By Katherine Burgess
Madison County, Union’s own backyard, reported more than 126 cases of sex trafficking of adults and minors in 24 months, according to a research study conducted by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Vanderbilt Center for Community Studies.
Union University’s School of Social Work will address human trafficking in Tennessee when it hosts its second anti-human trafficking conference from 9 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. March 14 in the Carl Grant Events Center.
“In our backyard: Community action against human trafficking” will include sessions on the state of human trafficking in Tennessee, on caring for survivors, on the role of healthcare providers in fighting trafficking and a session during which two survivors will share their stories.
Panels on community action and rescue, prosecution and aftercare also will meet.
Speakers will include a police officer, a registered nurse, a man working on state anti-trafficking law, people working in anti-trafficking organizations or operations, an assistant district attorney and two survivors of human trafficking.
Dr. Beth Wilson, associate professor of social work, said the conference will focus on domestic human trafficking.
“What we’re hoping to do is equip students primarily, because we know students disperse from Union and go out, and so we’re hoping that they’ll leave with basic information about what human trafficking is. …” Wilson said. “What we want people to leave with is the notion that it happens in the United States and is a local problem.”
Abi McFerron, graduate student in the Master of Social Work program, conference coordinator and licensed social worker with the state of Tennessee, said Union invited students, social workers, nurses, members of law enforcement, church members and other community members to the conference.
McFerron expects approximately 150 to 200 people to attend.
Wilson said she hopes the conference will help participants learn to recognize and respond to human trafficking.
McFerron said Madison County is among the top 13 Tennessee counties most affected.
“We’re right on the I-40, and the I-40 is the drug-trafficking highway of the country,” McFerron said. “It is cheaper and easier to sell kids than it is to sell drugs; it is ridiculously easy, and it is overwhelmingly exploitative.”
The study by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Vanderbilt Center for Community Studies, titled “Tennessee human sex trafficking and its impact on children and youth 2011,” indicated that in a 2010 study, Madison County had reported more than 100 cases of adult sex trafficking in the preceding 24 months.
The county had reported 26 to 50 cases of sex trafficking of minors in the preceding 24 months.
Many cases, the report explained, involved more than one person.
Seventy-eight Tennessee counties, making up 85 percent of counties in the state, reported at least one case of human sex trafficking during the same time period.
McFerron said the average age of entry into prostitution in the United States is about 12- to 14 years old for girls and about 11- to 12 years old for boys.
“This can happen to anybody,” McFerron said. “Those who are most likely to be trafficked are children who are in vulnerable, at-risk situations. It crosses race, it crosses socioeconomic boundaries. … We’re failing our children and letting them be so abused and so taken advantage of. …
“Parents, you need to talk to your kids about this. Teachers, you need to talk to your students about this. Churches, you need to talk to your members about this. Pastors need to talk about this. This should not be happening.”
McFerron said people should add a trafficking hotline to their phones, partner with organizations such as the International Justice Mission or End Slavery Tennessee and make their churches aware of the issue.
People also can use iPhone applications to scan barcodes to look up whether products are produced with trafficked labor.
“The church doesn’t have the luxury to dehumanize anyone, whether it’s a trafficking victim, whether it’s the men who buy sex, whether it’s the trafficker themselves,” McFerron said. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer said we are not just supposed to bandage the wounds of those who are suffering, we’re supposed to drive a spoke into the wheel of injustice. And if that’s not a church issue, I don’t know what is.”
Students may attend for free but must register.
General registration is $40. Participants may register on Union’s website.