Families selling children for sex most common form of human trafficking in East Tennessee, experts say

Human trafficking experts in East Tennessee reported an influx of misinformation as the hashtag #SaveOurChildren trended on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Amanda Hara and Natalie Ivey, the Executive Director of the Community Coalition Against Human...
Amanda Hara and Natalie Ivey, the Executive Director of the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking(WVLT News)
Published: Aug. 13, 2020 at 9:52 PM EDT|Updated: Jan. 11, 2021 at 12:50 PM EST
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) - East Tennessee human trafficking experts reported an increase in misinformation as the hashtag #SaveOurChildren began to trend on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Natalie Ivey, the Executive Director of the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking (CCAHT), told WVLT News Anchor Amanda Hara that while she was encouraged that the hashtag sparked a national conversation about the issue, she was concerned people may not be getting a clear picture of what human trafficking really looks like.

“Some of the messages that I saw today that are very concerning-- are really focusing on stranger danger, big white vans, sometimes political conspiracies, and this elaborate and dramatic form of crime and victimization. In reality what we see here in Eastern Tennessee, particularly when we talk about kids experiencing trafficking, is a crime that is happening in their own home. The most common form of human trafficking for our kids here in Eastern Tennessee is familial trafficking, which means their family member is their trafficker,” Ivey explained.

The coalition, which serves all areas of upper East Tennessee, offers a variety of services to help communities identify and respond to human trafficking.

Experts identify the most vulnerable human trafficking victims as children in foster care or group homes, children or adults with a history of physical or sexual abuse, runaways, people with special needs, and anyone with a weakness or vulnerability that can be exposed or exploited.

Officials with CCAHT said they have worked with human trafficking victims as young as three-years-old, sold for sex by family members trying to feed a drug addiction. Ivey said in many cases, that’s what’s fueling the victimization.

“There’s a really close correlation in the opioid epidemic. But when we talk about that familial trafficking you’re talking about to cover for basic costs in the home so it might be for drugs, I see that as a basic need, and it might be for food, it might be clothing, it might be housing, it might be a job opportunity, it might be access to medical care or access to dental care for individuals in the home. This is oftentimes not necessarily a money making industry. It’s more survival tactic,” Ivey explained.

So far in 2020, CCAHT reported receiving 88 referrals for kids experiencing human trafficking in East Tennessee. Ivey said that number is rising, but not because the rate of victimization is increasing. Rather, she said, it’s because CCAHT has made great strides in training community partners how to identify and respond to cases of human trafficking.

“We are recognizing that these are kids who are already on our radar, they were maybe already in the DCS system. They were already a cause of concern for educators or for medical providers, but those professionals are just recognizing the crime for what it is now,” Ivey said.

In some cases, familial trafficking is multi-generational, according to Ivey, “That tells us, unfortunately, this is not a new concept, it’s not a new crime. This is not a new wave of criminal activity. This is truly something that has been in our community for a very long time, and it kind of just hides in plain sight right under our nose.”

So what can you watch for? Experts advise to look for big changes in personality and behavior, sudden expensive belongings that aren’t easily explained, and sudden drug or alcohol use.

“We want folks to consider your neighbors, your students, your co-workers, the folks who are in our lives, who are around us every single day, and consider the fact that trafficking is not going to be an obvious dramatic sort of crime that’s going to be really easy to recognize. It’s a really difficult, difficult victimization to recognize, so pay attention to those around you and be having conversations and but make sure that you’re informed with the right information,” explained Ivey.

Last year, officials released a report saying that human trafficking was the second-fastest growing crime in Tennessee. Data shows that Tennessee authorities and organizations like CCAHT are working to defeat the problem. Months after that report was released in 2019, Tennessee received the highest grade in the country when it comes to fighting human trafficking for the third year in a row.

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