Law enforcement, support groups combat human trafficking ‘hidden in plain sight’

Special Reports

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Human trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar business, and it’s on the rise in Tennessee, according to law enforcement.

Maury County District Attorney Brent Cooper said the crime may be hidden in plain sight.

“You worry that there are victims out there that we’re passing on the sidewalk and don’t even know,” Cooper said.

The crime often happens through two avenues. In “boyfriending” victims are groomed to believe their trafficker is a legitimate love interest.

In the familial approach, family members traffic each other for profit.

“It’s something as a parent, I constantly worry about,” Cooper said.

The DA is all too familiar with cases like this. It is shocking to many to learn traffickers and clients come from all walks of life.

“You picture them as these real thuggish looking people, gang members or something like that,” Cooper said, “It could be the actual family members of the child.”

Cooper pointed to social media as a gateway for young children becoming more involved than ever. By the time teens wake up and realize they are being trafficked, it’s often too late.

In one Maury County case still pending in court, seven people were arrested, accused of participating in a child exploitation ring.

“You had a teenage girl, she was being sexually abused by multiple people,” Cooper remembered, “It was being videod, they were sharing those videos with other pedophiles online.”

Investigators busted the group after finding the images on social media. At least one of the victims pictured was identified by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

The average age of those who do make it out of human trafficking is 27 years old.

“It is more pervasive than anyone would believe or imagine,” Rest Stop Ministries Founder Rondy Smith said.

Rest Stop is the first of its kind in Tennessee, providing a home for adult women recovering from trauma.

“If you will come and do the hard work of healing, we will take care of your every need for two full years,” Smith promised.

Graduates learn life skills, including how to run a household and earn a living wage.

On average, Rest Stop removes nearly $2 million in profit from the multi-billion dollar trafficking industry.

“I want to be able to say to anyone listening, ‘There’s a way out,’” Smith said, “The Tennessee Human Trafficking Hotline will help get you out. There are people like Rest Stop Ministries who are standing by waiting to serve you and help you restore.”

If you are being trafficked or know someone who is, call Tennessee’s Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-855-558-6484.

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