NASHVILLE - With fewer than 100 calls made to the state's sex-trafficking hotline since it was started 18 months ago, a coalition of women's groups from Chattanooga, Nashville and Memphis on Thursday launched a campaign to better publicize the program.
Describing human trafficking, including that of underage girls, as "modern day slavery," Ann Coulter of the Women's Fund of Greater Chattanooga said, "Our focus is on getting this information about the hotline to the people out there who are most likely to run across one of these girls."
The Chattanooga group and two similarly named organizations in Memphis and Nashville joined together to create the Women's Fund Alliance. So far they've raised $150,000 to bring greater awareness of human trafficking and the 855-558-6484 hotline operated by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
The initiative was announced at a Capitol Hill news conference with supporters including former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, TBI Director Mark Gwyn and lawmakers who are continuing a two-year push to toughen Tennessee law.
Gonzales, who served under President George W. Bush, said he was surprised when he learned about human trafficking and "made it a priority." Victims are often "hiding in plain sight" but most don't recognize it, he said.
For TBI Director Mark Gwyn, the realization of what was happening came in 2010. Since then, the TBI has mobilized to address it, among other efforts giving workshops for about 3,500 out of 16,000 local police officers across the state, including Chattanooga, on how to recognize human trafficking.
"A lot of times a victim is not anxious to come forward" because "they're under someone's thumb," he said.
Human trafficking involves sexual exploitation of teens and other children as well as adult prostitution.
TBI Special Agent in Charge Margie Quin said teenage runaways are particularly vulnerable. She said state lawmakers passed legislation in 2011 recognizing prostituted teens as victims instead of criminals.
A 2011 state study spearheaded by Quin estimates Tennessee had between 750 and 1,500 sex trafficking cases over a two-year period. It found 85 of the state's 95 counties had at least one case.
While some in local law enforcement dispute that, Quin said oftentimes, social service groups are aware while police are not. Victims often fear stepping forward. Gangs have added human trafficking to other activity like selling drugs and guns, officials said.