JONESBORO — An advertisement lit a spark in Megan Brown to advocate for human trafficking victims.

“In 2008, I was living in Nashville and I saw an ad for a documentary on human trafficking,” she said.” I worked with an organization in Nashville and when I moved back to Jonesboro, I became involved in a Little Rock-based organization.”

After hearing about local human trafficking cases, Brown reached out to community organizations two years ago and began to educate them on trafficking. In 2019, she co-founded Hope Found, a Jonesboro-based nonprofit that advocates for victims.

“In 2018, the owner of Kirin was arrested for trafficking and several young girls also went missing that year, suspected victims of trafficking,” she said. “I knew there needed to be more education in that area.”

Brown said human trafficking consists of two elements – sex trafficking and labor trafficking. The very definition of human trafficking, she said, is the recruitment, advertising, harboring, transporting or soliciting a person through the means of force, fraud or coercion for the purpose of exploiting them for sex trafficking or labor trafficking.

“Trafficking is very complex, it does not discriminate,” she said.

Brown said the most vulnerable populations in communities are those who have job insecurity, food insecurity, those who were part of the child welfare system and children in general.

Traffickers convince people they can give them a better life, Brown said.

That leads to “boy friending” in which victims soon fall in love with the trafficker, who in turn, exploits them to perform sex acts or labor acts.

According to a statistical report from Jonesboro Police Department, there appears to be a rise in cases. Although there are no reports for 2020, three years prior to that show a steady increase in cases.

JPD Public Information Specialist Sally Smith said 24 cases have been investigated by the department during the last three years.

“Two in 2018, nine in 2019 and 13 in 2020,” she wrote in an email to The Sun.

“There could be a possibility of more but there is not a reporting box they click on when this type of crime is reported,” Smith wrote. “We can only do a narrative search of reports where it is mentioned in the investigative notes.”

Brown said there are several areas that need improvement so cases can be tracked accurately.

“Arkansas lacks a consistent data tracking system for cases of trafficking,” she said.

Brown said last year her organization served 17 clients in Northeast Arkansas. As the cases climb and Brown and her team work to bring awareness to human trafficking, she has hopes for the future of her newly founded non-profit.

“Our goal is to open a safe house in Northeast Arkansas for survivors of trafficking and those directly affected by the commercial sex industry,” she said. “There are a lot of things we are looking at.”

As Brown continues bringing education and awareness to the issue, she is also forming community partnerships to help. One of the organizations that has participated in her training is Court Appointed Special Advocates of the 2nd Judicial District.

Angie Tate, who works for CASA, said volunteers are more educated about what defines human trafficking.

“One of the huge benefits of our partnership is that Megan has done training with our volunteers,” she said. “She helped them to understand trafficking is more than just someone being dragged off the street.”

Tate said volunteers realized there is not just sex trafficking but labor trafficking.

“It’s happening in our very own backyard,” she said.

Brown’s commitment to educate community organizations that work directly with the most vulnerable populations is beginning to bring about a change of mindset, Tate said.

“Communities used to think women who were in prostitution were there by choice,” she said. “These women are under someone’s control, oftentimes being gaslighted and being made to feel they have no other options.”

Many times when victims are identified, they have nothing but the clothes on their back when they do escape, Brown said.

“We just launched Bags of Hope in January. We have backpacks filled with supplies like clothing, hygiene items, notebooks and a Bible,” she said.

Brown said the bags were given to the JPD to help those victims.