turn around and do whatever you say,'” April said.
April said she was lucky.
She was being “groomed” with small tasks every so often for about a year, but was “only” trafficked daily for about three months.
She also didn’t have to fight to escape.
“I owe a big thanks to the Knox County Police Department (Sheriff’s Office). For arresting me. I never thought those words would come out of my mouth,” April said.
April had a warrant for shop lifting and eventually got picked up.
She decided to be honest with her probation officer, and it was her probation officer who connected the dots that April had been trafficked.
“I didn’t understand it. I was like ‘what? I’ve never been trafficked,'” April said.
The probation officer helped her call the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking (CCAHT), and she said it changed her life.
Jill Ferry, a care coordinator with CCAHT, said April’s story is unfortunately one of many in East Tennessee.
“Last year alone we had about 200 cases that were called into our hotline, and over half of those were children,” Ferry said.
Ferry said a human trafficking barely ever looks like what people have seen in the movie franchise, “Taken.”
She said there are two main types of trafficking: Familial — where parents use their child in a way paying whoever they owe a debt to; and then “friends.”
“You’re going to see trafficking as the trafficker having built a relationship with the victim and having taken some sort of vulnerability and exploiting that for their own gain and making the victim then feel like they owe that trafficker something,” Ferry said.
Ferry said instances that might appear on social media, such as a strange person “following” a family or woman and snapping photos, most likely aren’t possible cases of human trafficking.
“Traffickers don’t typically do that kind of snatch and grab, because that comes at such a high risk. Because in the communities, or in parking lots or some things like that, you typically have other people that can see you; you typically have like surveillance videos that can see those things,” Ferry said.
Ferry said people should still always be aware of their surroundings, however, the average person won’t even be able to look at someone in the grocery store and think that person is being trafficked.
She said traffickers tend to do such a good job of convincing their victim not to tell anyone or say anything or do anything.
They present as fairly normal people.
“The majority of the time, traffickers are going to build that relationship so that it doesn’t seem odd that someone has disappeared from their normal life,” Ferry said.
Ferry said victims of human trafficking have a harder time getting help than domestic violence victims.
“A victim of trafficking, or a survivor of trafficking, will usually take them about 15 times to try to be ready to step out before they’re ready make that change,” Ferry said.
But, that’s what the CCAHT is there to do: Help victims and survivors find their voice and have the resources they need to have a better life.
The life they actually deserve, and not what they think they deserve, like April.
April was able to get help through CCAHT. She has since reunited with her family and living a sober life with a job. April wanted to tell her story so others knew it was safe for them to share theirs.
She has one message for current victims:
“You don’t have to say yes and go along with whatever those people are telling you. You’re stronger than that, you deserve more than that. You can be independent again,” April said.
If you need help or know others who need help, call the TN Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-855-558-6484 or Text HELP to 233733 (BEFREE).
Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking also offers training for businesses to learn what human trafficking signs to look for.
You can reach out or donate to help survivors by clicking this link, https://growfreetn.org/