KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Some questions are hard to ask. For example, "Have you ever been sexually trafficked?"
The Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking (CCAHT), Grow Free TN, specializes in asking tough questions in tough situations. Kate Trudell, the executive director of the coalition said they've focused on victims who may be incarcerated.
"About a year ago (we) launched a program within the Bledsoe County Correctional Complex. We provide individual support and group services to women who are incarcerated, who have a history of trafficking or exploitation," Trudell said.
Trudell explained they asked women in the program if they had been victims of human trafficking. Zero of the women who filled out the form indicated they had a history of trafficking. That's why the coalition started asking different questions.
They changed the phrasing to questions like, "Were you ever forced to have sex with someone against your will?" One of the questions was phrased, "Did someone ever ask you to have sex in exchange for money?"
Then, for some women in Bledsoe Correctional Complex, it clicked.
"They said, 'Oh, yeah, that, in fact, did happen to me,'" Trudell said.
The CCAHT said between 90% and 95% of human trafficking victims will find themselves in the criminal justice system at one point or another.
That's what helped CCAHT, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Tennessee Department of Correction identify correctional complexes as a touchpoint for prevention and recovery efforts.
"It just takes time for folks to be able to kind of unravel that victimization and understand it, and then move forward from it," Trudell said.
A new law goes into effect on January 1. It requires that training in departments such as the Tennessee Department of Corrections, the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, and the Department of Human Services include ways to identify, intervene, prevent and help survivors of human trafficking. CCAHT helped push for the law.
"To have it be codified and solidified into a concrete requirement, I think is an important step for our state," Trudell said. "It's just a no-brainer, that we would want the staff working in these facilities to have additional education."
The idea is to prevent these women or men from returning to the trafficking situation. Many people know that it takes survivors of domestic violence about seven tries to permanently leave their abuser. However, for survivors of trafficking, it could take twice as many tries.
According to the Polaris Project, "Some victims lack the basic necessities to physically get out – such as transportation or a safe place to live. Some are afraid for their safety. Some have been so effectively manipulated that they do not identify at that point as being under the control of another person."
Human trafficking is the second fastest-growing crime in Tennessee. To back that statement up, the CCAHT said they received 300 referrals in 2021. In 2022, they're close to hitting 400 referrals, and the year isn't over yet.
Trudell said this law is coming at the right time.
"What an amazing opportunity to invest time and care and support to those individuals, while they're in that space so that upon release, there's much more likelihood of success," Trudell said.
If you want to get involved with local efforts to curb human trafficking in Tennessee, visit the CCAHT website.