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Red Sand Event in Cleveland, Tennessee, aims to raise awareness of human trafficking
Red Sand Event in Cleveland, Tennessee, aims to raise awareness of human trafficking

People holding bags of red sand sat hunched over on the sidewalk outside The Caring Place in Cleveland, Tennessee, Wednesday morning, sprinkling the sand on the ground as a symbol of their intention to prevent victims of human trafficking from falling through the cracks.

Participants said they hoped the symbolism would help raise awareness about human trafficking in southeast Tennessee.

According to a report by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the number of reports of human trafficking in the state has increased in recent years.

According to the TBI, this could be partly due to the increasing awareness of human trafficking in general. The number of arrests has not increased at the same rate as the number of reports, according to the report.

(READ MORE: Tennessee human trafficking report: More attention likely leads to more leads, experts say)

Corinne Freeman, executive director of The Caring Place, said the centre has provided food, clothing and social support to more than 1,200 families since it opened in April.

“Many of our neighbors are victims of human trafficking and predators who exploit them,” Freeman told the crowd gathered Wednesday, “making them work without pay and forcing them to give up parts of themselves in order to survive.”

Sarah McKinnis, executive director of event organizer WillowBend Farms, wrote “ARE YOU AWAKE?” on the sidewalk with her red sand.

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That phrase can be texted to the organization’s hotline, McKinnis said, to ask for help if a victim’s phone is being monitored.

“You could text a friend,” she said.

WillowBend Farms provides transitional housing and job training programs and served 221 victims of human trafficking last year, McKinnis said in a phone call before Wednesday’s event. Since opening in 2017, the farm has served more than 1,000 clients this year, she said.

Human trafficking does not always look the way some people imagine it, she and other activists said on Wednesday.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga man expected to enter guilty plea to murder charge next week)

“People think human trafficking means forcing girls onto the streets,” Ashley Newman, an attorney director with the Court Appointed Special Advocates of Bradley and Polk counties, said at the event. “But it could also be that you have a parent who can’t pay the rent… You think that doesn’t happen here, but it does.”

According to McKinnis, about 88 percent of trafficking victims nationwide already have a relationship with their trafficker, either in real life or online. Sometimes the trafficker is a family member of the victim.

Advocates spoke mostly about sex trafficking, although many said forced labor for other types of human trafficking is receiving increasing attention in Tennessee. The state’s Advisory Committee on Human Trafficking is working on initiatives to identify labor trafficking, said McKinnis, who serves on the committee.

“We know it’s happening,” McKinnis said.

WillowBend Farms has received state and federal money in the past but is primarily privately funded, McKinnis said.

Many of the cases are referred to her by police or other nonprofit organizations in the area, she said.

Contact Ellen Gerst at [email protected] or 423-757-6319.

By Liam