Survivor, advocates speak at Cumberland human trafficking panel

Jacob Smith • Mar 16, 2018 at 4:16 PM

A survivor, an advocate and a law enforcement officer spoke Thursday night in a panel at Cumberland University about the growing problem of human sex trafficking.

Former Tennessee Bureau of Investigation special agent in charge Marjorie Quinn moderated the panel. Quinn recently became the school’s criminal justice program director.

Quinn defined human trafficking as a commercial sex act by a person over the age of 18 by means of force, fraud or coercion. It is also considered trafficking anytime a person commits a commercial sex act and is under the age of 18.

“So, if you have a homeless teenager -14, 15, 16 years old – or a runaway and they’re out on the street and a man comes along and says, ‘Hey, you can spend the night with me tonight, but you’re going to have to have sex with me.’ Has a human trafficking violation occurred? Yes. It has,” said Quinn.

Sheila McCain’s mom started selling her for drug money when she was just 6 years old. For years, she struggled to get away from the only lifestyle she ever knew. She talked about her transition from being the one with a problem to helping others with similar problems.

“It takes hard work,” said McCain. “It takes therapy. It just takes a lot of work to get to a place where you can work with individuals without re-traumatizing yourself. The transition is different for everyone. For me, personally, I still go to therapy. I don’t go to therapy as often as I used to, but I do go biweekly. That’s more for healing the healer now versus dealing with the trauma.”

McCain now works with a program called Thistle Farms, a two-year program designed to help women who’ve been involved in sex trafficking to transition from that life to a normal one.

“When a woman’s been in jail like 10 or 11 years, they need that soft transition whenever they get out,” said McCain. “If you just release them, put them into a halfway house, and they have to go get a job, and they have to start paying $140 to $160 a week, and they have to tell their employees about their felonies, they normally don’t get jobs and what ends up happening is that they start going back to the old behaviors, thinking they’ll just pay their rent. The cycle starts all over again, and they’re back in prison. Because we’re a two-year program where you come and live for free and get all your needs taken care of, so far everyone that’s come from the prison has graduated the two-year program.”

Jerry Redman is a former pastor who now works as an advocate against sex trafficking with a local nonprofit organization based in Chattanooga called Second Life Tennessee. He talked to the attendees about what is currently being done by volunteers to combat human trafficking as well as what more can be done.

“We’re the single point of contact non-governmental organization around the coordination and delivery of survivor services for the region,” said Redman. “We do three things at Second Life; prevention, which includes events like this. No community can respond to crimes it doesn’t understand nor know the signs of or even the proper definition of.

“We do a lot of policy work. That includes not only with our state legislature or even meeting with federal groups, but also talking with municipalities and even for-profit companies. Thirdly, we do survivor services, have for quite a few years and have a dedicated team that does just that.”

Robb Rowlett, Tennessee Bureau special agent in charge of drug investigations for the middle district of Tennessee, plans and leads human trafficking operations for the TBI.

“In 2015, kind of when this started for my side of the human trafficking learning curve, Marjorie [Quinn] approached me that she’d been tasked with developing a human trafficking unit within criminal intelligence.”

The unit began operation by luring people in to commit human trafficking crimes, then arresting them. A huge step forward for the agency happened in March 2016 when an amendment was added to the trafficking statute, which allowed police officers and agents to pose as minors during trafficking operations.

All three panel members talked about the importance of bringing awareness of the problem to the community to stop it.

“The state doesn’t have enough money to fight this on a level playing field, but the private sector does,” said Redman. “You can’t arrest your way out of it, but here’s the deal, we will always be chasing this.”

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