Each year, across the nation, more than 100,000 kids are trafficked for commercial sex, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. And the Mid-South happens to be a hub for the illicit trade.
But Tennessee is working hard to erase that fact. The state was recently recognized by anti-trafficking organization Shared Hope International for boasting some of the strongest laws against sex trafficking in the country.
Shared Hope released its annual Protected Innocence Challenge report, a comprehensive study of existing state laws regarding domestic minor sex trafficking. Tennessee received a 94 out of 100 on the study for its anti-trafficking laws. The only state with a higher grade was Louisiana with a 96.
Ryan Dalton, policy counsel for Shared Hope, said one reason Tennessee received such a high grade is because it intensely penalizes traffickers as well as patrons of sex with minors.
"If convicted, [perpetrators are] looking at between eight and 60 years, depending on the circumstances of the offense," Dalton said. "In 2011, Tennessee got a C-grade on its report card from Shared Hope. And between 2011 and 2014, [the state has] jumped 21 points to an A-grade."
Tennessee received a C on Shared Hope's 2011 and 2012 Protected Innocence Challenge reports because, at the time, the state had mediocre penalties for traffickers and patrons of sex with minors. Since then, Tennessee has strengthened its trafficking penalties. In 2013, Shared Hope ranked the state number-one, giving it a 93.5 for its legislative efforts to combat domestic minor sex trafficking.
A person convicted of trafficking a minor for sex and/or promoting prostitution of a minor can be sentenced from eight to 30 years in prison. However, if the trafficked minor is under 15, the perpetrator can be sentenced from 15 to 60 years.
Unlike in some other states, such as California, Florida, and Nevada, minors cannot be prosecuted for prostitution in Tennessee.
"Most of the victims of human trafficking are minors, and I think it's unconscionable that this type of abuse exists," said Representative Jim Coley (R-Bartlett), who has been instrumental in the establishment of state anti-trafficking laws. "We tend to say it could exist somewhere else but not here, and it does exist here. One of the things I think is very disturbing about [sex trafficking] is that much of it originates in homes that are dysfunctional, where children do not have the proper care given to them by their parents."
From the inner cities to the rural areas, sex trafficking is a problem across Tennessee. But a 2011 study conducted by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) revealed that it has a significant presence in four particular counties: Shelby, Davidson, Coffee, and Knox.
According to the TBI's Tennessee Human Sex Trafficking Study, more than 100 cases of adult and minor sex trafficking were reported in the aforementioned counties.
Although Tennessee received an A on the Protected Innocence Challenge, sex trafficking remains a serious issue. And there are still areas the state can improve on, such as providing mandatory services and treatment options for children who are sexually exploited. Failing to modify its child protective response cost Tennessee points on Shared Hope's 2014 challenge.
"We have important work left to do on human sex trafficking from a policy standpoint and from a training and awareness position," said Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), who's also played a significant role in enhancing penalties against sex trafficking. "I am confident that a combination of stronger laws and a highly trained first responder population will begin to make progress combating this crime. Rescuing victims and putting the offenders in jail is of paramount importance."