NASHVILLE - About 160 people attended a three-day Trafficking in America Conference in Nashville where police, prosecutors, clergy and child advocates gathered to bring awareness and find solutions.
The conference, which concluded on Saturday, reflected the sense of urgency that many state and federal officials feel about the need to stop trafficking in the United States, the Commercial Appeal reported.
First Lady Crissy Haslam wrote in a letter to the attendees that trafficking was "an epidemic of tragic proportions," and her husband, Gov. Bill Haslam, declared May as Human Trafficking Awareness Month. A Tennessee Bureau of Investigation report last year found more than 4,000 known victims statewide.
One of those victims, Kim Benson, spoke about how she was forced into prostitution in Chicago as a teenager before she was able to escape her kidnappers.
"I survived hell and back," said Benson, who now lives in Cordova.
Benson said her abusers would put a gun to her head and tell her they could kill her if they wanted and she would never get away.
"My story doesn't end in tragedy," said Benson, who married and now has a 16-year-old son. "It ends in triumph."
She now runs A Bridge of Hope Ministries, mentoring victims and trying to reform pimps and johns. As part of her ministry, she said she met one Memphis inmate who admitted to trafficking about 200 young women.
Shelby County authorities and social workers have reported more than 100 cases of minors who were victims of sex trafficking. That includes victims who are brought into the state from other cities and others who run away from home and end up in relationships that turn predatory.
Traffickers look for victims over the Internet, said FBI Supervisory Special Agent Scott Augenbaum, who heads the Memphis division's Cyber Crime Squad. He said his team has prosecuted more than 30 predators in Memphis and Nashville who go online to target minors.
Roscoe Johnson, pastor of Restoration Outreach Ministries in North Memphis, came to the conference to learn about what his ministries could do to help fight trafficking.
"Most people think it's a third-world problem, but it's serious in Memphis," Roscoe Johnson said. "It's like it's taboo, unreal, most people just don't accept it."