How thousands of truck drivers are combatting human trafficking, one truck stop at a time.
Meet the Truckers Against Trafficking.
Note: This story contains descriptions of sexual violence.
When Beth Jacobs was 16, she was drugged, kidnapped, and forced into prostitution.
She says that her captor took her to a truck stop and forced her to have sex with a man who asked for a discount afterward because she “cried too much.”
This traumatizing experience was the first of many during her six years as a sex slave.
While the world is a dark place for the approximately 4.5 million people currently trapped in the human trafficking industry in forced sexual exploitation, this is also a story of redemption and heroes.
In 1983 — six years after she was kidnapped — Jacobs was arrested on prostitution charges for what she said felt like the hundredth time. A friend bailed her out, but instead of returning to her pimp, she fled. Jacobs eventually ended up at a battered women’s shelter, where she found the resources she needed to get her life back in order.
Now, she has made it her mission to combat the illegal sex trade and save others like her.
In fact, she’s helping to build an army of folks who want to help fight the sex trade every day … an army that could be almost 3.4 million strong.
Jacobs works as a trainer for Truckers Against Trafficking, or TAT, a nonprofit organization rallying America’s 3.4 million truck drivers to combat trafficking.
She trains the drivers to spot traffickers so they can report their suspicions to the authorities. "If [these drivers] had been around [when I was a sex slave], I truly believe someone would have helped me," Jacobs said.
"The first thing truckers say when they hear about TAT is that they have daughters, they have granddaughters. They want to help," Truckers Against Trafficking’s executive director, Kendis Paris, said.
She’s been amazed by the sweeping acceptance of the program so far: There are over 214,000 people trained by TAT, and she has partnered with hundreds of companies in the trucking industry, including Walmart Transportation and UPS.
Although truck stops can have bad reputations, the people running them often want to put a stop to human trafficking as much as anyone.
According to The Polaris Project, truck stops aren’t even on the top of the list for trafficking venues, though; in 2015, truck stops accounted for 1.5% of sex trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. But many of the venues of choice for sex traffickers — hotels, motels, bars — are also frequented by truckers, too. "They’re the eyes and ears of the country." she said.
The first organization to take a chance and partner with TAT was the truck stop TA and Petro Stopping Centers.
Since TAT’s first partnership with TA/Petro, they have since teamed up with multiple law enforcement agencies, trucking companies and nonprofits. Law enforcement in Kansas is the most recent of 22 state agencies that have partnered with TAT throughout the U.S., and the state highway patrol in Ohio provides information and training from TAT to everyone who obtains a commercial driver's license. Eventually, Paris hopes that it will be mandatory training in every state.
And by the numbers, it looks like TAT’s plan is working. Though calls to NHRTC hotline are anonymous, calls from truck drivers have skyrocketed since TAT came onto the scene. The hotline has received 1,371 calls from truck drivers since 2007, which involved 744 victims — 249 of which were minors.
The TAT driver training is free, and it only takes a short time.
Basic training for truck drivers is a 26-minute DVD designed to give the basics of what to look for and what to do in case they come across suspected sex traffickers.
Some of the warning signals TAT trains for are tattoos (for branding purposes), recreational vehicles with different people coming in and out, and cars flashing their lights on and off. If a trucker is suspicious, they’re instructed who to call the authorities or the NHTRC hotline. Truck drivers are told not to engage with suspected sex traffickers.
Drivers are also given a wallet card that bullet-points their training, and they’re encouraged to display posters that let victims of human trafficking know they have options, too.
While the drivers certainly can’t identify every victim of trafficking, the more eyes and ears we have out there, the better.
"There’s a place for everyone," Paris said. "We provide the pathways for those who want to help."