AT A GLANCE
Tips for recognizing trafficking victims:
• Evidence of being controlled
• Evidence of an inability to move or leave a job
• Bruises or other signs of battery
• Recently brought to the U.S.
• Lack of passport, immigration or identification
Source: Department of Health and Human Services
The trafficking of children and woman into prostitution, live-sex shows and pornography is on the rise in metropolitan areas of Tennessee and Georgia, officials say.
“When I thought of [human] trafficking, I thought of India ... or if it was being done in the U.S., it’s with people brought over the borders,” said Jerry Redman, director of Second Life, a Chattanooga-based organization that targets human trafficking. “But it’s going on here [too].”
“It’s new to us,” said Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Van Hinton. “Right now we’re being trained and educated about it.”
Police are investigating at least one case of possible human trafficking involving minor girls brought into Chattanooga from the Atlanta area, Hinton said. Experts say Atlanta has become a hub for children who are sexually trafficked.
Redman said advocacy groups and social service agencies are aware of suspicious activity in Chattanooga that has the characteristics of sexual trafficking.
Last year, police stopped 12 illegal immigrants in Bradley County who were traveling from Texas to Pennsylvania and were suspected of human trafficking. In Georgia, Gordon County sheriff’s deputies arrested a fugitive from Romania who was wanted in connection with a human trafficking case after he was pulled over for speeding on Interstate 75.
Legislators in Tennessee and Georgia are now working this session to strengthen laws against traffickers and protect children who are rescued from modern enslavement.
A form of slavery
Human trafficking usually victimizes women and children who are forced into the sex trade. In the United States, young girls and boys often are manipulated into the trade after running away from home or being kidnapped by traffickers.
Women from other countries may be offered a false marriage proposal or a job, then brought to the U.S. and forced into the sex trade.
Because trafficking laws have been lax and because law enforcement can mistake trafficking for simple prostitution, states have been slow to respond to the growing problem, said Dr. Ron Petitte, a politics and government professor at Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn. Petitte’s annual International Human Rights Symposium discusses human trafficking.
“A misconception to sexual slavery is that [the victims] want to be in it,” Petitte said.
Pimps and traffickers use fear and intimidation to keep victims working, and in many cases women and children are kept locked up, said Stephanie Davis, director of Atlanta-based advocacy group Women for Change.
Massage parlors, spas and strip clubs commonly are used to mask human trafficking, authorities said.
Legislation to curb human trafficking in Georgia seeks to protect victims from being punished and to strengthen penalties against traffickers, said Rep. Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, who is sponsoring a House bill.
“We sought to treat the victims of human trafficking with compassion,” Lindsey said. Georgia House Bill 200 passed the House 168-1 earlier this month.
The law would allow victims to avoid being charged by testifying against a suspect, he said. It also would stiffen sentences to a range of 25 to 50 years for anyone convicted of trafficking victims under 18 and would give prosecutors greater latitude to go after a trafficking suspect’s assets.
The bill is now in the Georgia Senate for consideration.
Similar legislation in Tennessee would allow law enforcement to go after a suspect’s property and would change charges of patronizing prostitution — used against the customers — from a misdemeanor to a felony.
Tennessee lawmakers have asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to head a statewide study to identify how much trafficking is going on in the state, said TBI spokeswoman Kristin Helm. The bureau is conducting a survey by interviewing law enforcement and social services agencies.
“People are going to be surprised by the results ... [and] how often authorities see children who have been victimized,” she said.
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...