State Rep. Eric Watson, District 22, recently participated in a conference hosted by the Office of the Vice President at the White House to discuss human sex trafficking. The delegation of 25 included members from the Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the U.S. Attorney General’s office.
Watson, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said people assume that a crime such as human trafficking does not occur in our country, let alone in Tennessee. However, he said it does take place at every border, in every country and in every community.
According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation report on human trafficking dated May 2011, human sex trafficking is the slavery of women and children forced to perform various sex acts for money at a variety of locations across the state for the purpose of making money for their captors. The National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway and Throwaway Children reports that 1 in 4 children who run away from home are approached for commercial sexual exploitation within 48 hours of running away. The average age of entry into the business of sex trafficking is 13.
As an example, Watson cited a multi-agency investigation that led to a federal indictment of 29 individuals affiliated with Somali gangs in the Middle District of Tennessee.
“They were arrested for trafficking girls as young as 12 years old across the U.S., including Tennessee,” Watson said. “That same year, a man in East Tennessee was arrested for trafficking more than 400 women. Victims from Cleveland and Chattanooga have also made numerous calls to the human trafficking hotline about this type of activity taking place in our community.”
Although the report was not community specific, 85 percent of Tennessee counties had investigated at least one human sex trafficking case in the 24 months prior to the report. Seventy-two percent of the total counties reported at least one case of minor human sex trafficking, 16 reported 50 cases, and eight reported more than 100 cases of human sex trafficking involving minors.
Since that report, the General Assembly passed tough new laws against human trafficking and the TBI has added a training segment on the subject for officers and agents.
Watson said earlier this month a federal jury in Memphis convicted a man of running a human trafficking ring. One of the victims was only 15 years old. Jurors in that case heard stories about the defendant kicking and beating his victim.
“U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton is to be commended for his efforts to bring such thugs to justice,” Watson said. “Mr. Stanton has earned national attention for aggressively prosecuting sex traffickers. After the trial Stanton stated, ‘The brutal and depraved acts that this individual inflicted upon these women are almost impossible to fathom.’"
Because of legislation passed in 2011 to strengthen Tennessee laws, the “Polaris Project,” a leading national advocate against human trafficking, should rank Tennessee’s laws regarding human trafficking among the strongest in the nation.
Polaris Project is one of the leading organizations in the global fight against human trafficking and modern-day slavery. Named after the North Star "Polaris" that guided slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, Polaris Project is transforming the way individuals and communities respond to human trafficking, in the U.S. and globally.
“While in Washington, D.C., I shared some of our recent legislative victories in Tennessee. We passed legislation that no longer treats victims of sex trafficking as criminals,” Watson said. “In addition, we have provided a mechanism for developing a strategy to deliver services to them. My staff and I recently attended a strategy session hosted by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Human Services that brought together nonprofit organizations, law enforcement, state departments, and victims.”
The group is tasked with assisting the commissioner of DHS in developing a timeline to implement vital services to victims. The goal is to use existing resources with the nonprofit organizations throughout the state to provide necessary services to the victims.
“Our legislation appropriated money to the TBI to develop a training course for law enforcement to help prosecute the traffickers,” Watson said. “Casual observers can see the evidence of human trafficking as we travel Tennessee’s roadways and it will take cooperation from law enforcement and prosecutors from all levels of government to effectively fight this battle.”
President Barack Obama signed a new federal law called the Child Protection Act of 2012, which enhances federal, state, and local efforts to fight child pornography, sexual predators, and human trafficking.
Watson said that while people are starting to accept this reality, there haven’t been many convictions.
“About 1 in 5 cases result in a prosecution. We have found that the problem lies at the local level because local law enforcement and prosecutors lack the necessary training to distinguish differences between a human trafficking victim, and a prostitution or kidnapping victim,” he said. “Other states should follow our lead in our willingness to stand up for the innocent victims of this atrocious crime. I stand ready to take each and every step necessary to ensure that Tennessee remains a leader in the fight against human sex trafficking.”