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In-Depth: Isolation, poverty and addiction spike human trafficking during pandemic

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Posted at 3:51 PM, Jul 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-01 18:02:07-04

NASHILLE, Tenn. (WTVF)  — Human trafficking is not just a crime in other countries or states, it is happening in Middle Tennessee, and the U.S. State Department said the number of cases increased during the pandemic.

Rondy Smith is the founder and director of Rest Stop Ministries in Middle Tennessee. She detailed that human trafficking is a $150-billion industry that enslaves more than 40 million. She said 80% of the trafficked are female and 50% are children.

In Tennessee, reported cases increased for five straight years. In 2015, only 72 cases were reported; while in 2019, there were 180. The National Human Trafficking Hotline identified 11,500 trafficking situations nationwide in 2019, suggesting there are hundreds more cases in Tennessee that are going unreported.

Human Trafficking in Tennessee
Source: National Human Trafficking Hotline

Tennessee Department of Health Division of Family Health and Wellness Assistant Commissioner Dr. Tobi Amosun has cared for patients who have been trafficked for years.

"Human trafficking does occur in every city in Tennessee; every zip code," explained Amosun, "Just because your family is well off doesn't mean that it can't happen to your kid."

Amosun stressed parents need to be on the lookout for what their kids are engaging with online as traffickers often "groom" those they traffic on the internet.

She said, "if you have a significantly older person taking a lot of interest in a kid who doesn't really have a normal, a good reason to be in an interaction with them, those are the ones I worry about."

During the pandemic, kids spent even more time online. Smith explained, "people were more isolated than ever, and so this could go on in a hidden undetected way."

Smith also said there were other factors that led to a spike in trafficking during the pandemic: "People lost their jobs and there's a financial vulnerability and so the ability to exploit someone's poverty. And then, substance abuse went up during the stress of the pandemic, and so the ability to, again, exploit someone's drug addiction. Trafficking just escalated in all those situations."

Myth Busting

There are several common myths about trafficking that advocates say most do not realize are false.

  1. First, it is widely believed the traffickers are always strangers to those they traffic. Amosun explained as a pediatrician "most of my patients are the ones who've been groomed. That's how it starts. It’s very, very seemingly innocently over social media. I know we always teach kids about 'stranger danger;' we teach older kids about not talking to strangers, but it's almost always somebody who they know."
  2. Second, many believe those who are trafficked are earning a profit. She explained, "[A woman is] not out there on the street because she wants to date and because this is the way she's earning her living. Someone is controlling her, forcing her to be out there, and she is not seeing the profit."
  3. Third, advocates say people often think law enforcement and other professionals are the only ones who can detect trafficking. "Everyone in Tennessee is a mandated reporter," explained Amosun, "If you ever suspect that any child is being trafficked, we are all mandated reporters, we have a responsibility to protect children."
  4. Fourth, it is often believed trafficking is underground and therefore separate from normal communities. Smith said she wished Tennesseans understood trafficking is hidden in plain sight, "The thing that breaks my heart the most is when we will have women come through our doors and they will say, 'I know people saw me when I was at that hotel. I know they had to notice something was not right that I was with an older man; that men were coming and going. Why did they never say anything? Why did they never do anything?' We can't let that happen."

Signs of Human Trafficking

Advocates explained the following can be a few signs of human trafficking:

  • Unexplained injuries
  • Drastic difference in age in a relationship
  • Claims to be visiting but offers no details
  • Seems scared out of proportion
  • Seems withdrawn from reality
  • Few personal items

If you need help or see behavior you suspect as trafficking, call the Tennessee trafficking hotline at 855-558-6484 to report it anonymously.

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Red Sand Project installment outside the Tennessee Department of Health in downtown Nashville covered the sidewalk during Human Trafficking Awareness Week in July 2021.