WAR AGAINST CHILD SEX TRAFFICKING | Report
Chattanooga & Tennessee lead the fight against child sex trafficking.
A white picket fence.
That's what she saw during the entire time — her first time — she was sold for sex.
Looking through a car window, the girl fixed her eyes on the fence, trying to escape her assaulted body still trapped in the car — a body that had just been sold for $250.
That was a good rate since she was only 12 years old.
Escaping a violent home, the girl was at a bus stop when she was found by the man who would become her pimp. The girl was looking for love, and that's what the man was peddling — or that's what he said.
But all thoughts of love vanished the day he left her in the car with the customer, the day she stared at that white picket fence.
In her Nashville office decorated with crayoned colorings and a collage of posed selfies from her young daughter, Margie Quin, assistant special agent in charge of the Human Trafficking Unit at the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, tells this story. Though she knows many other stories like this one, something about the girl's moment with the fence haunts Quin.
She has led the bureau's Operation Someone Like Me since May 2015 when Gov. Bill Haslam signed legislation giving jurisdiction over trafficking to the TBI. The operation's stings get their name from a survivor's story, a girl who helped Quin decode the jargon that pimps use to lure predators at online sites like Backpage.com.
"Our agents were talking with a survivor in an effort to understand in detail how this crime unfolds," Quin recalls, "After more than an hour of conversation we thanked her for her time."
The team of agents was humbled by the young woman's response.
"No. Thank you," the survivor said. "You don't know what it means to someone like me that the TBI is willing to go out and rescue these girls."
"People ask me what I do for self-care," Quin says, then laughs. "I put the bad guys in jail. That's my self-care."
Fighting the war
In many ways, Chattanooga and Tennessee have become a focal point in the war against sex trafficking. The effort has involved not only agencies such as the TBI and local law enforcement, it also has generated support from locally-based groups such as Second Life Chattanooga, the Women's Fund of Chattanooga, Richmont Counseling Center and Mitch Patel, CEO of Vision Hospitality Group, which has a portfolio of Hilton- and Marriott-affiliated properties.
The battle also has made its way to Congress with the End Modern Slavery Initiative from Bob Corker, the Republican U.S. senator from Tennessee and former Chattanooga mayor.
As the geographic intersection of Interstates 75, 24 and 59, Chattanooga provides an easy path for pimps to transport their victims around the Southeast, Quin said during a January presentation in Chattanooga. That's especially true for traffickers from Atlanta which, in 2014, was ranked as the No. 1 city in the country for sex trafficking by Washington D.C.'s Urban Institute, which researches economic and social policy.
Jerry Redman, co-founder of Second Life, which helps victims of sex trafficking, believes the local anti-trafficking partnerships could have impact beyond Tennessee.
"Tennessee is just one of those states where the right people found each other and decided out of the chute, 'What if we work together?'" he says. "Could we create something that leverages resources in a strategic way and see if we could grow it beyond Atlanta and beyond Georgia and beyond Tennessee?"
Over the course of six stings in the state of Tennessee, Quin and her agents have made 131 arrests and rescued 10 trafficked women and girls. In Nashville, her agents posed as underage girls on Backpage.com for a sting in August. Instead of children waiting for them at the hotel, the johns found the TBI.
The agents arrested 41 people, including a high school teacher, an IT specialist and a 20-year-old Vanderbilt University football player who's no longer on the team. Over two days, the undercover TBI agents received 485 responses to their Backpage.com ads selling underage girls.
"You can see it is a demand-driven crime," Quin says.
Just a few months earlier, Quin and her agents executed a similar sting in Knoxville. The operation drew national attention when it was revealed that two church pastors were arrested while trying to purchase underage girls.
Quin and her team have executed two stings in the Hamilton County region since launching Operation Someone Like Me. They received 292 responses to their Backpage.com ads during the local undercover operation. The sting, which took place in September 2015, resulted in the arrest of 20 men, including a painter, an engineer, a truck driver, a landscaper, a student and a construction worker, according to the TBI's Operation Someone Like Me blog.
In February, TBI partnered with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation for a sting in which 168 men contacted undercover agents online. Nineteen men were arrested.
Dr. Jill Robinson, a research associate at Vanderbilt University's Peabody Research Institute, led a 2010 study on trafficking in partnership with the TBI, a study considered a linchpin in supporting Tennessee's anti-trafficking movement. She is reluctant, however, to cite exact statistics because trafficking is such an underreported crime.
"At a minimum there are currently hundreds of victims or survivors of sex trafficking in the state," Robinson says. "And I am confident that this is an underestimation."
TBI agents are not the only ones on the scene when the stings go down. In each county, they work with local nonprofit agencies to provide support services to the trafficked girls and women.
Sheila Simpkins, 46, who works as a director of survivor services with End Slavery Tennessee, a Nashville nonprofit, was present at both of the Hamilton County stings.
"The beauty of what TBI is doing," Simpkins says, "is telling these women that they are not alone, that whenever they are ready, there is someone that loves them and will meet them unconditionally and love them where they are at."
Simpkins is uniquely positioned to meet these women where they're at. She is a graduate of the Magdalene Program at Thistle Farms, a Nashville-based rehabilitation program for women leaving the life of trafficking. She was sent there after being arrested for prostitution.
"I was 14 when I was brought into the lifestyle," Simpkins says. "A boyfriend brought me in."
Like many other victims of trafficking, early childhood sexual abuse made her a vulnerable target.
"I was conditioned at a young age to use my body," Simpkins says. "When I was 6 years old, my mom would me bring into her bed to teach me how to perform oral sex on a man."
With a degree in psychology from the University of Phoenix, Simpkins uses those traumatic experiences to fulfill what she now sees as her calling.
"It's my life. It's what I live to do and I'm pretty darn good at it," Simpkins says. "If I did not have the life experience, I would not be able to make the connection I'm able to make with the girls.
"I give them my own experience and talk to them about their boyfriends and tell them what love is and tell them that, if a man loves you, he's not going to allow you to sell your body."
In the winter of 2013, Corker and his Chief of Staff Todd Womack sat on a restaurant patio in Washington, D.C., for a weekly dinner to catch up and discuss the issues. As dusk fell over the most powerful city in the world, Womack and Corker discussed the plight of some of the most powerless people in the world: the millions of people living in slavery.
Womack had recently learned of the International Justice Mission (IJM), a nonprofit collection of lawyers, criminal investigators and social workers that helps rescue victims of slavery.
"You know, it's shocking to hear that slavery still exists and to hear the numbers," Womack says. "The senator was very receptive to what I had learned. For Sen. Corker, it really became an action issue when he met the survivors."
While on a trip to Asia, Corker met with IJM-rescued survivors of sexual slavery.
"I spent an entire day with about 20 young ladies who had been trafficked inside the Philippines," Corker says. "I heard their stories; how they were trafficked; what they dealt with and how it affected their lives; how they were being restored.
"Every country in the world has outlawed slavery, but it exists in 165 countries, including the U.S.," he continues. "There are 27 million slaves today in the world today; 24 percent are in sexual servitude. The other 76 percent are in forced labor such as fishing in Ghana, the rug manufacturing industry, etc."
To combat the problem, Corker created the End Modern Slavery Initiative. Through Corker, chairman of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee, those oppressed in slavery now have more power on their side. The legislation passed unanimously out of the Foreign Relations Committee; in December, the Senate passed the fiscal year 2016 appropriations bill, which included funding for the initiative.
"Since Sen. Corker learned about the monstrous problem of human trafficking and modern-day slavery, he has been a champion in the fight to see the crime's demise," says Tim Gehring, policy director for IJM.
Although Corker has focused on the international fight to end slavery, he also has provided support to those tackling sex trafficking in Tennessee.
"Sen. Corker has been enormously supportive of this effort [of TBI]," says Josh DeVine, public information officer for the TBI.
He adds that people like Jerry Redman of Second Life have provided individualized response — a necessary part of the effort — to end trafficking in the Chattanooga area.
"Jerry Redman is doing incredible work with Second Life," DeVine says.
Redman, a former minister, launched Second Life in 2007 after learning about sex trafficking in the local community.
"When we started talking about it, people started looking at us like we were nuts," says Redman. "'We don't have that here' was the prevailing mindset.
"We realized, frankly, that would be the tougher road."
Redman has been on the scene with TBI's Quin and End Slavery Tennessee's Simpkins on three stings, two in Hamilton County and one in Knoxville.
"We're in a separate part of the transaction area [of the sting location]," Redman says. "Upon [the trafficking victim] being taken into custody early in the process, we are made available to them. [We tell them], 'We have services available to you if you would like to hear how to get out of this situation, medical services, addiction counseling.'"
Six women from the Hamilton County stings have taken Redman up on his offer of a second life. As a result, the organization has become the point of contact for TBI's Human Trafficking Unit in 25 Southeast Tennessee counties.
"Within 24 hours of TBI catching a trafficking situation or when something comes across the radar involving a minor, TBI will notify us," Redman says.
Though Second Life supported 50 trafficking survivors in 2015 and 30 women so far in 2016, Redman knows the numbers are a poor indication of the scale of trafficking in Tennessee.
"We're not crying wolf," he says. "It's an age-old issue and the modern movement is just a decade old, so do the math. It doesn't sound sexy and people roll their eyes at measurability, but we have to find the resources to collect the data in an up-to-the-minute way."
The need to know the exact numbers irritates him.
"Well, tell me, what's an acceptable number?" Redman asks. "How many victims do we need to have in Hamilton County in order for the individual citizen to be moved to outrage and action?"
Redman's organizations partner with other community leaders such as Vision Hospitality Group's Mitch Patel. Not only does he offer employment opportunities for trafficking survivors in his hotels, he also provides leadership on the issue to the hotel industry, which can be a hub for slavery.
To find their underage victims, predators no longer need to visit street corners; they can go classified ad websites like Backpage and Erotic Monkey. With such online human commerce, trafficking victims are very rarely in the public eye, and hotels have become places to identify and rescue victims.
"These kinds of sites seem to just pop up," Redman says. "[We] can't seem to keep up with how many. They cloak them [the girls] in a way that they portray all of them of age, but you'll see things like 'fresh' and quite often the buyers know they are talking about someone who is going to be younger than that."
In the 2014 report that ranked Atlanta No. 1 for sex trafficking, the Urban Institute also said online trafficking websites are "thriving."
"Pimps and sex workers advertise on social media and sites like Craigslist.com and Backpage.com to attract customers and new employees and to gauge business opportunities in other cities," the report said. "Online child pornography communities frequently trade content for free and reinforce behavior. Offenders often consider their participation a 'victimless crime.'"
Once he learned of the role his industry plays in trafficking commerce through a presentation from the Women's Fund of Greater Chattanooga, Patel created a training program to educate hotel staff on how to spot trafficking.
"I'm a leader in the [hotel] industry and I did not know that this was taking place," Patel says. "It floored me, and I thought, 'We have this responsibility to educate and to tell as many people that this is happening.'"
The father of two young girls, the issue hits very close to home for Patel.
"You know, they [the trafficked girls in the presentation] were young. They were nine or 10 years old. It really put a knife right here," Patel says, clutching his heart. "The average age was 13. It resonated with me because at the time my daughters were around the same age."
Like Redman of Second Life, Chattanoogan Ann Coulter and the other members of the Women's Fund learned about the trafficking problem in 2007. They quickly developed a strategy to tackle the issue, deciding to attack it by changing the legislation that criminalizes the victims.
"[We were] outraged that girls were being arrested for prostitution while the human slavers that forced them into and kept them ensnared in sex trafficking were getting off with a misdemeanor," says Coulter, co-chairman of the Women's Fund board.
"We focused on advocating in the Tennessee General Assembly for the passage of laws that would attack the crime and provide protections to victims," she says. "Things such as making the sex trafficking of a minor a crime that carries a class A felony conviction."
Class A felonies are punishable by no less than 15 years and no more than 60 years in prison, according to the Felony Guide of Tennessee. There also can be a fine of $50,000.
The Women's fund also helped lobby for laws that allow minor victims "to testify in court under closed-circuit television rather than have to face their adult victimizer in court," Courter says, "and things like removing all parental rights for any parent convicted of trafficking their own child.
"Yes, it happens."
With the passage of the laws, Tennessee was ranked the No. 1 state in the nation for laws fighting human trafficking by Polaris, an international trafficking watchdog group.
Dealing with trauma
The local anti-trafficking community also has added trauma experts to its crusade. This year, Richmont Graduate Institute, a Christian-focused school in Chattanooga, opened a trauma center here and another in Atlanta.
Dr. Jeff Eckert, who runs the Chattanooga trauma center, has met with Redman to explore ways to support women who have escaped trafficking. Eckert believes it's more than coincidence that so many agencies are working to end trafficking in the region.
"I was going to use the word 'providential,'" Eckert says. "With Richmont being a faith-based institution, it's laid on our heart that God is directing something bigger than the idea we have had."
Along with female victims of trafficking, the Richmont Counseling Center works with men suffering from sexual addictions.
"I tend to be very direct and challenging once I've been in a relationship with a man that has been involved in trafficking," Eckert says. "I lay it out in black and white. I want them to be aware of the impact that they very well may not have considered.
"On the other hand," Eckert says, referring to victims of trafficking, "it's about connecting them with resources to get back on their feet, a much more empathetic, compassionate, supportive role."
In some cases, both customers and pimps want out of the lifestyle, he believes.
"There are some people," Eckert says, "their sexuality has become so twisted, they say they don't want to keep living like this."
Despite his firm-hand approach to therapy for men involved in trafficking, Eckert doesn't think increased risk of prosecution is going to affect the behavior of local men involved in the trade.
"I think money would be better allocated for better treatment," Eckert said, "I don't see guys coming out of a punitive jail sentence with a greater sense of remorse or repentance or a desire to change, but I do see more possibility when there is opportunity to get some kind of help."
Despite the collaborative success of the anti-trafficking movement in Chattanooga, Second Life's Redman worries that other causes may soon capture the attention of the community.
"People get excited about something and then move on to the next thing, something else will be a little sexier to people," he says. "Life is scary, bringing up one more scary thing, you get to the point where you know people have reached capacity and can't know more one thing."
"At the same time, there is a 13-year-old girl somewhere," he says. "She reached capacity months ago."
According to www.ithastostop.com, the sex trafficking outreach campaign for TBI:
- 1 in 4 children who run away will be propositioned by a sex trafficker within 48 hours of leaving home.
- Every year 1.2 million children worldwide are trafficked for sex.
- Human trafficking is the second fastest-growing criminal industry behind drug trafficking.
- Every 2 minutes in the United States, a child is sold for sex.
- The average age of a child sold for sex is 13 years old.
Written by: Millicent Smith
Chattanooga Times Free Press
October 2, 2016