Last month two Arkansas teens were rescued from an purported human trafficker in Maryland. Police responded to a domestic-violence call someone phoned in after seeing a woman dragged out of a vehicle.
In February, 42 men were arrested in Little Rock on charges associated with a human-trafficking ring as a part of a nationwide sting operation.
These instances are among the nine reported cases of human trafficking in Arkansas so far this year. Since 2007, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center has found 233 victims in Arkansas.
Frequenting rest stops, loading docks and motels, truck drivers are on the front lines of the battle against human trafficking.
"At any given time there are more truck drivers on the road than law enforcement, and truck drivers are trained to be vigilant," said Kendis Paris, executive director of Truckers Against Trafficking. "Truck drivers are often in places where pimps sell their victims. So who better to be on the lookout than truck drivers?"
In a presentation to the Arkansas Trucking Association's annual Business Conference and Vendor Showcase on Thursday, Paris spoke about human trafficking in the U.S. and urged trucking companies to educate their employees on how to identify and help victims.
Since 2009, the group has provided trucking associations, trucking companies and law enforcement agencies with materials to train drivers to spot warning signs of human trafficking, including a training DVD and a wallet card with questions to ask if approached by a girl or a woman who appears to be in danger.
More than 214,000 trucking employees have completed the association's training, leading to 1,371 calls to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center's hotline. These calls identified 425 likely human-trafficking cases involving 744 victims, including 249 minors.
Paris said she would like to see law enforcement agencies in Arkansas partner with her group. As of now, 22 states have some form of a partnership between law enforcement agencies and Truckers Against Trafficking. In Ohio, drivers must complete the association's training to receive a commercial driver's license.
Last year, the Human Trafficking Resource Center received 109 calls about potential human trafficking in Arkansas, leading to the discovery of 36 human-trafficking cases. Only five of the calls came from victims and survivors and six calls came from law enforcement agencies . The majority of trafficking reports were from community members who witnessed suspicious activity.
Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association, said she hopes truck drivers in Arkansas can become part of the solution to human trafficking.
"Our industry gets a bad reputation because we are often in areas where human-trafficking crimes occur," Newton said. "So it's important to be part of the solution rather than seen as a part of the problem."
Paris said her organization hopes to lead a cultural shift from seeing women selling sex as "lot lizards," a term truck drivers use for prostitutes, to seeing them as victims in need of help.
Paris said pimps and traffickers use force, fraud and coercion to lure their victims. Once they have found the victims, they trick them, drug them and abuse them. Some victims may insist the pimp is protecting them, or that they chose to perform sex work, but Paris said this is the result of abuse and manipulation.
"That Stockholm syndrome, those psychological abuses run very deep," she said.
Traffickers look for young, vulnerable children to abuse. Most traffickers find their victims online.
"If they've got a phone and a Facebook page, they're in your daughter's bedroom," Paris said. "You have to know who your children are talking to."
The average age of a trafficked girl is 13, according to the FBI.
After seeing Truckers Against Trafficking's presentation, Dennis Hilton, vice president of safety for CalArk International, said he is committed to making sure his drivers are looking out for human trafficking on the road.
CalArk International shows the group's training video in safety meetings and orientations, and Hilton said he plans to put it on the company's website so employees can view it any time.
Butch Rice, president and CEO of Stallion Transportation Group and chairman of the Arkansas Trucking Association, said truck drivers are the good Samaritans of the road.
"It used to be that truck drivers stopped for all cars in trouble on the road," Rice said. "These days it's not that extreme, but drivers are still caring and helpful people."
Rice said people don't want to believe human trafficking happens in the United States, especially as close to home as Arkansas.
"People know it's there, but they turn a blind eye," Rice said. "You see it, but you don't want to think it's happening."
When Steve Garrish served as senior director of private fleet safety for Wal-Mart, he initiated a program to provide Truckers Against Trafficking training to every new and current driver. Wal-Mart trucks now bear the organization's decal, which includes two hotlines people can call or text for help.
"I have two daughters, three sisters and a wife that I love, so after seeing this, it hits home," said Garrish, now senior vice president of business development and new ventures for SleepSafe Drivers. "If it saves one life, it'd be worth it to me."
Business on 05/20/2016