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U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn introduces Vice President Mike Pence at a tax policy event hosted by America First policies at Lee University's Pangle Hall on Saturday, July 21, 2018, in Cleveland, Tenn. Vice President Pence was the keynote speaker at the event, which featured a panel of guests discussing the effects of President Donald Trump's tax bill.
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U.S. Sen. Bob Corker answers questions from students during a visit to Chattanooga Christian School on Friday, Aug. 24, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Sen. Corker toured the school before participating in the student forum.

U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn pledged Friday to continue U.S. Sen. Bob Corker's fight against sexual slavery, which she has highlighted in her campaign to succeed Corker in the U.S. Senate.

"This is a crime that is taking place right around us that also has an international component," Blackburn said Friday after meeting with leaders of a local nonprofit group that works with sex victims across East Tennessee counties.

Blackburn, a Brentwood Republican who has served eight terms in the U.S. House, was an original sponsor of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, which helped the FBI in April to shut down the sex marketplace website Backpage.com. Blackburn said she will push for additional tools to aid authorities to fight online sex trafficking.

Corker called Blackburn "a champion" through her committee work with modern slavery.

Corker said at least 27 million people around the world live in slavery, either through forced or indentured work places or through sex trafficking. Corker led the effort to draw attention to slavery and sex trafficking around the globe and helped establish the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery with both government and private funding for groups that work to end modern day slavery where it occurs. Last year, the U.S. provided $25 million to the fund.

"I have sort of been the spokesperson for this issue in the Senate, not only here in the United States but around the world, and I am so pleased that Congressman Blackburn knows and cares about this issue and has a history of working on this issue," Corker said.

Blackburn and Corker met Friday with the leaders of Second Life of Chattanooga, a nonprofit that helps sex victims get therapy and other assistance in 25 Tennessee counties. Second Life regularly provides therapy, medical care, job counseling and other assistance for about 50 victims of sex abuse or trafficking a year, and with a new facility just opened in Cookeville, the agency expects to end up serving about 80 people this year.

"It's an age old issue, but it is still new to most of us," said Jerry Redman, co-founder and CEO of Second Life which works in 25 counties of East Tennessee. "I think we're probably 15 years or so into the modern day slavery movement and we're still late to the party. We still have a lot of catch-up to do."

Redman said Tennessee has been a leader in developing public and private partnership, helping law enforcement to identify sex trafficking activity and aiding groups that treat the victims.

In its analysis of the "protected innocence" of each state, Share Hope International gives Tennessee an "A" for its approach to sex trafficking. Georgia and Alabama each were given a "B" by the advocacy group, based upon 41 criteria evaluated in each state.

"Are we winning?" Redman asked. "I say, not yet. But we will, and we are making progress."

According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, a minor is bought or sold for sex every two minutes in the United States.

In 2011, the Tennessee Legislature removed prostitution as a prosecutable crime for individuals under age 18 years old and now considers such cases human sex trafficking. Researchers at the University of Portland estimate about 14 percent of men in the United States have paid for sex at some point in their lives.

A TBI study in 2013 found more than 100 instances of sex trafficking in even rural counties like Coffee County and more than 50 cases a year in Hamilton County.

In 2012, a 41-year-old Guatemalan man, German Rolando Vicente-Sapon, was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison for smuggling a minor across the Mexican border for unlawful sexual activity in Chattanooga. But most of the cases counted as sex trafficking by the TBI don't involve any international activity.

Although some fear that clamping down on U.S. web sites will only push more sex trading activity to unregulated international web sites, Blackburn said more needs to be done.

"We are catching up with where this problem has grown and the legislation we have moved forward is a good building block," Blackburn said. "They [sex traffickers] are constantly using new ways to draw their victims in and that requires a constant conversation between those at the federal, state and local level."

Corker said he is eager for Blackburn to succeed him in the Senate and continue his work on fighting slavery and sex trafficking.

The Chattanooga Republican tends to be more politically moderate and critical of President Trump than Blackburn, a Brentwood Republican who was elected to Congress in 2002. As Chattanooga mayor, Corker worked in the past with former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, the Democratic opponent to Blackburn in the Nov. 6 race for U.S. Senate. But Corker said he is fully behind Blackburn as his successor.

"I know lot of people say a lot of things, but as soon as the primary election was over and she was the nominee, I endorsed her and gave her the maximum contribution to her campaign," Corker said, noting that he also is a co-sponsor of several fundraising events for Blackburn. "I know she has run an outstanding campaign and is likely to be our next U.S. senator."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340.

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