January Is Human Trafficking Awareness Month

Monday, January 27, 2014 - by Rep. Eric Watson

People assume that a crime such as human trafficking does not occur in our country, let alone in Tennessee. However, it takes place at every border, in every country and in every community.  Just within the past two weeks, several arrests were made as a result of human trafficking.  It is unfortunate, but true, that here in the United States of America that people are being treated like slaves.  

Often, people are imprisoned in lives of misery.  Beaten, starved, and forced to work as prostitutes or to take demanding jobs as migrant, domestic, restaurant, or factory workers with little or no pay.  We have worked hard to stop human trafficking here in Tennessee, Watson remarked.  The personal and psychological results it takes on a person and on society, but also because it enables the illegal movement of immigrants across borders and provides a ready source of income for organized crime groups and even terrorists.

According to the TBI report on Human Trafficking, in November 2010, a multi-agency investigation that was uncovered by the TBI, lead to a federal indictment of 29 individuals who were affiliated with Somali gangs in the Middle District of Tennessee. They were arrested for trafficking girls as young as 12 across the U.S., including Tennessee. That same year a man in East Tennessee was arrested for trafficking over four hundred women. Victims from Cleveland and Chattanooga has also made numerous calls to the human trafficking hotline about this type of activity taking place in our community. 

In September of 2013, 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. 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 passage of strong legislation in 2011, Tennessee’s laws regarding human trafficking were ranked second strongest in the nation by the “Polaris Project,” a leading national advocate against human trafficking. Now, we are joined with 21 other states that have passed significant laws and continue to take steps to improve and implement new laws.  

A few months ago, 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. In addition, we have provided a mechanism for developing a strategy to deliver services to them. I and my staff 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. Through our legislative actions, the group is tasked with assisting the Commissioner of DHS in developing a timeline to implement vital services to victims. It is our goal to use existing resources with the non-profit organizations throughout the state to provide necessary services to the victims. 

President 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. While people are starting to accept this reality, there haven’t been as many convictions. About one in five 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 prostitution or kidnapping victim.  

Our legislation delegated the appropriated money to the TBI to develop a training course for our law enforcement to help prosecute the traffickers. 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. Other states should follow our lead in our willingness to stand up for the innocent victims from this atrocious crime. I stand ready to take each and every step necessary to insure that Tennessee remains a leader in the fight against human sex trafficking.

Rep. Eric Watson

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