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David and Jo Haggard, with kids Dakota, Josiah and Jordyn, from left, speak Wednesday, February 3, 2016 at Mile Straight Baptist Church.February
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Outreach and Soddy Daisy church team up to help human trafficking victims

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Learn more, help

To learn more about Blazing Hope Ranch, go to blazinghoperanch.org, or to learn more about Mile Straight Baptist Church, go to milestraightbc.org. To donate to the ranch go to the ranch website and click on the donate button or mail a donation to the ranch at Blazing Hope Ranch, P.O. Box 164, Dayton, TN 37321

More about human trafficking

To learn more about the problem of human trafficking and the sex trade in Tennessee, visit secondlifechattanooga.org, or endslaverytn.org
In Alabama, visit enditalabama.org
In Georgia, there are a number of resources in the Atlanta area including gacares.org, covenanthousega.org and outofdarkness.org.

 

Also, information is available through national websites like humantrafficking.org and polarisproject.org. A fact sheet about the issue for use in schools can be found at www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oese/oshs/factsheet.html? on the U.S. Department of Education website.

Hotline

To get help or report trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking hotline at 1-888-373-7888 at the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. The Tennessee Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline is 1-855-558-6484.

DAYTON, Tenn. — In his mind, nothing so horrifying could happen to his daughter.

No. Not in this country. Not in this state. Not in this town.

Surely.

But for another little girl, it's there — a world gleaming, crying and bleeding behind Internet websites. A trade too unspeakable to name, too unforgivable not to.

Human trafficking and sex slavery are newer definitions applied to a dark side of the underworld, with tentacles that draw children and young adults into a world where they are a commodity to be sold for a profit.

David Haggard, a 38-year-old Rhea County father of three, was only distantly familiar with human trafficking until attending a performance of the play "Princess Cut: A Young Girl's Reality Inside a Tennessee Sex Ring," by Knoxville, Tenn.-based Yellow Rose Productions.

The play is based on the true story of a Knoxville girl named "Sarah," who was sold as a sex slave when she was about 6 years old. The abuse, at the hands of her cousin and his friends, continued until she was 14 years old.

For Haggard and his wife, Jo, the victim in the play struck home.

"I knew I would come face to face with the true story of one girl's horrifying ordeal with the dark world of slavery. I thought I had adequately prepared myself mentally and emotionally. I had not. I felt the intense sorrow and life-altering agony of a little girl robbed of her innocence and joy by one guy after another, not at the age of 13, but at the all-too-familiar age of 6," Haggard wrote on his blog.

He pitted those images against the fairy-tale world of his daughter, the girl who got nervous about movie princesses getting their first kiss.

"My mind was engulfed with the thoughts of my own little girl, twirling around the living room in a princess gown, wanting daddy to dance. How could this happen? 'Sarah' was undoubtedly like any little girl. But in an instant, her nervousness at the innocent embrace of her one-day prince was shattered into a million pieces. The fairy tale turned into a nightmare that lasted not days or weeks, but years. Someone's daughter would never be the same. Her life of dolls and cartoons and cuddles were stolen and sold to temporarily satisfy the sick and twisted desires of others," Haggard wrote.

Jo Haggard carried her own jarring experience from the past.

Years ago, while working in mental health facility in Oregon, she met a young woman who, as a 13-year-old, landed in the sex trade after meeting an older man at a bus stop.

The man fed the girl, bought her clothes. But he started keeping her in the upstairs of a home for a gang's pleasure.

"When she finally escaped, she was in a mental health state hospital where I worked, and she was there with people with schizophrenia and things like that," Jo Haggard told the congregation of Mile Straight Baptist Church in Soddy-Daisy last month. "Every time that those people would have an emotional outburst, it would retraumatize her. And in her mind, she would automatically go back to that house where she escaped."

When male staff at the hospital restrained her for her own and others' safety she would react the same way she did when the gang members in that Oregon house raped her, she said.

She fought, struggled and relived those attacks all over again, Jo Haggard said. The hospital wasn't suitable for someone like her, with her issues. Organizations to help victims of sex slavery exist, but they are few, she said.

The couple, who work at Bryan College in Dayton, Tenn., had been looking for ways to help victims of sex crimes and were inspired to create Blazing Hope Ranch, a home for treatment, counseling and spiritual healing for human trafficking victims.

The plan is to offer an 18- to 24-month program where victims can can learn life skills and undergo equestrian-based therapy, using horses rescued from poor or abusive conditions.

Victims often have been repeatedly traumatized and may lack life skills to get free of the human trafficking world without help, the Haggards say.

Healing can take months or years, and the Haggards want to help lead the way in the Chattanooga region. There are plans to team up with regional organizations like Second Life of Chattanooga, EndSlavery.com or other groups reaching out to victims in Tennessee.

Federal, state and local authorities in recent years have drawn a new focus on human trafficking, conducting operations in Middle and Eastern Tennessee and North Georgia, including a roundup in October that netted 20 arrests in the Chattanooga region. In another operation in December, the 61-year-old female owner of a spa in Madison County, Ala., was charged in a two-year TBI investigation.

According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, more than 27 million people now are enslaved by traffickers; a child is bought or sold for sex every two minutes; and of every four children who run away from home, one will be propositioned by a sex trafficker within 48 hours of leaving.

In 2015, 376 people in Tennessee called state and national hot lines to report suspected trafficking or to seek help or information. Of those calls, 262 were found to be credible reports, according to Polaris, a nonprofit organization that runs the nationwide hot line. The TBI's hot line received another 114 calls.

A 2009-2010 TBI study reported 4,000 trafficking victims statewide. The report said traffickers target Tennessee because of its extensive interstate system, heavy gang activity in Memphis and Nashville and the large flow of tourists through Knoxville, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Being on the Interstate 75 corridor through Atlanta puts Chattanooga on the human trafficking map.

About 85 percent of Tennessee counties reported at least one case of sex trafficking during 2009-2010, according to the study. In Hamilton County, more than 100 cases of adult sex trafficking and more than 25 cases of child sex trafficking were reported in the period.

Earlier this month, an operation netted dozens more arrests in Tennessee and Georgia, the TBI said.

Three men arrested in that operation were booked on crimes related to the age of the women they were contacting through the Internet. Two were charged with attempted aggravated statutory rape and a third with sexual exploitation of a minor by electronic means.

As law enforcement takes a new bead on traffickers, the climate for services has begun to change, too. And that's where the Haggards' relationship with Mile Straight Baptist Church comes in.

Pastor Tom Goss said he learned about Blazing Hope Ranch from his daughter, who had an interest in helping human trafficking victims and saw the Haggards mentioned on social media.

"She called me and said, 'Dad, you've got to talk to these people,'" Goss said. Haggard and Goss met and talked, and Goss realized the need was significant and the church help.

Goss, the church deacons and the congregation "prayed about it and after two months, we felt pretty confident that this was exactly where God was leading us," he said.

The congregation unanimously approved a lease agreement for the ranch on 15 church-owned acres on Graysville Mountain in Rhea County. The site will be used for equestrian facilities, a base of operations for the Haggards to live and work, and a facility for victims to stay during treatment.

"A lot of things are very exciting that we do, but I can't remember anything that got our congregation more excited than this," Goss said. "When you hear the need and it is so great and you know there is a way that you can help these kids and young ladies, you'd have to be somewhat heartless not to say, 'How can I be involved?'"

Haggard said the horse facilities will be built first, and the first activities will be day camps for youth as the ranch gets up and running this summer. He expects it will cost about $13,000 month — money he hopes to raise through donations and grants — to run the program once it is fully operating.

"We already have horses ready to be donated. Step one is building some fencing in order to have some horses on the property," Haggard said.

"This summer, we would love to provide our first day camps to underprivileged youth in Rhea County," he said. "The last piece would be getting the women's home built."

When fully functional, the ranch will provide a transitional living program where victims can learn life skills like home management and cooking, applying for a job and maintaining personal transportation.

A community outreach program will make ranch life and activities available to youth and families in collaboration with the state Department of Children's Services, Department of Human Services, juvenile authorities, Rhea County Mental Health and other organizations and groups.

The central piece is a program teaching ranch clients to care for and train rescued horses. Each woman will be paired with a specific horse to care for during their stay, according to the Haggards.

Goss hopes support from the region swells.

"We would love for this to be seen not as simply a product of Blazing Hope Ranch or a partnership with Mile Straight, but a community project where everyone's involved. We desperately need the community to get on board with this," Goss said.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or twitter.com/BenBenton or www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.

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