Moderated by Tom Sabulis
A recent AJC series on human trafficking questioned the claim that metro Atlanta is one of the nation’s leading capitals of child exploitation. But experts say the human trafficking problem still exists. Today’s contributors point out that the underworld nature of sex slavery and its powerless, often foreign, victims make it difficult to quantify. Yet great strides are being made to combat this growing evil.
There are three columns today. Commenting is open below Sharon Simpson Joseph’s column.
By Sally Quillian Yates
Last week, a local sheriff’s deputy made a routine traffic stop on I-20 for speeding. The 29-year-old driver had a 17-year-old girl in his car. Ordinarily, the deputy would have ticketed the driver, and the driver and young girl would have been on their way.
But the deputy had recently received training from the GBI’s Human Trafficking Unit and was attuned to indications of possible trafficking. The deputy separated the young girl from the driver, and she told him that she was being sold for sex. The girl was rescued. She told GBI agents later that she had prayed to be rescued, and she felt God had answered her prayers.
This episode offers a harrowing window into the horrors of human trafficking seen far too often in cases the U.S. Attorney’s Office has prosecuted over the past several years. These cases have involved victims from Central America, such as the 10 teenage girls and women smuggled from Mexico with promises of marriage or work, only to be forced through beatings and death threats into nightly prostitution.
Other cases have revealed imprisoned young women lured to Atlanta from Africa with promises of education, then forced into years of domestic servitude with no pay while their sponsors beat them, threatened them with arrest, and confiscated all their documentation.
Finally, we have prosecuted, with alarming frequency, Georgia citizens, including two defendants who enticed teenage girls through Internet ads and then physically and emotionally assaulted the girls — raping them, handcuffing them to beds, and holding them at gunpoint to prevent them from escaping .
Certainly, it is difficult to quantify with precision how widespread these cases are. Victims of these offenses have told us how afraid they are to seek help from law enforcement because of fear that their traffickers will retaliate against them or their families; distrust of law enforcement; embarrassment and shame; or a simple desire to move on with life and avoid public disclosure of the ordeal.
These obstacles are often amplified in cases concerning foreign-born, non-English-speaking victims who are unfamiliar with our country’s legal system and fear deportation and prosecution for having possibly entered the United States illegally. Because these crimes occur in the shadows to powerless victims, they often go undiscovered.
Yet our office has seen dramatic growth in the number of these cases, reflecting the increased sophistication and determination that the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, GBI, and state and local law enforcement have employed to shine light on the trafficking world. In the last two years, our office has brought cases against 30 traffickers involving 36 victims, including children as young as 12. We currently have 14 more open investigations.
Regardless of the exact figures, no level of trafficking is acceptable. Therefore, we are determined to continue to work with our law enforcement partners to uncover trafficking crimes, aggressively prosecute the perpetrators, and free victims of trafficking from the chains of modern-day slavery.
Sally Quillian Yates is U.S. Attorney in Atlanta.
By Edward Lindsey
For many of us, the most peaceful and safest time of the day comes in the evening, when we are with family and loved ones. For the victims of human trafficking, however, nightfall brings a dark terror where victims are not even assured of another sunrise.
According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, at least 100,000 American kids are victimized through the practice of child prostitution each year. To put that in perspective, Turner Field could be filled nearly two times over with children that suffer nationally from the primary driver of the human trafficking trade. In Atlanta, the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2005 named our capital city one of 14 cities in the nation for the highest incidence of children used in prostitution.
Our caring and compassionate state began the task of focusing on this evil practice over a decade ago. This effort culminated in the passage of HB 200 in 2011, which made it easier to prosecute the crime of human trafficking, toughened the penalties and sought protection for the victims.
HB 200, which I was proud to sponsor, was the result of a bipartisan effort of legislators, prosecutors, law enforcement, religious organizations and victims’ rights groups. It reflects a shift in understanding the nature of this crime that the exploited person involved in trafficking is not a criminal, but a victim. Public awareness has also grown exponentially, and faith-based groups and congregations of every religion have organized to raise awareness, develop strategies to provide services to victims, and identify and intervene with at-risk youth.
Still, advocates and legislators, myself included, believe there is much more to be done. In 2012, HR 1151 established the Joint Human Trafficking Study Commission, whose task it was to continue to recognize roadblocks and develop solutions. The commission recognized that most victims are purposefully kept unaware of avenues for help and rescues. Therefore, we should mandate the posting of the National Human Trafficking Hotline number in places where victims are likely to travel. In addition, we should provide that the children who were adjudicated prior to the passage of HB 200 may have their records sealed in order to assist them in moving forward with their lives.
Finally, the commission recognizes the need to ensure that Georgia’s resources are best utilized where needed — such as a dedicated shelter and appropriate training. Reliable data must be collected so that we can better understand the magnitude of the problem. We have the will to fight this despicable division of crime, and we should all feel obligated to find, arrest and prosecute the perpetrators of human trafficking while providing help and mercy to its victims.
Edward Lindsey, R-Atlanta, is majority whip in the Georgia House of Representatives.
By Sharon Simpson Joseph
The movement to end child sex trafficking in the U.S. is in its infancy, even though it is arguably a crime as old as time. The birth of a movement is never easy, and system change is not a straight line. It takes courage, insight and a commitment to stretch far beyond what is safe, readily comprehensible or facile.
Child sex trafficking has much in common with civil rights, child abuse, child labor and domestic violence. All have victims who, at some point in time, were ignored or overlooked by society — where business as usual meant human beings were treated as property while others looked the other way or were part of the problem. Child sex trafficking is no different than these other abuses, just newer to the table of awareness.
The prostitution of children is a crime so heinous that few want to believe it exists. In Georgia in 1999, when youthSpark Inc. (originally the Juvenile Justice Fund) was founded, there were no metrics or methodology by which to measure what we knew to be true. Working on the front line with the Fulton County Juvenile Court, youthSpark pioneered the early movement to combat child sex trafficking and committed to building partnerships, bringing together lawmakers and law enforcement, community leaders, foundations and citizens.
Establishing a body of empirical research in a new arena is groundbreaking, critical work that must be done. Getting accurate numbers for the hidden and underground sex trade is by its very nature challenging and dangerous. But it’s work that is imperative to save children and accomplish social change. We fully support further research on the prevalence of child sex trafficking because we know that desire for greater clarity does not translate to lack of a problem, and this is a problem we must solve.
We fight for the recognition that every girl and boy has a basic human right to safety and security. As a national thought-leader in the arena of child sex trafficking, we constantly assess the successes and failures of strategies undertaken on behalf of our youth. And while there is more to be done, we have made great strides. Because of the collective progress made in identifying and helping victims, we have launched a prevention initiative designed to ensure that at-risk children never become victims in the first place.
President Barack Obama in a September 2012 speech cited the fact that 20 million people worldwide are victims of human trafficking. He issued an executive order decreeing that, at home and abroad, this heinous practice shall not be tolerated by the United States.
The movement to end human trafficking is one of global proportions. It may in fact be the issue of our day, and “when the dust settles” what we will see is the eradication of modern-day slavery.
Sharon Simpson Joseph is Executive Director of youthSpark, a juvenile justice nonprofit organization.