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Fighting Modern-Day Slavery from the Road

Truckers Against Trafficking enlists the trucking industry to the effort to end human trafficking

By Jennifer Barnett Reed, Contributing Writer

Kevin Kimmel could have just minded his own business that cold January morning. He could have looked the other way, told himself the men knocking on the door of the RV parked two slots down from him behind the truck stop was none of his business. He could have explained away the scared face of the girl who peeked briefly out from behind the RV’s closed curtains before someone jerked them closed again. He could have just closed his own truck cab’s curtains and gotten some sleep after a long night of driving and deliveries.

Official TAT Chrome Logo RInstead, he listened to his gut and made a phone call. A few minutes later, he watched as police knocked on the door of the RV parked two slots down from him at the rural Virginia truck stop where he’d stopped to rest. He watched as the scared, emaciated young woman came out and talked to the officers. Watched as they called an ambulance to take her away and as they handcuffed the other two people in the RV, a man and woman. 

Kimmel, then a driver for Con-way Freight, learned later that the young woman was a victim of human trafficking. The couple police arrested had kidnapped her in another state, and for two weeks they had tortured her, starved her, raped her, and sold her for sex as they traveled from truck stop to truck stop.

Kimmel’s phone call most likely saved her life. Because of his decision to get involved, the young woman is now back home with her family, and her kidnappers are in federal prison. 

Back in January 2015, Kimmel had never heard of Truckers Against Trafficking, a nationwide organization that works to leverage the eyes and ears of truck drivers and other industry employees in the fight against human trafficking. He hadn’t been taught what signs to look for, and he didn’t know about the national hotline he could have called to make an anonymous report. He might not have even thought to use the phrase “human trafficking” to describe what he was seeing. But he did exactly what Truckers Against Trafficking’s founders hope to empower all truck drivers and truck stop employees to do: He kept his eyes open, and he told someone what he saw.

“That’s the power of the trucking industry recognizing [trafficking] and doing something about it,” said Kylla Lanier, the organization’s co-founder and deputy executive director.

Human trafficking is a worldwide problem that reaches into just about every industry, Lanier said. Lanier is a former teacher and missionary, but she and her mother and sisters were moved to found Truckers Against Trafficking after reading a book about the issue and realizing what a powerful force truck drivers and truck stop employees could be in the effort to free victims of modern-day slavery.

Since the organization was founded in 2009, it has partnered with almost every state trucking association in the United States, as well as national trucking associations, major corporations, law enforcement agencies, trucking schools and other groups. It provides DVDs, informational wallet cards, posters and other materials at no cost, and to date has registered more than 166,000 trucking industry employees as “TAT trained.”

Kimmel is now one of them.

“It was an eye-opening experience for me,” Kimmel said. “Since then I’ve followed Truckers Against Trafficking and have helped however I can.”

Joining the Cause

The Arkansas Trucking Association is one of the latest state trucking associations to formally partner with Truckers Against Trafficking. Lanier spoke to the ATA Safety Management Council in December, and attendees “wiped out” a box of training materials, Lanier said.

 “Everybody in that room committed in whatever way they could,” she said. Trucking companies promised to train all their employees, and an insurance company representative asked for training materials to pass out to the company’s carrier clients.

TATinfographicTruckers Against Trafficking has three goals, Lanier said. First, they want to reach the trucking industry through every avenue possible. They work with trucking schools, national and state trucking associations, carriers, even shippers who contract with carriers and are in a position to influence them to include TAT training for their drivers.

Second, they work with law enforcement to get them into the same room with key trucking industry stakeholders for training sessions.

And third, they want to marshal the resources of the trucking industry to help in the fight against human trafficking. A number of major national companies have already signed on as corporate sponsors, Lanier said.

The trucking industry is in a unique position to help fight human trafficking, said Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association.

“It takes advantage of truck drivers’ expertise, where they spend their time, where they do their work, in order to leverage that and be good citizens,” Newton said. “We want our drivers to be equipped with information and know what to look for and whom to call. They might see something but don’t want to be perceived as a tattletale. So having this centralized hotline specifically targeted toward human trafficking gives drivers the opportunity to say ‘This is what I saw.’ It gives them a safe place to call and try to be proactive and helpful.”

The hotline — 888-373-7888 — is run by the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. It is staffed around the clock, and drivers don’t have to share their personal information or speak directly to law enforcement if they don’t want to.

The TAT training is simple, but it’s proving to be very effective. Kimmel’s may be the best-known story of a truck driver helping identify a victim of human trafficking, but it’s far from the only one.

Lives saved

Already, more than 1,200 calls have come to the national hotline from the trucking industry — calls that helped identify close to 400 possible cases of human trafficking involving 692 victims, 234 of whom were minors.

“It’s working,” Lanier said. “We get to hear really cool things.” In Ontario, Calif., she said, a security guard at a truck stop who’d been trained using Truckers Against Trafficking’s materials noticed suspicious activities going on at a motel across the street. After he called the hotline, law enforcement arrested three traffickers and recovered several victims — including a minor.

The warning signs of human trafficking can be subtle, Lanier said. A lot of times, people who appear to be voluntarily working as prostitutes are actually under the control of a pimp. They may have been coerced or forced into prostitution initially and kept there by threats or beatings. If the person is a minor, she said, that’s the only thing that matters: Under federal law, anyone under the age of 18 who is being sold for sex is a victim of human trafficking.

The woman may be bruised, or talk about needing to make a certain amount of money before she can go home. She may have a branding tattoo — something as blatant as a bar code, or phrases like “cash only,” “Daddy’s girl,” “money maker,” even just the pimp’s name.

“They brand them like cattle a lot of times,” Lanier said.

Drivers might also notice two women — one older, one younger — going together from truck to truck or into a motel. The older one might be working for the trafficker — a victim herself, told she has to train the younger one. The trafficker might drop someone off at the cab of a truck and come back 15 minutes later to pick her up. There might be, as in Kevin Kimmel’s case, a van or an RV parked where it wouldn’t normally be, with men coming in and out of it.

“We got a tip from a trucker’s wife about a van at a truck stop in Brownsville, Texas,” Lanier said. “Men were purchasing girls brought over the border.”

Lanier understands that drivers might be reluctant to get involved. That’s why the hotline is completely confidential. What they need to do in return, though, is try to give as much information about the situation as they can to the hotline so law enforcement will have enough details to take action, Lanier said: Location, time, exactly what’s happening, any license plate numbers or vehicle descriptions.

The trucking industry’s response and willingness to get involved sets it apart, Lanier said, and both Congress and the United Nations have taken notice of its efforts.

“Sex trafficking and labor trafficking happen in every industry around the world,” she said. “It is the trucking industry that has stood up and said ‘We’re not going to bury our heads. We’re going to do something about it.’”

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