Last month’s special legislative session on public safety called in response to the Covenant School shooting brought four bills to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk. One requires the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to put together a yearly report on human trafficking, and only one mentioned guns.
During the session, Aaron Gulbransen and Aaron Spradlin — executive director and board chair, respectively, of right-wing organization Tennessee Faith and Freedom Coalition — joined Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin), U.S. Rep. Andy Ogles of Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District, House Majority Leader William Lamberth (R-Portland) and other Republican leaders to promote the toothless legislation, which the group called a “major victory in our war on child and human trafficking in Tennessee.”
The report won’t be breaking any new ground.
“Basically, what we’ll be doing is cobbling together the information that lives elsewhere into a singular report about trafficking,” says TBI spokesperson Josh Devine.
In the TBI’s latest state report, human trafficking is mentioned 16 times, while gun violence is mentioned once and “gun” eight times. The state received 1,268 tips related to human trafficking in fiscal year 2021-2022, with 621 involving minors, though it is unclear how many cases were pursued. Gun violence was the leading cause of death for children in Tennessee 2021, according to recent data from the Sycamore Institute, and overall 1,569 people died of gun violence that year.
Human trafficking is a common talking point for Gov. Bill Lee, who brought on expert and former executive director of Ancora (previously End Slavery Tennessee) Margie Quin as the commissioner of the Department of Children’s Services a year ago. Earlier this year, DCS started the Human Trafficking Response Team within the Office of Child Safety, which hired 11 people.
It was also Quin who built TBI’s human trafficking bureau. The TBI has run a public awareness campaign on human trafficking for 10 years, and staffs a designated hotline. Devine explains that human trafficking involves sex or labor in exchange for money or an item of value, and in order to be categorized as trafficking, force, fraud or coercion must be proven. (If the victim is a minor, force doesn’t have to be proven.)
Locally based organizations focus mainly on women, and mainly on sex trafficking. Among the local groups are Thistle Farms, Ancora, Freedom’s Promise, Hope for Justice, Nashville Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition (NAHT), and Rescue 1 Global. They bring in a combined annual total of nearly $27 million to the cause, according to Giving Matters data.
Ancora, which manages all human trafficking referrals for Middle Tennessee as part of the Tennessee Counter Trafficking Alliance, recently established a home for clients. NAHT is on its way to establishing a social enterprise called Sweet Daisy, similar to the Thistle Farms Cafe model, in which former victims of sex trafficking are given steady opportunity for employment.
Inextricable from the conversation around human trafficking this year is the conservative hit film Sound of Freedom. Ancora and NAHT have both expressed support for the movie raising awareness of human trafficking. NAHT founder and executive director Mary Trapnell recalls that in the group’s monthly Zoom training session for volunteers following the film’s release, 53 participants joined in, compared to a typical 15 to 20. The organization has also seen additional speaking engagements and tours, which she credits to the movie.
“The human trafficking industry is just exploding,” Trapnell says. “It’s through the internet. It’s driven through pornography, driving demand. It’s a business, you know, where there is demand, there will always be supply.”
Ancora COO Leah Moyer says her group has seen an uptick in calls in the past year, especially regarding children — something Moyer credits to former boss Quin. Moyer points out, however, that Sound of Freedom, which is based on a true story, does not resemble the typical trafficking experience.
“Not to minimize any experience, because clearly that was a real, true story and experience, but it’s just not necessarily how it looks here in the United States,” Moyer says. “Let’s make sure people understand what it looks like so that they can help, and I believe there’s a place for everyone to help in this issue.”
Meanwhile, organizations like the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition and Workers’ Dignity point out that immigrant workers regularly experience wage theft and abuse at their jobs, but have few places to turn to.
“The broader narrative on human trafficking often highlights commercial sexual exploitation, which is a form of labor exploitation,” says Judith Clerjeune of TIRRC. “However, it’s crucial for us to recognize that a significant portion, if not the majority, of trafficking victims are trapped in coercive and exploitative labor situations.”
Even the TBI says its main focus has been sex trafficking — and leans on federal counterparts for labor trafficking, an issue that often affects undocumented immigrants.
“We’re continuing to try to learn more and more about labor trafficking and address cases as we see them,” Devine says. “I think it is a complex kind of crime, there can oftentimes be connections to other states, so we’ve got to work with federal counterparts in a lot of those types of labor cases as well.”
On Aug. 2, leaders of the Tennessee Faith and Freedom Coalition joined Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy in Nashville to “demand” the release of the writings of the Covenant School shooter — an appearance that also saw Ramaswamy repeat his presidential campaign promise to defund and dismantle the FBI. Two weeks later, Rep. Ogles and Senate Majority Leader Johnson spoke at a TFFC event in Franklin, where Ogles also called for defunding the FBI.
“TBI is fortunate to have great relationships with federal partners in much of our work,” Devine says. “That primarily includes [Homeland Security investigations] in the trafficking space, along with collaboration with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the United States Marshals Service. We’re hopeful those relationships continue to benefit our cases — and public safety in the state — for years to come.”
Additional reporting by Hamilton Matthew Masters