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'It's like cancer, it knows no boundaries' | Reports of human trafficking on the rise in East Tennessee

In 2021, the TBI Human Trafficking Unit conducted 13 undercover operations across the state, including several in East Tennessee.

SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn. — According to the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking (CCAHT), reports of human trafficking in East Tennessee are becoming more prevalent.

"There's so much victim-blaming to human trafficking, and these individuals, they need us to advocate for them," explained Rana Zakaria, a community educator with CCAHT.

In April, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation announced eight men are behind bars after a two-day operation in Sevier County to address human trafficking.

In 2021, the TBI Human Trafficking Unit conducted 13 undercover operations across the state, including several in East Tennessee.

More than 130 people were arrested during those investigations.

On average, 85 minors are trafficked in Tennessee every month.

Across 33 counties in East Tennessee, Zakaria said this underreported crime is more common than most people think.

"Lots of times, folks are shocked and surprised," she explained. "We have worked with clients from the youngest age of three all the way up to 60. It's like cancer. It knows no boundaries." 

In 2021, CCAHT, which is based in East Tennessee, received 300 reports of human trafficking.

This year, the coalition has received 85 and Zakaria predicts more are on the way.

She said what's happening in East Tennessee is not similar to how trafficking is displayed in movies or shows.

"It's actually the complete opposite," she said. "Lots of times, victims are targeted or exploited by someone that they did know. They're related to this person, they're in a relationship with this person, making it the perfect crime."  

This "perfect crime" leaves a life-long impact on its victims.

"They need a safe place where they could find healing and hope," said Devin Payne, the executive director at Street Hope TN.

Street Hope TN is a local non-profit with a mission to end child sex slavery.

A new resource founded by the organization is hoping to be a place of refuge for young human trafficking survivors.

Garland Oaks is one of the first safe homes in Tennessee for 12 to 17-year-old girls.

 "We do have resources in the state of Tennessee, for safe housing and restoration for adults, but when it comes to children, there are none. Not really," explained Payne.

The home is sitting in an undisclosed location in East Tennessee to protect those staying there.

It opened in April and is now ready to serve survivors on a referral basis.

"The whole idea is when they leave, that they are empowered to thrive," Payne said.

Girls at Garland Oaks will receive education, therapy, and other enrichment opportunities.

There are a number of ways community members can step up to help make the new home a success.

"You can sign up to be a prayer partner for our ministry and for the girls that are in this home. We believe that makes a forever impact," Payne said.

You can also donate money, gift cards, or items from the Garland Oaks Amazon registry.

Click here to learn more about Garland Oaks and its mission.

CCAHT offers free courses to teach people in East Tennessee how to recognize and respond to human trafficking.

The training sessions are conducted in person or via Zoom.

"Sign up for a training because then we can kind of address all those questions that [you] have," Zakaria said. "We can talk about the basics for folks that just want to know more about it, and then we can go really into detail with folks that are in social work or human services, even law enforcement or medical professionals."