Local groups work to fight growing human trafficking industry in Tennessee Valley
With summer vacation season in full swing, several organizations and businesses are turning their attention to the issue of human trafficking.
"People from here, Tennesseans, are being bought and sold," said Jerry Redman, CEO of Second Life Tennessee.
Advocates at Second Life Tennessee say human trafficking is a lot closer to home than most people believe. The group helps about 50 victims each year.
They are working alongside groups like Vision Hospitality to educate and train people, with hopes of slowing down what the TBI calls one of the world's fastest growing organized crime rings.
"Human trafficking is one of those issues that has really been on the rise," Jenelle Hawkins with Vision Hospitality Group told Channel 3.
It's a multi-billion dollar industry, touching the lives of women and children across the world, even here in the Tennesse Valley.
"It's a $30 billion+ a year industry and the average age of a person being trafficked was 13 years old," the training manager said.
According to research from the University of Tennessee, 85% of Tennessee counties have reported cases of human trafficking.
"Hamilton County reported over 100 cases of the trafficking of both adults and minors in that 2009-2010 reporting period," Redman said.
Organizations like Second Life Tennessee work directly with victims in the Chattanooga area. Allana Tipton is a case manager with the group.
"With our survivors, they are absolutely some of the strongest people I've ever met--just hearing their stories and their resilience," she recalled.
Tipton says many victims do not seek help out of fear that no one will believe them.
"You wanna know that someone believes you. You want to walk into a business and be like if these are the signs that someone is going to believe what I say. That makes me emotional because so many people don't," she explained.
It's that fear that allows traffickers and their clients to remain hidden in plain sight.
"The type of profile, you're going to see a lot of middle aged middle class white males," Redman said.
The signs are pretty easy to identify.
"They'll be traveling in groups of people typically either one male with multiple females or the opposite; multiple males with one single female," Hawkins explained.
"Does someone look like they're being controlled? Is someone unfamiliar with their surroundings?" Redman added.
"The females that are with them are going to look malnourished and they may be inappropriately dressed for their age, wearing lots of make up," Hawkins continued.
Hotels are one of the most common places sex trafficking takes place, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
"The hotel industry is really starting to change that mentality of we have to do things to protect not just our buildings or our team members but those guests," she explained.
Vision Hospitality Group is leading the effort to identify and protect trafficking victims in Chattanooga.
"We do a lot of video modules explaining just the facts, what are the warning signs," Hawkins said.
She says many hotel groups have abandoned do not disturb policies as another way to fight back.
"We even do a visual check of our rooms every day. So you check in, if you're in that room we're going to knock on your door and check inside to see what's going on," Hawkins told Channel 3.
It's an uphill battle according to Redman.
"We see the instances of this are being reported more and more for a couple reasons. This is the fastest growing organized crime in the world so demand is growing but public awareness is growing as well," he explained.
He says if we want to see change in our community, it's going to require us all to know the signs and speak up when we see them.
"It's a crime that the community can successfully push back on but we all have to know what we need to know together and work together in order to do that."
If you or someone you know are victims of human trafficking, or even if you just see something that doesn't look right, call it in. The Tennessee Human Trafficking Hotline number is 855-558-6484. There's also a National Human Trafficking hotline that number is 888-373-7888.