In the past two years there have been a minimum of 176 human sex trafficking cases in Northeast Tennessee, according to statistics from a survey completed in 2011 by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
That number could be as high as 360, the survey showed.
Of the minimum cases, 60 involve minors.
“That’s a lot,” said Yvonne Williams, executive director for the Tennessee chapter of Trafficking in America Task Force.
Williams said the definition of sex trafficking, for the task force’s purpose, is “when a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or when the person induced to perform such acts has not attained 18 years of age,” and human trafficking is “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”
Williams and other experts on the subject hope to dispel myths that surround the idea of human trafficking.
For one thing, it most commonly happens to people in their own community. Williams said she knows of a case in a northern state that involved a high school student who lived at home with her parents. The teen was forced into the sex trade by a man who threatened her and sold her body every night to at least five men per night, Williams said. The teen was too scared to tell her parents.
That case happened 30 years ago, Williams said, but the coercion methods are pretty much the same.
But it doesn’t just happen to young girls. The average age right now of a person forced into prostitution is 12 to 13.
“Boys age 6 to 8 years of age go for $3,000 to $4,000 for thirty minutes in Atlanta right now,” Williams said.
Education about human trafficking and the fight against it have become Williams’ mission for the past eight years. That’s when she wrote an article on the issue and met a trafficking survivor.
Williams first found that “no one wanted to listen” to her message. But persistence kept her going and last fall, Tennessee declared a Human Trafficking Awareness Week.
The state had already conducted a survey of hundreds of agencies — including law enforcement, social service organizations, the Department of Children’s Services and judges — that showed 68 percent of Tennessee counties report at least one human trafficking case in the last two years.
Williams and other experts on the issue presented a seminar Friday for the public at the Millennium Centre.
And while the crowd was sparse for the first presentation in Northeast Tennessee, Williams said she wasn’t discouraged.
“Most of the time we go into a new area the crowd is sparse. The people who were there got the information and it sparks them to go out and do what they need to do,” she said after the event.
One attendee, she said, is a school teacher who plans to take the information he learned into the system where he works, according to Williams.
Others who attended mostly included law enforcement officers.
“Until they know what they’re dealing with they can’t do anything about it.”
Williams said the community awareness, in addition to professionals being educated on the issue, is also important so people can avoid becoming victims.
Perpetrators of the trade scour social media websites, personal ads, malls and the streets looking for their next victim, she said.
For more information about the task force, visit the website at http://traffickinginamericataskforce.org and for the TBI survey report, go to www.tbi.state.tn.us/documents/finaltnhumansextraffickingstudycolorrev2.pdf.