NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children tracked nearly 30 cases last year. The majority of them were youth considered to be “endangered runaways.” In Tennessee, the Department of Children’s Services (DCS) has taken notice and action.
No one child is the same, and no one case is either, which is why it’s oftentimes hard to determine the outcome of some of the children throughout Tennessee.
“We’ve had over 500 reports since the beginning of the year,” said Kate Greer, the Director of the Human Trafficking Response Team—a part of the Department of Children’s Services.
In January, DCS saw a need and created the Human Trafficking Response Team. Already, with more than 500 cases coming through the unit, only around 100 remain, according to Greer.
“A lot of community members think it’s just a foreign child chained up in a dark room, because that’s what we picture from the movies and that kind of thing; it’s not. It’s your neighbors; it’s your friends, probably, and people don’t understand that; they don’t know that,” Greer explained. “It is a population that hasn’t gotten the attention it needs to get, and the Department of Children’s Services did not have a unit. The Department of Children’s Services has worked with young children for a long time, and it’s not that we didn’t have contact with teenagers but I don’t think we looked into their needs quite as much as this particular unit is able to do.”
The unit is comprised of eight investigators and two team leaders. Their work often comes from tips into the hotline or straight from law enforcement, who see the crime firsthand.
“Two different times the THP, in the last six months, has identified trafficking victims and called us,” explained Greer. “Kids were literally found on the side of the road. We got that call in the middle of the night because that was an emergency situation, so we are on call 24/7.”
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the majority of cases they see are endangered runaways. More than 25,000 cases were reported from across the United States last year. Nearly 3,000 of them remain open.
“When you think about it when you’re a teenager and you run, you don’t have a lot with you. Maybe the clothes on your back, maybe you have a couple of bucks, but likely you’re running from a situation, and often that’s a situation where there may be poverty,” Greer said. “When they run they don’t generally have a lot with them, and what can be sold over, and over, and over again. Drugs can be sold one time, and selling your body can be done over and over again, and sometimes I think that’s just what they’ve got.”
There are anywhere between 600 and 900 reports of children suspected of human trafficking in Tennessee any given year. Custodial children are especially vulnerable to trafficking due to high-risk factors and a history of traumatic incidents.
“Runaways are very prone to human trafficking, so sometimes we get a report that a runaway is being trafficked when they’re just a runaway, they’ve just run away and they’re not involved in that business but a lot of times, because it’s such a high-risk factor, we get a lot of runaways and they have been involved in trafficking,” said Greer.
The unit encourages people to report any suspicions of human trafficking by calling the hotline number 877-237-0004.