How traffickers are targeting area kids

Vulnerable children in East Tennessee are being targeted by traffickers seeking to get them to perform free labor or sex for profit, according to Lisa Bolton of the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking (CCAHT).

Lisa Bolton of the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking (CCAHT).
Lisa Bolton of the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking (CCAHT).

She spoke online recently to the Women's Interfaith Dialogue of Oak Ridge.

Offering various real-life scenarios during her online presentation, Bolton indicated that one type of trafficker can be an older man who forces girls as young as 12 to provide sex for strangers and pose nude for someone making a pornographic video. Another type can be a mother who allows the landlord to sexually abuse her 9-year-old son so that she and her children won’t be evicted because she’s three months behind on rent.

CCAHT is a Knoxville-based nonprofit organization that is dedicated to educating the public in 33 counties to recognize the signs of human trafficking and report suspicious activities. It seeks to end modern-day slavery in the region while providing human trafficking survivors with individualized, relational care through the direct services program, Grow Free Tennessee.

So far this year, Bolton said, CCAHT has had 406 new referrals involving 212 youths, including 170 in Knox County, nine in Anderson County and five in Roane County.

Lisa Bolton
Lisa Bolton

Human trafficking, she noted, is defined as a crime that occurs when a victim is compelled by force, fraud or coercion to perform labor, services or commercial sex for the trafficker’s financial gain.

Happening in rural areas

Bolton said East Tennessee has been incorrectly regarded as a hot spot for trafficking because of its interstates when, in fact, “we have a significant amount of trafficking happening in rural areas not near interstates.” In some impoverished rural families, she added, women sell themselves for sex and teach their daughters to do the same to help their families survive.

Some people, Bolton noted, think trafficking means a “'snatch and grab' in which your child is playing in the front yard and a creepy man comes by, throws the child in the back of his van, transports the child to a foreign country and sells the child.

"That is not what happens in East Tennessee," she said. "We do see that happening in other countries, but not here because the United States has great laws against kidnapping.”

Children fall victim to trafficking because of their vulnerabilities, Bolton said.

“When a child has a vulnerability that is not met with empathy, love, and care, then an adult can take advantage of that vulnerability. Anybody with a vulnerability can be exploited.”

She mentioned that some children feel unloved and unprotected because they are neglected or mistreated by a mother who is depressed or otherwise mentally ill. Vulnerable children include homeless youth who agree to provide “survival sex” in exchange for food and shelter. Other vulnerable children are cognitively impaired, addicted to drugs, identified as LGBTQ or involved with child welfare or juvenile justice systems. Most of the exploited children are girls, and most of the traffickers are men.

Lisa Bolton of the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking (CCAHT) speaks online to the Women's Interfaith Dialogue of Oak Ridge.
Lisa Bolton of the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking (CCAHT) speaks online to the Women's Interfaith Dialogue of Oak Ridge.

Some traffickers manipulate girls with poor self-esteem and little family or social support by showing them love and affection and making them feel protected and part of a trafficker’s “family” of victims. Other traffickers may lure girls by promising to buy them a cellphone that their mothers refuse to let them have.

Preys on the vulnerable or makes them vulnerable

After victims are recruited, they are groomed. The trafficker fosters each victim’s trust and sense of belonging and then breaks down and rebuilds her identity. Bolton said that in one book a trafficker wrote: “Weakness is the best trait a person can find in someone they want to control. If you can’t find a weakness, you have to create one. You have to tear someone’s ego down to nothing before they will start looking to you for salvation.”

What are the signs that a child is being trafficked?

What should people look for to indicate a child is being trafficked? Bolton listed a number of indicators, including a history of leaving home without permission, selling or using drugs, suffering from a sexual transmission disease, lying about one’s age, having no authentic ID, using certain words and staying out of school.

As for labor trafficking in Tennessee, Bolton said that minors have been forced to work for no pay in domestic situations, agriculture, massage parlors, nail salons, door-to-door sales and the hospitality, fishing, construction and restaurant industries.

“Minors have been forced to sell drugs for adults, so the adults are not charged, and the charges are later dropped for minors,” she added.

She gave an example of a girl who was lured into babysitting for a family. The man promised her that she could travel the world with the family. Instead, she was forced to work for free, sleep on the basement floor and accept scraps of food from the family’s dinner table.

Bolton said trafficking is difficult to track and to prosecute. Trafficking is like sexual assault, she added, in that the “he said, she said” aspect makes it hard to prove a crime was committed.

An internet search revealed that hundreds of Americans have been convicted annually since 2011 for a federal human trafficking offense. The prison sentences range from 12 to 20 years. The number of women and children annually forced into sexual slavery in the United States is estimated to range from 15,000 to 50,000. In the United States, California, Texas, Florida and New York have the highest rates of human trafficking.

How to get help

If you suspect trafficking, call the Tennessee Department of Child Protective Services at 877-237-0004 or the TBI Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-855-55-TNHTH. Bolton can be reached at CCAHT at or calling (865) 466-0936.

This article originally appeared on Oakridger: How traffickers are targeting Oak Ridge area kids