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Nonprofits, state agencies work to help victims of human trafficking

POSTED: May 19, 2013 12:16 a.m.

Jennifer Robson sits in front of her laptop computer and scrolls through a list of ads on an adult website, looking for a local woman to call.

Robson is the founder of Beautiful Feet Ministries, which reaches out to women and children involved in the sex trafficking industry in Hall County.

Robson recently started a call center where she and another female member of the ministry go through the lists of ads looking for local women they can help.

Beautiful Feet is part of Straight Street Revolutions in Gainesville and is also affiliated with an Atlanta-based sex trafficking rescue organization called Out of Darkness. Robson tries to share the organization’s hotline number and website with every woman she calls.

“We’re trying to build relationships up over the phone,” Robson said. “And we’re trying to help these ladies out and let them know they’re not alone and we’re praying for them. If they want or need a way out of the industry, there is a way out.”

In 2005, the FBI deemed Atlanta to be one of the top 14 cities in the country for sex trafficking, with the highest incidence of child exploitation for prostitution.

According to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation Human Trafficking Unit, an average of 100 juvenile girls are exploited each night in Georgia. The average age of a girl when she is first prostituted is 13. Most victims of human sex trafficking are female but there are male victims, too.

Robson clicks on an ad revealing a photo of a young woman posing provocatively. It says the woman’s name is “Jenna” and lists her prices — $175 for “whole,” $125 for “half.”

Robson explains that the ads often use vague language and false names. Some ads will spell out words using symbols and numbers instead of letters; others say “donations” or specific services are accepted in exchange for sex. One of the online advertisements notes that a woman will perform a sex act in exchange for lawn service.

Robson said there is much more sex trafficking going on in the area than most people realize.

“A lot of stuff is done online in this area,” Robson said. “I’m pretty sure there’s a lot going on in low-income areas. From all of my training, I’ve learned about residential brothels, things that we would never even know exist. Especially with tons of people coming from different countries, we don’t know who’s here and who’s not here. That would be so easy to happen here in Hall County. No one would even know about it unless they knew what signs to look out for.”

Several community organizations are working to raise awareness locally and to help the public recognize the signs.

WomenSource, a nonprofit aimed at empowering women in Northeast Georgia, recently held a Brown Bag Lunch focusing on the topic of commercial sexual exploitation of children.

Grayson Pratt, vice president of advocacy and initiatives of The Junior League of Atlanta, presented the group with information about “the business” in an effort to raise awareness.

Pratt said she became infuriated as she learned more about what is involved in sex trafficking and quickly realized everything she’d assumed about the business and where it was conducted was wrong.

According to a Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children demand study by the Juvenile Justice Fund in Atlanta, geographically the largest group of men who purchase sex with young females is found in the north metro Atlanta area. Most “buyers” are between the ages of 30 and 39.

“When I heard that I thought, ‘Those are the men I know,’” Pratt said. “Those are my husband’s friends, those are my friends. Probably someone that I know has hired a child at some point in their life.”

The Internet has opened avenues for sex trade that didn’t exist before and provides an easy marketing platform for pimps and prostitutes.

Pratt said pimps often go online to find young girls to exploit, seeking out suggestive photos on social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter.

“A lot of the ways these buyers find these girls is online,” Pratt said. “They go through Craigslist and pornography.”

Pratt said grass-roots awareness is key to ending the business and preventing more children from being exploited. She encouraged the group of women at the luncheon to get “thoroughly freaked out.”

State departments are taking action to end sex trafficking, too.

In March, state Attorney General Sam Olens launched the “Georgia’s Not Buying It” campaign to combat child sex trafficking. The campaign is focused on ending the demand for the sex trade of children.

The campaign’s website, www.notbuyingit.org, provides information and a pledge form for men to get involved in the campaign. It also offers a warning to buyers saying, “Your secret is out. Georgia isn’t buying the lie.”

Human traffickers face 25 years to life in prison, increased in July 2011 from a maximum of 20 years. Offenders also can be fined up to $100,000.

The Georgia Department of Education hosted a two-day conference in Atlanta to train educators and school employees to recognize and combat sex trafficking.

Jarod Anderson, director of learning support for Gainesville City Schools, did not attend the conference but said the system tries to keep up with all the information coming out from the state department about child abuse or human trafficking.

Anderson said that it’s very important for teachers and school employees to notice symptoms of abuse, such as bruising or poor attendance, and notify the Division of Child and Family Services to conduct an investigation.

Because the symptoms could indicate other problems, educators follow a strict protocol to ensure they’re not harming the child by trying to help. The teacher notifies a counselor who will then notify DFACS and begin an investigation if any abuse is suspected.

While Anderson said he hasn’t personally experienced or heard of any particular cases of child sex trafficking “that’s not to say it hasn’t happened.”

The biggest thing that schools and parents can do, Anderson said, is to help children understand boundaries and how to get help should they need it. Establishing strong personal boundaries and self-esteem may be enough to prevent some children from ever getting involved in the industry.

“You just hope that something they’ve been taught by parents or picked up from school would be enough to cause them to say ‘no’ or make some alarms go off,” Anderson said.

All the organizations aimed at sex trafficking agree that awareness is key to combating the problem.

Robson said she thinks it’s awesome how many people are aware that there is a local industry and want to get involved.

“There’s this huge awareness in Hall County,” Robson said. “But I don’t know if we’re putting a dent in it because this kind of ministry, of outreach, is not like you can go in and save the day and come out and everyone’s good in the end. It’s a long process.”


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