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Law agencies focus sharp eyes to spot victims

POSTED: May 19, 2013 12:14 a.m.

To spot victims of sex trafficking, it takes the keen eye of an expert — one like Brian Johnston, assistant special agent in charge of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Human Trafficking Unit.

“As far as human trafficking goes, we are laser focused on domestic child sex trafficking, labor trafficking and adult prostitutes,” he said.

Most often, the GBI must be requested to have original jurisdiction, but there are exceptions.

“Typically we are a request agency. Typically we have to be requested by another office, government office, law enforcement,” Johnston staid. “However, in cases involving child exploitation, and child sex trafficking, we have original jurisdiction — we don’t have to be requested to become involved in these kids of investigation.”

And their involvement sees “no limit,” he said.

“Sometimes it’s tips from the general public, sometimes we receive information from hospitals that come across child victims,” he said. “Sometimes we get tips through the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. We also do some pro-active investigations where we go out and attempt to locate child victims, without receiving prior tips.”

Although the GBI can originate cases, Johnston stressed the importance of empowering other agencies to do the same.

“One of our missions is to provide training to other agencies: Recognizing indicators, how to identify the victims, how to refer the victims to services, how to understand the Georgia law, so that you can have some enforcement action on the traffickers,” Johnston said.

And that strategy, Johnston said, is effective.

“What we’ve found is that as we educate local law enforcement, we get more and more tips, because really what it boils down to is uniformed officers, deputies, state troopers,” he said. “They’re the first line on this thing, the ones answering the calls, pulling over cars, and they come across situations, and having a trained eye and knowing what to look for is critical.”

In addition to their training, Johnston said that instinct and hunches can be a responding officer’s best resource.

“It’s really a totality of a lot of different things,” he said. “Looking at the whole situation, do you have a young girl, teenage adult, with a nonfamily member? You can look at tight clothing — is it age appropriate? Weather appropriate? Is the child avoiding eye contact? Are the facts of the situation just not adding up?”

“Another good rule of thumb is to look at the characteristics of victims. Say there are runaways in a particular area. Youth out on a runaway status correlates very highly with them being victims of sexual exploitation. Not 100 percent, obviously, but there is a correlation, in particular when you see a runaway two, three, four times,” he said.

And for the everyday person who suspects a child is being exploited, Johnston explained the different routes.

“I always say, even though the GBI has original jurisdiction, it’s best to report any criminal activity to local law enforcement first — make the report,” he said. “There are other options after a report is made. You can call GBI — we don’t discourage that, we are a statewide agency — but we have limited scope and resources, so another avenue is to call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. But law enforcement should be contacted first.”

Johnston said that high population makes Atlanta and metro areas more amenable to the human trafficking trade.

“I think the only reason that we look at metro Atlanta and more populated areas is there’s a bigger population. One of the ways these children are exploited is often over Internet websites that advertise children for prostitution. That kind of activity is drawn to larger cities,” he said.

Johnston said recent legislation has better defined and made penalties for human trafficking.

“The state of Georgia has done a very good job in handling the job of human trafficking with laws. The legislature in 2011 came up with a human trafficking statute that defines what a trafficker has to do to be charged, defined penalties, mandatory minimums,” he said.

“Cases are prosecuted on a state level, unless there are circumstances or factors where the case could be charged in federal court, then we take the case to the appropriate U.S. Attorneys office. That really doesn’t affect how we work an investigation or how we become involved — that’s something that’s worked out between prosecutors, determining which level is more appropriate?”

District Attorney Lee Darragh said Hall County presently has two cases pending where the Georgia statute for human trafficking is likely to be charged.

As the cases are pending and not yet indicted, he said, he could not provide further detail.


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