NASHVILLE - A new state study shows Tennessee must improve its response to victims of human trafficking for recent changes in law to be effective.
The state Legislature passed a series of statutes aimed at harsher punishment of people convicted of coercing adults and children into sexual servitude. Effective July 1, a dozen anti-trafficking statutes took effect. There are stronger penalties for traffickers and a longer period of time during which offenders can be charged.
But The Tennessean reported the study finds services to victims of trafficking are disjointed. The 97-page report assigns responsibility for responding to victims to the Department of Human Services and the Department of Children's Services.
The report calls for a better way of tracking victims of trafficking and says organizations outside government also will be chosen across the state to have routine personal contact with survivors.
"If it comes to pass, it will make a major difference in the survivor arena," said Yvonne Williams, president of the Brentwood-based Trafficking In America Task Force. "[The plan] looks extremely comprehensive."
Awareness of human trafficking has grown. A survey in 2011 documented a number of incidents, which surprised some officials. Trafficking is defined as coercive adult prostitution and sexual exploitation of children.
Some police agencies questioned the earlier report, saying the numbers appeared inflated.
Officials concede getting a firm count of incidents is difficult, largely because abusers often threaten the people they are trafficking to remain silent.
"Without concrete numbers of children/youth and adult victims, it is practically impossible to determine the level of services that will be required," researchers wrote.
Among the services the survivors of human trafficking need are - in addition to counseling - housing, relocation assistance, transportation and legal aid.
And counselors at the two state agencies charged with aiding victims will need to undergo what Williams calls "extreme training."
"They need to hire people that really understand the entire issue and not just make it another paid government position," she said.