Humanizing the human trafficking crisis

Former prosecutor Ivey finds new way to help the helpless

Friday, January 10, 2020, Vol. 44, No. 2
By Nancy Henderson

Natalie Ivey’s early days as an assistant district attorney and domestic violence prosecutor in Tennessee’s 13th Judicial District were fraught with frustration and disappointment.

“I can very clearly remember struggling as a new prosecutor and new attorney, not pursuing cases successfully in court,” says Ivey, 35, who in December became executive director of the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking. “I was feeling embarrassed, like I had something to prove.”

One day in General Sessions court, she found herself arguing with a victim who refused to testify. “I think at one point I even threatened that there might be criminal consequences to filing a complaint and then not pursuing it, which is a terrible tactic for a prosecutor to use. It’s kind of an old-school tactic that was used before we learned about victimization and trauma-informed care.”

Eventually, the woman broke down in tears. “You don’t understand,” she told Ivey. “If I get up and testify today, he’s going to kill all my dogs.”

“That was the right thing to say to me because I am an animal lover through and through,” Ivey recalls. “It was this big lightbulb moment: I have no way to guarantee her that that’s not going to happen. I also recognized if it does happen, that is devastating.

“It was very humbling for me in the moment and it was a really good gut check in the sense of: What am I doing here and what is the ultimate goal for me? I think that was the first time I kind of shifted my world focus. I thought, ‘I’m not comfortable playing the game of balancing successful prosecution with holistic victim services. That’s just not my strong point.’ I needed to find an arena where I could lean into the things that I felt like I could do well.”

A few years and career stops later, that arena turned out to be in-the-trenches support for survivors of human trafficking, first as director of advocacy and outreach at CCAHT and, now, executive director.

Founded a decade ago, the nonprofit organization provides clients throughout upper East Tennessee with emergency shelter, legal aid, transportation, case management, medical care, therapy, workforce development and other services, all of which are free.

Vivacious, fiercely loyal and an admittedly loud ­­– and fast – talker, Ivey brings to the job a witty personality and a never-waning passion for what she does.

“Her brain seems to hold every fact she’s ever learned, including fun facts about history or serial killers or obscure illnesses. She would make a great trivia game partner,” jokes Kate Trudell, who recently left the CCAHT director post to head Harmony Family Center.

“She asks great questions, likes to get at the root of things, thinks critically, and has incredible perseverance and dedication. This mission and this work are hard at times ­– many times – but Natalie brings a great balance of optimism and hope to the table that helps mitigate those really tough days.”

A Cookeville native, Ivey moved back and forth between her hometown and Sevierville because of her dad’s job as a plant manager and, she quips, once lived in Fort Wayne, Indiana, “just long enough to make me not sound like I’m from the South now.”

Her positive attitude came from her father, who each morning when he dropped her and her three siblings off for school, would tell them, ‘This is going to be the best day of your life.’”

Says Ivey, “That’s kind of my mantra and the way that I believe, the way that I approach daily living.”

In high school, a favorite history teacher kindled in her an interest in learning about people and their heritage. With no practical plans for the future, in 2007 Ivey earned her B.S. in history at Tennessee Tech University. “I thought I would be like Indiana Jones or something,” she admits.

Leaping again into unknown territory, at her dad’s suggestion she decided to pursue her juris doctorate at the University of Tennessee College of Law, where she gravitated toward justice issues and interned at the public defender’s office.

Her first job was in the district attorney’s office, handling cases in Putnam, White and DeKalb counties. But the insights she gleaned from domestic violence victims, including the woman who was terrified her abusive husband would kill her dogs if she spoke in court, propelled her in a different direction.

“I learned that being a successful prosecutor sometimes, for me, personally, felt counterintuitive to what was in the best interest of the victim in the case,” Ivey says. “I had a lot of self-conflict about that.”

So when the executive director position opened up at Genesis House, a service agency for victims of domestic and sexual violence in 10 counties in the Upper Cumberland region, “It felt right in the sense that for the first time, my main goal was just to help. It wasn’t to win cases. It wasn’t to have successful prosecution. It was really just to make sure that we were providing whatever resources that individual needed in the moment.”

The move, she says, was typical of her lifelong philosophy. “I live my life just by taking the next step.”

The role at Genesis gave her a “big picture” perspective of the multifaceted issue of domestic violence. While there, she spent much of her time leading the charge to bring a family justice center to the Upper Cumberland. Unlike similar projects, this one wasn’t based in a metropolitan area. It was also designed for multiple counties. “We had that up and running by the time I left,” she says. “It was something that was near and dear to my heart.”

In 2014, with a baby girl and another one on the way, Ivey was exhausted and ready for a change. So when she learned Kizer & Gammeltoft in Knoxville was planning to add another associate to handle probate matters and draft legal documents, she interviewed for the job. At eight and a half months pregnant, she wasn’t sure how the hiring attorneys, co-founders Lisa Gammeltoft and Lauren Brown, would react.

Natalie Ivey, the new executive director of the Community Coalition Against Human Trafficking, meets with her staff at their South Knoxville office.

-- Photo By Adam Taylor Gash |The Ledger

To Ivey’s delight, their responses were overwhelmingly positive. “Take whatever time you need and let us know when you’re ready to come to work,” they told her.

“I learned so much from them,” Ivey adds. “It was so wonderful as our family was growing with all this newness to have such a forgiving and loving, supportive work environment.”

Three years passed, and she grew tired of sitting in front of a computer instead of interacting with people on a regular basis.

“The women in the office would get tickled because I would go into a client meeting and it would take four and a half hours,” she says with a laugh. “I just knew that this was not where my passion was. It was great for me to take a breath [at the firm], but it wasn’t going to be something that I could do long-term in the sense of making my heart happy.”

As usual, though, she wasn’t actively job-searching in 2017 when she learned about the outreach position at CCAHT. “I didn’t know anything about human trafficking,” she explains. “I just kind of take one step after the other and the right things fall in place.”

Leaving the law firm, however, wasn’t easy. “I don’t even think I got through the sentence of telling them that I had decided to take a different job without crying,” she remembers. “They were very confused by what I was saying because I was crying so hard.”

Ivey was in her element at CCAHT, where she worked to educate the public and raise awareness about the human trafficking crisis in 33 East Tennessee counties and mobilize the community to participate in combating the problem. She also developed specialized training curricula for professionals, including law enforcement officers, medical providers, educators, foster parents, real estate agents, in-home service providers, hospitality workers, public transportation employees, attorneys and staff members at mental health and substance abuse recovery facilities.

“It wasn’t long before that really took off,” Ivey says. “We’re at the point now where we do very little advertising as far as asking folks if we can come do training. We are just inundated with requests, which is a fantastic problem to have.”

By the end of 2019, the organization was averaging four trainings a week. Despite her new leadership role and the addition of a community educator, Ivey plans to continue to work with these groups “because that’s where my passion lies and it’s kind of what fuels me.”

“Since Natalie’s first day [at CCAHT] she has brought an unmatched level of expertise; refined, elevated and exponentially expanded our training curricula; and grown our outreach efforts to all of East Tennessee,” Trudell says. “Because of Natalie’s work, our community now has robust collaboration through our multidisciplinary teams – teams that are regularly addressing the specific needs of survivors. … Natalie is a natural leader who meets challenges and changes with calm and confidence. She is not afraid of difficult moments or conversations, all of which she handles with intention and grace.”

Soon after joining CCAHT, Ivey realized that her background helping victims of domestic violence hadn’t prepared her for what she would see. “I thought, ‘It will be easier to talk with folks about human trafficking’ because I had a misconception about it. I thought it was stranger danger, kids getting thrown in the back of vans, where domestic violence is kind of sticky and personal and uncomfortable. I thought: Who can’t get behind that?

“That’s the ultimate irony because human trafficking is domestic violence on steroids. It is all of the hard parts of domestic violence but almost to a more extreme degree. You have sexual violence. You have physical violence. You have emotional violence. But you also have exploitation that goes along with that,” she says. “Somebody is literally profiting off that violence and that victimization. That was my first learning curve that this was going to be a little bit of a tougher topic to walk into a room and talk about.”

She has spent the past two years helping area residents recognize that most human trafficking originates not with stalking predators but with parents and other family members who control and manipulate children and young adults into forced labor or sex. In East Tennessee, the victims are predominantly Caucasian, natural-born citizens. Society often overlooks them, Ivey points out, or views them as prostitutes, drug addicts or homeless.

“This whole crime and this whole dynamic is based on vulnerabilities,” Ivey says. “When I train folks, it is just light bulbs going off throughout the audience and then I have them come up to me afterward and they’re white as a sheet [saying], ‘This makes me realize this is what was going on with this patient,’ or ‘I have this student [this is probably happening to].’ I have yet to go into a community and do an HT101 (basic lecture) and not have someone relate.”

Even the most unlikely training participants “get it” and want to help, she says. At one Catholic church, in particular, Ivey didn’t expect to relate to the group of all men. “They were so impassioned,” she recalls. “And by the end of it, they were like, ‘This is unacceptable. We’ve got to do something.’”

Gathering data on human trafficking in East Tennessee is difficult, Ivey says, because many people don’t want to talk about what is happening to them. “It’s probably much more prevalent than our numbers are ever going to reflect. That being said, we served 162 survivors by the end of October. We had 46 referrals that were minors.”

The normally talkative Ivey is tight-lipped when it comes to success stories about the clients her organization has helped. To reveal such details, she adds, would victimize them all over again. One general example she is willing to share involves a pregnant client in the organization’s safe house who had no car seat, no high chair, not even a onesie for the baby she was about to have.

No sooner had the CCAHT staff posted a request on social media, says Ivey, than “our office literally turned into a Babies R Us.”

“When [clients] get to come to a place that’s safe and stable and then they get to see the general public showing up to provide them with gifts and love and showering them with unconditional care, it’s just transformative. It’s so amazing to see. So we do get to see the hope and the change. But it’s hard to bottle that up to share with folks in a quantifiable way.”

On Ivey’s full plate of goals for 2020: Mindfully seek financial stability through support from community partners and state agencies and oversee the renovation of another Knoxville-based building that will increase housing options for trafficking victims. The current safe house is often filled to capacity.

She hopes to also assume her adjunct professor duties at Lincoln Memorial University-Duncan School of Law when her schedule allows. “There’s just something about helping folks make the connections, helping people see the big picture,” she says. “It’s kind of rejuvenating.”

Ironically, Ivey’s personal hobbies tend to drift toward quieter pursuits such as reading and assembling jigsaw puzzles. She and her husband, both nature lovers, recently bought a log cabin and are fixing it up. Still, it’s her unabashed interest in people that excites her the most.

“I do love life, maybe obnoxiously so,” she says. “My husband laughs about how I can instantly find some conversation piece with any stranger that I’ve met in the first two minutes of talking to them. I love knowing about people’s history, who they are, where they’re from. I really do love people and I love learning about different experiences.”