KNOXVILLE (WATE) – Sex slavery is happening in East Tennessee more often then you may imagine.
Special Agent Cynthia Deitle, a 21-year FBI veteran, got involved 18 years ago with the agency’s anti-human trafficking efforts.
“I’ve met, and other officers here have met, young girls who have been forced into the commercial sex trade at 14 or 15 years old. It’s disgraceful. It’s disgusting,” said Deitle.
She says with the Internet and social media, the problem has grown dramatically. Now girls are sold for sex online.
“Our typical victim is from East Tennessee. It’s a girl. She was probably recruited to get into this life sometimes as early as in middle school. She very quickly will become addicted to some narcotic,” said Deitle.
Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen says they’re seeing more underage girls as victims.
“We have a trafficker who is trafficking both adult and juvenile girls at the same time, numerous girls,” said Allen.
Deitle says the girls often come from a home without close parental guidance and all too often end up getting attention from a trafficker.
“We’ve seen middle school boys pray upon middle school girls and over time get them into the commercial sex trade by introducing them to narcotics, putting them on the Internet gauging their interest in posing for some pictures and then using that to push them into having sex for money. We’ve seen that sadly,” said Deitle.
Sometimes older men or even women will force a girl into sex slavery.
“After they’ve been with a trafficker and have been trafficked for so long they will then go out and recruit other girls to work as well,” said Deitle.
Kate Trudell, the executive director of the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking, says in 2015 they helped 25 trafficking victims in East Tennessee and they expect to see more this year.
“Now in 2016, in just two short months, we’ve already helped almost 10 women so we know we are on track to double or triple our numbers for this year,” said Trudell.
Trudell says law enforcement, non-profits and the public are learning more about how to spot human trafficking, resulting in the increased number of arrests.
A Knox County Schools spokeswoman said in a statement: “The Knox County Schools Security Department works in partnership with the FBI for training on these issues. Additionally, we address personal safety with students as part of our high school curriculum. If we believe there is an issue that exists, we work with our law enforcement partners to investigate accordingly.”
In order to raise awareness about human trafficking, Deitle educates those in the community on what to look for.
“We’ve talked to teachers and have said [to] pay attention to those young girls that common sense would tell you they would be picked on,” said Deitle.
She says the girls are often withdrawn and lack strong parental support. There’s likely drug use and when the girls are out, the trafficker will often be with them. When law enforcement finds a victim, they call Trudell and the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking for help.
More online: Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking
“We are able to make those calls to Children’s Hospital or to Child Help to set up forensic interviews so that law enforcement on the scene or DCS in the room with the child don’t have to worry about making endless phone calls,” said Trudell.
The non-profit links the victim with services but they still have a need.
“We don’t have a place to house these victims and because they are runaways and because they don’t have a family, we don’t have anywhere to put them,” said Trudell.
She says all too often the girls behave like some domestic violence victims and return to the trafficker if not given long term treatment.
“It’s because they are dependent on these folks. They believe that the trafficker is the only person who has ever really cared for them or loved them,” said Trudell.
Trudell says housing is needed so the victims have a place to stay while getting back on their feet.
“A service where these victims actually feels like someone other than the trafficker loves and cares for them so they can build a bond of trust so they do get a fair shot in life because they do not have a fair shot in life with the traffickers,” said Trudell.
There are now plans in the works to build a home for victims in East Tennessee. Trudell says the long term residential care will be in Knoxville hopefully by next year.
“We are hoping within the first home to house about five to eight women at most,” said Trudell.
Deitle says if you see something suspicious report it and to protect your children be involved, know what your child is doing online. Don’t give your kids the ID and password to download an app. Approve apps before kids download them.