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If you think human trafficking is not a rural problem, you may be surprised to learn the crime has been reported in all areas of Tennessee.

More surprising, crime tracking data shows most trafficking offenses in rural areas are committed by a family member of the victim — a parent or an older relative who has sold a young person or a child for sex.

The good news is there are resources available to help victims break free of the cycle. And the best way for communities to help is to educate its members on how to recognize human trafficking and what to do when it is spotted.

Those were the messages shared Tuesday evening in “Human Trafficking 102,” an outreach session presented by the Johnson City/Washington County Family Justice Center in partnership with the nonprofit Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking serving East Tennessee.

The two dozen community members who came to Memorial Park Community Center to learn more in followup to a “Human Trafficking 101” session held here in January included a minister, a police dispatcher, several child service volunteers, a health educator, a corrections officer and a human trafficking survivor.

To illustrate the prevalence of sex trafficking in rural Tennessee, the session’s facilitator, Natalie Ivey, director of advocacy and outreach for the coalition, said an electronic advertisement for the availability of teen girls for commercial sex acts placed by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation in Cookeville generated more than 5,000 responses in 72 hours.

“It’s literally nonstop. As soon as these ads are posted the emails and texts start coming in.

That’s what the response looks like across Tennessee,” she said. And responders are predominantly “white, financially affluent men. They are prominent men in society.”

While hotspots are “business-friendly” cities where businessmen travel, Ivey said, “The biggest hurdle to overcome is accepting that it really is happening in our community.”

Identifying victims, who because of the nature of the crime may not realize they are victims, is a gateway to addressing the problem, she said. And it is job that requires collaboration between professionals on multiple fronts — law enforcement officers, prosecutors, health care providers, teachers, clergy, social workers and others.

Ivey said rural populations are at high risk because “when trafficking happens, a familiar is usually the trafficker.”

“A mom, a dad, a brother or a sister is doing the trafficking and they work hard to make sure those kids are in school or on that pew at church so that they don’t do anything to draw attention and can stay under the radar. This is what sex trafficking really looks like,” Ivey said.

When trafficking is suspected, she said, the safest response is to call a police or human trafficking hotline. From there, helping a child who may not recognize what is happening report the offense will go to an intake professional who must start by building a trusting relationship with the victim and being careful not to judge.

The first step, Ivey said is to address the immediate needs of a victim who may have been starved, denied sleep or put out in the weather to freeze.

“Trust. Respect. Be transparent about what you are doing. Don’t ask directly ‘are you being trafficked.’ It’s not safe to ask a question like that. It’s not productive. It’s all about collecting red flags.”

More information on how to respond to human trafficking is available on line at or may be obtained by contacting the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking at 865-236-1046.


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