By Katherine Pullen, Staff Writer
“Jackson is one of the many parts of our state where, right now, there are people enslaved to human trafficking,” reads the front of the bulletin for a day-long conference hosted March 1 by the School of Social Work.
About 200 people attended the “Human Trafficking: Seeing-Responding” conference, including students, social work and law enforcement professionals and community advocates. Speakers and panelists came from various advocacy organizations, law enforcement agencies and backgrounds of both personal and professional experience.
“We brought together a lot of different experts, people who were actually doing things and that had strategies and ideas,” said Dr. Elizabeth E. Wilson, associate professor of social work and chairwoman of the conference planning committee. “What we wanted to see (was) that people connected with each other and thought about how, even in Jackson, they could reach out to these women who are being trafficked.”
The conference, sponsored by the School of Social Work, End Slavery Tennessee and the Southwest Council on Children and Youth, highlighted the plight of the 27 million slaves worldwide and emphasized that trafficking is not just a global problem but also a local one.
“A lot of people don’t think that trafficking is a big deal and that it’s not very prevalent where we are, so I think it’s really great that we’re raising awareness,” Megan Miller, junior social work and Spanish double major, said.
Miller said she appreciated the practical strategies emphasized by some of the speakers, such as the signs that help one to identify a person as a possible victim of trafficking.
Jonathan Skrmetti, assistant U.S. attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, joined a morning panel to talk about the law enforcement perspective on trafficking.
“Through really tight cooperation with various NGOs, with all the law enforcement agencies working together and with very aggressive leadership from the U.S. attorney’s office and the U.S. attorney, we’ve really been able to make these (sex trafficking) cases happen,” Skrmetti said. “Any time we catch a whiff of one, we will investigate it to the ends of the earth if we have to (in order) to make sure we can make a case.”
Skrmetti described trafficking as a “hidden crime” because so many of the activities associated with it, such as a pimp driving around with young women in his car, are not explicitly illegal, making the crime difficult to identify and to stop.
He said he hopes increasing the awareness of trafficking and training people to look for it will lead to more prosecutions and a decrease in the victims affected by it each year.
“The biggest takeaway (from the conference) is, in the context of many of these social workers and soon-to-be social workers, that they keep an eye out for indications of trafficking,” Skrmetti said. “A lot of the vulnerable young women that are forced into trafficking come from backgrounds that put them in contact with social workers.”
Charles Currie, junior social work major, said the conference was pertinent to his future plans. He said he hopes to start a humanitarian organization and was inspired to hear from speakers who had established successful organizations to help victims of trafficking.
“Just hearing their stories was a great influence for me,” Currie said.
Shelia McClain, a graduate of the Magdalene program in Nashville, shared her personal testimony as a victim of trafficking who has experienced healing and who now desires to help other young women who come from the same background. Magdalene is a residential program for women who have survived lives of prostitution, trafficking, addiction and life on the streets.
“I’m finding out that my life experience is just not enough,” McClain said about helping trafficking victims. “I need that educational piece in order to better serve the women that I’m around.”
McClain is in her third year of psychology undergraduate education and intends to earn a master’s degree in social work.