RUTHERFORD CO., Tenn. (WKRN) — Tennessee organizations that bring awareness to the dark world of human trafficking are pushing the “See Something, Say Something” practice as they rehabilitate dozens of teenage survivors.
Each month, 94 children are trafficked in Tennessee. Investigators are reminding people the crime knows no bounds between age, race or social class.
Dr. Richard Shoeberl’s organization, Hope For Justice, played a key role in rescuing a Rutherford County teenager from human trafficking in 2019.
“We pound the pavement. We look for them,” Schoeberl said. “We do old school investigative work.”
Shoeberl and his colleagues utilize years of law enforcement experience to assist local agencies.
One third of runaways land in the hands of a trafficker. Shoeberl knows they must be located as soon as possible; the threat increases with each passing hour.
In this particular case, a witness tip from a man on probation led to a big break.
“I saw the little girl on here [the bus] and thought to myself, ‘She’s so pretty. Why is she on here by herself? Where is she going? What is she doing?’” he said.
The man showed investigators where the teenager got off the bus. Shoeberl’s team would later learn the 14 year-old bussed and walked more than 20 miles from home. She was rescued from an apartment complex on Murfreesboro Pike near Interstate-24.
“Unfortunately, when we found her, she was just sitting up there with a t-shirt on and that was it,” Shoeberl said, “We suspect she had been trafficked already by the time we located her.”
The teen was immediately reunited with her parents. Statistics show runaways are often trafficked within 48 hours. Shoeberl added “rarely,” do investigators receive a tip like this, as most people choose not to get involved.
“It’s better to say something and be wrong than not say anything and be right,” Shoeberl said.
In this case, the rescue was dramatic. Shoeberl said the rescue is just one event, but the recovery to follow is a lifelong process.
This is where Rest Stop Ministries Founder, Rondy Smith, steps up.
Rest Stop is the first long-term residential program designed to rehabilitate survivors. Smith said many people have an idea of what a trafficking victim looks like. However, for some women, the grooming process starts as young as middle school.
“Many of the women who walk in our doors are still not really self-identifying as victims,” Smith said. “They’ve been brainwashed and convinced that ‘he was just my boyfriend.’”
Trafficking may last for years. In some cases, the abuse happened exclusively online. It’s a crime Smith said could be hidden in plain sight.
“Survivors often say, ‘I know people noticed or saw things, and yet they never did anything,’” Smith said.
The Tennessee Human Trafficking Hotline is 1-855-558-6484.
Tennessee is a safe harbor state, meaning minors will not be prosecuted for prostitution but instead categorized as trafficking survivors.