TBA Law Blog

Posted by: Christy Gibson on Jul 6, 2012

By R. Romona Jackson*

Across Tennessee the reports of children and adult victims of sex trafficking is growing.  From Memphis, where children as young as 13 are found to have been forced into prostitution,[i]  to Hamilton County where reportedly more than 100 cases of adult sex-trafficking were reported in a 24 month period,[ii] Tennessee is facing an increase in a crime once thought prevalent only in larger metropolitan cities.   These victims are typically undocumented, Hispanic females who range in age from their mid-teens to early 40s.[iii]   However, runaways who are legally in the country or who are United States citizens also account for a large percentage of victims.  In fact, in February 2012, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) estimated that 1,000 of the 3,051 reported cases of missing girls in Tennessee between the ages of 13 and 17 were being exploited for sex.[iv]

Fighting the Problem in Tennessee

 Although the problem is growing, organizations and agencies across Tennessee are also growing in awareness, understanding, training, and determination to fight back.  Leading the fight is the Tennessee Legislature, which in 2011, commissioned a study into the occurrence of child sex-trafficking in Tennessee.  The report, which can be accessed at www.tbi.gov by searching “Tennessee Human Sex Trafficking Study,” analyzed sex-trafficking across the state and focused on understanding who is being victimized, where victims are from, and how they become victims.[v]  If you have not read the study, please make time to do so.  Not only does it provide insight into the scale of the problem in Tennessee, but it also provides recommendations on what can be done to stop this growing trend of sexual exploitation of minors and adults from the perspective of law enforcement, prosecutors, social service agencies, and advocates. 

One recommendation was stiffer penalties for those who commit sexual exploitation of minors.  In Tennessee, sex-trafficking is a class B felony with a sentence of no less than 8 years and no more than 30 years in prison.[vi]  Getting convictions remains a problem because of the secrecy of circumstances surrounding the crime, the fact that victims are often moved from city to city with little or no chance to establish relationships with people who could assist them; and the victims are many times unwilling to come forward.  For those victims who are undocumented, the fear is even greater.

 Resources for Advocates and Victims

To get a sense of how prevalent the problem is, consider the following statistic: the Department of Justice reports that in the United States, a child is trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation, every two minutes.[vii]  In the time it takes you to finish this article, there will be another victim. 

When victims are willing to come forward, there is help for them.  At the federal level, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) was established to assist individuals who are victims of severe forms of trafficking.  The TVPA provides a means for these individuals to obtain a T-visa, and other benefits, which can open the door to a new life.  For criminals convicted under the TVPA, the result can be up to 20 years for each victim and the possibility of life in prison.[viii]  Additionally, the TVPA established a U-nonimmigrant visa for victims of criminal activity, who have been helpful to law enforcement in the investigation of that criminal activity.  Yes, the TVPA provides an immigration benefit to victims of sex trafficking, but law enforcement also benefits by obtaining information and evidence that could lead to the apprehension and prosecution of men and women who sexually exploit vulnerable children and adults.

In Tennessee, those who have been sexually exploited, as well as those who advocate for them and seek to assist them, can turn to local organizations such as The Community Coalition against Human Trafficking (www.cchat.org) and others listed in the TBI study to provide support and guidance.  National organizations, such as the Polaris Project (www.polarisproject.org) and ASISTA (www.asistahelp.org) also provide a wealth of resources for attorneys, victims’ rights advocates, non-profits, and law enforcement in supporting victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. 

Across the state, organizations are partnering to fully integrate efforts to raise awareness and provide victim assistance where it is needed most.  The TBI study previously referenced, highlighted counties with significant reports of sexual exploitation of minors and adults.  At the time of the TBI report, there were 4 counties where more than 100 cases of sex-trafficking of minors had been reported: Shelby, Davidson, Coffee, and Knox.[ix]  There were 8 counties where more than 100 cases of adult sex-trafficking had been reported: Shelby, Madison, Lawrence, Davidson, Coffee, Franklin, Hamilton, and Knox.  Close proximity to an interstate system, airports, and venues for large sporting and entertainment events obviously contribute to the large number of cases in a particular county.  However, it is likely many cases in these and smaller counties often go unreported.

As immigration attorneys, our work and regular interactions with members of immigrant communities provides us with opportunities to identify potential victims of sex-trafficking.  The Polaris Project lists examples of signs we can look for that might indicate someone is a victim of sexual exploitation.  For instance, pay particular attention to young girls or boys who are  under the age of 18 who appear malnourished, show signs of physical abuse or restraint, are not in control of his or her own identification documents or has no identification documents, are not allowed to speak for themselves without a third party being present, have numerous inconsistencies in their story of how they arrived in the United States, have little or no money, and exhibit fearful or anxious behavior when law enforcement is brought up.[x]  If you suspect you know someone who is a victim of sex trafficking or believe that sex-trafficking is occurring in your area, call the national sex-trafficking hotline at 1-855-558-6484

[i]http://www.myfoxmemphis.com/dpp/news/crime/032311-children-being-sold-for-sex-in-memphis, Children Being Sold for Sex in Memphis, (Last visited May 23, 2012).

[ii]http://timesfreepress.com/news/2011/may/19/sex-trafficking-study-cites-hamilton-county/, Sex trafficking study cites Hamilton County, (Last visited April 27, 2012).


[iv]http://knoxwnews.com/news/2012/feb/27, Local group trying to raise awareness of sex trafficking, (Last visited Feb. 27, 2012).

[v]http://www.tbi.state.tn.us/documents/finaltnhumansextraffickingstudycolorrev2.pdf, Tennessee Human Sex Trafficking and Its Impact on Children and Youth 2011, (Last visited June 21, 2012).

[vi]Beth Burger, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation sex trafficking survey provokes questions by police, Nov. 14, 2011; Tennessee Code Annotated section 39-13-309 (2012).

[vii]http://www.tbi.state.tn.us/documents/finaltnhumansextraffickingstudycolorrev2.pdf, Tennessee Human Sex Trafficking and Its Impact on Children and Youth 2011, (Last visited June 21, 2012) quoting U.S. Department of Justice Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section (2009). Retrieved from http://www.crisiaid.org/ICAPDR/Trafficking/traffickstats.pdf

[viii]Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, Section 112

[ix]http://www.tbi.state.tn.us/documents/finaltnhumansextraffickingstudycolorrev2.pdf, Tennessee Human Sex Trafficking and Its Impact on Children and Youth 2011, (Last visited June 21, 2012).

[x]http://www.polarisproject.org/human-trafficking/recognizing-the-signs?, Recognizing the Signs, (Last visited May 23, 2012)


*R. Romona Jackson is a founding partner with Jackson & Hurst, LLC in Memphis, Tennessee.  Her practice area is mainly focused on humanitarian immigration cases, such as asylum and withholding of removal, U-non-immigrant visas, and T-visas.  She may be contacted at rromonajackson@live.com or 901-417-8658.