Tennessee Bureau of Investigation sex trafficking survey provokes questions by police

photo Bobby Dodd, Chattanooga Police Chief, takes questions from the media at a press conference in Chattanooga announcing the launch of a new hotline dedicated to reporting human sex trafficking. File photo.

WHAT IS HUMAN TRAFFICKING?• The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act defines "severe forms of trafficking" as using force, fraud or coercion to induce people into prostitution, or inducing a minor into prostitution; or to force people into involuntary servitude or labor services.• Tennessee law says someone who maintains or forces another person into sexual servitude commits sexual trafficking and can be sentenced to between eight and 30 years in prison.• The TBI opened a sex trafficking hotline Oct. 1 to address the issue statewide and provide resources for victims. As of one week ago, 12 calls had been received. To reach the hotline, call 855-558-6484.Source: TBI

A Tennessee Bureau of Investigation survey reporting more than 100 cases of human sex trafficking in Hamilton County by an unnamed social service organization may have inflated the number of cases that occurred locally.

The TBI survey is a sharp contrast to the number of sex trafficking cases investigated by local law enforcement -- zero.

"I'm really surprised none of these have been reported through Chattanooga Police Department. I can see how some of them have occurred. I just don't see how hundreds of them could have been reported here and not one person said, 'We may want to call the police as well,'" said Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd, recalling when he first learned about the survey.

However, employees from social service organizations including the Tennessee Department of Children's Services, the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults, and Parkridge Valley Hospital each reported cases. Some of those cases involved minors.

When asked why local authorities were not contacted, officials at DCS and Parkridge Valley Hospital said they sometimes serve clients who reside out of state or out of the Chattanooga area and that criminal investigations were opened elsewhere. Officials at both organizations said they did not know who participated in the survey within their agencies.

"I can't say we didn't report it. It may not have been to the authorities in Hamilton County. I know our staff may be working with children in other parts of the state or other states," said Carla Aaron, executive director child safety for the Department of Children's Services.

Nancy Toth, child and adolescent director at Parkridge Valley Hospital, said each of the cases seen at the facility already had an open investigation elsewhere. The facility reported six to 15 cases of children being sex-trafficked, according to the survey. Toth said employees take many surveys. No one at Parkridge recalled participating in this survey, she said.

"I'm not surprised if the police may answer one thing and we say another," she said. "We are seeing kids with open investigations. ... [The survey] didn't ask each participant to be specific to their county. If there's a flaw in the survey, it didn't give directions to be specific to the county you're in."

Report Complaints

The TBI has received complaints about the numbers listed in the report for some regions.

"We found that these are often related to miscommunication or a complete lack of communication between agencies," said TBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Margie Quin, who noted a new two-year training program will strive to change that.

TBI spokeswoman Kristin Helm said no cases of human sex trafficking have been investigated in Hamilton County.

The local FBI office received two tips on children from Partnership for Families, Children and Adults, according to the nonprofit. However, neither instance was considered a human sex trafficking case after federal investigators reviewed it.

Helm said a list of people polled from Hamilton County is not available for the survey that was conducted in partnership with Vanderbilt University.

"We emailed or called more than 4,400 individual agencies and used the state's listserv system. I'm not able to extract specific information from that list," she wrote in an email. A list of organizations is listed in the study's appendix.

Quin said the numbers are most likely accurate overall statewide, though. Between 600 and 900 children are reported missing in Tennessee each month. Approximately 1,400 children run the risk of being sexually exploited, she said. The National Runaway Switchboard reported receiving 1,800 calls in 2010 from Tennessee.

"When you look at all the numbers, they appear very consistent with regards to minors at risk in Tennessee," Quin said.

Collecting Information

Social workers, counselors, medical staff and teachers are all required to report suspected abuse. However, according to local survey results, between 26 and 50 cases were reported of children being sexually trafficked. For adults, the number rose to more than 100 cases.

The survey also used the highest number of cases reported from a respondent in Hamilton County as the overall figure to avoid counting the same cases numerous times if someone used multiple local social service organizations.

Out of the 42 respondents, 12 chose to remain anonymous. For Hamilton County the information came from 27 social service organizations, 10 law enforcement agencies, four guardians ad litem, or representatives for juveniles, and one with the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office. The survey asked participants to reflect back on cases in a 24-month period.

The Chattanooga Police Department is among the 10 law enforcement agencies in Hamilton County that have never investigated sex trafficking cases reported in the study.

"I think there needs to be more accountability with these surveys and how they are reported," said Dodd, when told about the findings.

Regina McDevitt, director for crisis services at the Partnership, contends the high number of cases is most likely accurate. Participants at the Partnership did not identify themselves when returning the survey.

"In the report, a lot if it was suspected cases," McDevitt said. "We believe this is happening, but you don't necessarily have proof. It's very difficult to get proof. Typically the investigation is not going to happen at the CPD [Chattanooga Police Department] level or sheriff's office level. It's going to happen with FBI because it [trafficking] typically is state-to-state or international."

Tennessee also has human sex trafficking laws on the books. It's a class B felony that carries no less than eight years and no more than 30 years upon conviction.

Dodd said if there are cases locally, his department will investigate them. The department investigated a couple of immigration human trafficking cases in recent years that resulted in arrests.

McDevitt, who has never contacted local law enforcement about sex trafficking cases, said protocols are just now being set up to contact police about potential cases.

"It occurred to us, we automatically think FBI, but we also need to involve local law enforcement, just for their knowledge, that even though they aren't investigating, they need to know how to recognize it as well," she said.

As many as 17 employees in Hamilton County with Department of Children's Services responded to the survey. Five noted cases of sex trafficking. Respondents from DCS noted 6 to 15 cases of children trafficked and between 51 and 100 cases of adults trafficked.

Officials at the Hamilton County children's services office did not respond to multiple interview requests.

Aaron said the survey was administered to staff members before some of the employees in the department had received training on human sex trafficking.

"I still think some of the information was very subjective," she said. "Of the people who took the survey, I don't know how much information they had about human sex trafficking. There's a possibility [the numbers] could be inflated or minimized."

Follow the latest Chattanooga news on Facebook