Brad Owen manages about three dozen chapels across the United States, all serving one mission: provide a place of worship and faith — for truck drivers.
But three months ago, Owen, the vice president of operations for Truckstop Ministries Inc., got a call from one of his chaplains in Amarillo, Texas; there were police everywhere and the chaplain was being questioned.
“They were asking him what he was doing there and why he was there,” Owen tells NationSwell. “After he showed his credentials and the police were satisfied, they explained what was going on.”
What was going on was a sex-trafficking ring near the chapel, located in a white cargo trailer just off Interstate 40, which winds through the southern half of the U.S. The police were investigating.
Owen wanted more information, so he called Truckers Against Trafficking, or TAT, a nonprofit that enlists the help of truckers to spot and report sex trafficking. Owen asked if the trafficking near the Amarillo chapel was real.
It was. And it was happening in a whole lot of places outside of truck stops too.
Worldwide, there are approximately 25 million people who are forced or coerced into labor every year in some capacity, according to the International Labour Organization. The U.S. is by no means immune to the trade. In the past decade, 40,000 trafficking victims’ cases have been flagged to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, with over 26,000 calls made this year alone.
Though underground sex trafficking is often concentrated in larger cities — an Urban Institute report found that in just eight major U.S. cities, the local sex-traffic economy amounted to an estimated $290 million — there are thousands of cases of women, men and minors being trafficked in areas that are more rural and remote, such as truck stops, hotels and convention centers. For years, efforts have focused on beefing up police probes around activity at truck stops with the help off the FBI, which has an arm dedicated to investigating sex-trafficking rings.
That has forced the trade to move even farther underground, leading to sometimes deadly consequences for victims, who are often killed or beaten if they try to escape. But now, thanks to TAT, truckers — a group that used to be piously referred to as the “knights of the highway” — are being heralded as saviors of the road once again. Thousands of truckers around the country, along with trucking schools and truck-stop workers, are signing up for TAT certification, which includes a 30-minute instructional video on how to to spot victims while on their driving routes. They’re given a wallet-sized card to keep with them, with helpful tips for what to be on the lookout for, such as seeing someone get dropped off at a truck and then picked back up again 20 minutes later.
To date, TAT has certified more than 573,000 people in and around the trucking industry and law enforcement. Others become certified through TAT’s partners, like UPS, which trained over 97,000 of their employees last year.
All that training is clearly having an impact. In 2017, out of the 1,058 victims who were identified by truckers and reported to police, 324 were minors, according to the organization.
“Truck drivers show to be a great solution. They’ve been trained to be vigilant and they’re on the city streets, pulling into areas and being put up in hotels where this happens,” says Kylla Lanier, deputy director for Truckers Against Trafficking. “Even though most of these men don’t buy sex, they’ve been quiet on the issue. We want to turn these passive bystanders into an interrupting force.”
In sheer numbers, the truckers are pretty much an army of their own. By enlisting the help of truckers nationwide, TAT is utilizing the eyes and ears of almost 1.7 million people, a force that rivals the size of the U.S. military.
Currently, five states rely on TAT’s training and education materials, including Arkansas, which was one of the first to mandate truckers be certified as of August last year.
“It’s like a neighborhood watch, where you have people who are the eyes and ears of an area,” says Arkansas state Rep. Charlotte Douglas, a Republican who spearheaded the bill after a similar one was presented in another state. Arkansas has the highest quotient of truckers across the nation per capita. “Truckers extend our police force when they are aware of dangerous situations and know what signs to look out for.”
HUMANIZING THE VICTIMS
Tajuan McCarty, a field trainer for TAT, is one of a handful of survivors who shares her story with truckers. McCarty believes it’s important to put a face to the crisis.
“I knew women who were decapitated, their heads placed in between their legs as a sign to other women to not cross their pimps,” McCarty tells NationSwell.
Her own bleak story started when she was raped at 12, as she recalled to Good Housekeeping in 2015. Despite being a smart and eager child, she ended up angry and rebellious, running away from home for days at a time. At 15, she was approached by an older man who coaxed her into sex work. By the time she was able to escape almost a decade later, she had been sold off over 42,000 times, she says.
A key role of McCarty’s job is to humanize the victims of trafficking who, for decades, have only been construed as prostitutes or hookers. “I was never a prostitute. I will tell you that.”
As society slowly begins to change the way it views trafficking victims, reframing the debate between sex work and sex slavery, McCarty is adamant: “There is no such thing as a sex industry,” she says. “People say they have a choice. But sit down with any person who claims they have control over their [bodies], and I will guarantee you it is a matter of circumstance, that they had no choice but to go into this. There is no choice.”
Still, those who work as high-priced escorts or seem to be acting of their own volition are not the target for Truckers Against Trafficking, says Lanier.
“You’re not finding a lot of independent people working truck stops, rest areas or locations where professional drivers tend to be at,” Lanier says. “That percentage is pretty small who have other viable options and who are not sexually traumatized or being trafficked.”
WHO YOU GONNA CALL?
As he learned more about human trafficking, Kevin Kimmel, a 60-year-old trucker from Florida who logs over 120,000 miles per year, found himself changing his view of the women he’d see loitering around rest stops on his routes.
“I can count on one hand the times I’ve come across prostitution in my nine years on this job. And I figured it was a choice — a choice I wouldn’t agree with, but still, a choice,” he says. “But the more educated I got, the more I saw that these were actually victims.”
A few years back, Kimmel was at a rest stop, and while finalizing some paperwork he noticed an out-of-place RV; drivers usually park at the front of the rest stops, but this one was parked in the far back. He saw a man walk in, and soon after the RV started to rock.
“It was pretty clear what was going on there,” he says. But after everything was finished, he noticed a young girl stick her head out of the RV window only to be immediately yanked back.
He called the police.
“A couple officers came, and then I saw a young woman being placed into the front seat of a police car … and two others, a man and a woman, being taken out with handcuffs,” he says. “I stuck around for questioning since I was the one that called. … They said that she had about two days left before she’d have been dead.”
It’s that kind of simple action that TAT asks drivers to do.
“All we’re asking them to do is make a call from the safety of their own truck,” Lanier says.
But sometimes, even making a call can be fraught when it’s not clear who to call. For example, a 2016 survey conducted by TAT found that out of 532 cases of commercial sex reported, only 3 percent were called in to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, whereas 40 percent were reported to the police.
And calling the police, it turns out, has its own set of drawbacks. The National Human Trafficking Hotline is the only central database that can be used to log individuals and track them down. The FBI even recommends calling the hotline to streamline information.
“You have different jurisdictions — state police and local sheriffs, for example — that respond differently to a call. Sometimes it’s the local law enforcement,” says Lanier, explaining that truckers are advised to call the hotline so the information can be properly sent to whatever agency needs to respond. “I think in the heat of the moment, when adrenaline is running and you don’t know what to do, you just immediately call the police.”
For McCarty, the field trainer, the success of the TAT certification program gives her hope, both for its potential to help other victims but also for empowering the victims themselves.
“They should know that she is a princess, he is a prince, and that they are worthy of love,” McCarty says. “There are so many people who have been heard and been blamed. But if there’s anyone out there reading this, know this: It’s not your fault.”