What: Nonprofit organization dedicated to helping human trafficking victims
Where: 860 Johnson Ferry Road, Suite 140-331, Atlanta
Empowered Living Academy
What: Nonprofit organization that seeks to treat women 18 to 32 years old and provide them with tools to succeed through career readiness courses and GED programs
Where: 860 Johnson Ferry Road, Suite 140-331, Atlanta
What: Nonprofit organization that helps victims find the services they need to move on from their captivity and establish a new life
Where: P.O. Box 724197, Atlanta
More info: 404-602-0068, gacares.org
Carmen Luisa Coya-van Duijn of Flowery Branch knows all too well about the rising issue of human trafficking.
Coya-van Duijn met with her childhood best friend, Belkys, every year when she traveled to her home country of the Dominican Republic.
“Every year, my parents would send us over there, so we can remember our culture,” Coya-van Duijn said.
But in 1986, her friend wasn’t there when she arrived. It is believed she was kidnapped at age 15 and sent overseas in the human trafficking industry, Coya-van Duijn said.
“Unfortunately, she never came back,” Coya-van Duijn said.
Human trafficking has been likened to modern-day slavery that subjects children, women and men to force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor, according to the UNICEF website (www.unicefusa.org). It can include prostitution, pornography and sex tourism, as well as labor for domestic service, factory or construction work, and migrant farming, the website states.
Large numbers of Dominican women and children are subjected to sex trafficking, according to the U.S. Department of State.
International Justice Mission reports 1 in 10 victims of commercial sexual exploitation in the Dominican Republic are children. The mission is a global organization that protects the poor from violence in the developing world. Its team includes lawyers, investigators, social workers, community activists and other professionals at work in nearly 20 communities.
Dealing with this personal tragedy inspired Coya-van Duijn to raise awareness about human trafficking.
“I do this in her honor,” said Coya-van Duijn, a member of the Flowery Branch church Prince of Peace’s Social Action Ministry team. “I do this because God calls on us to stand up and do something.”
Human trafficking doesn’t just happen in the shady back alleys of major cities such as Atlanta or third-world countries. It is cropping up in smaller cities such as Gainesville, Macon and Savannah.
Two years ago, three Gainesville residents were indicted in a human trafficking case involving a 4-year-old girl, according to an article published in The Times in 2013. All three were convicted and are serving life sentences. The victim, whose name was withheld, found a new home with adoptive parents.
“This is an everybody issue,” said Marissa Gunther, an outreach coordinator for Georgia Cares, a nonprofit that strives to raise awareness and help victims.
Noticing similar situations like these are becoming more common than rare, Gunther and other Georgia-based organizations are trying to raise awareness about the issue. Several individuals spoke about human trafficking during a Sept. 21 forum at Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Flowery Branch.
“It’s a huge issue, and it’s in your backyard,” Mary Frances Bowley said.
Bowley is the founder of Wellspring Living, a nonprofit dedicated to helping human trafficking victims. She has dedicated her life to helping rehabilitate victims and finding the answer to one question.
“How are we going to stop this?” Bowley asked, looking at the audience.
A call to action
Georgia state Sen. Renee Unterman has taken steps to answer that question.
In 2009, she helped create Georgia Cares, a nonprofit that tries to help victims find the services they need to move on from their captivity and establish a new life.
Georgia Cares provides case management and mentoring to trafficked people, among other services.
The organization has received 655 calls on its hotline since January and 1,340 referrals since its creation in 2009. About half of the referrals came from the Atlanta metropolitan area, Gunther said.
Before the nonprofit was established, Unterman started fighting against the sex trade in the state legislature eight years ago. Her mission was to combat the weak human trafficking laws, but it was not an easy task.
At first, Unterman said fellow legislators laughed at her proposed changes or told her human trafficking didn’t exist.
But thanks in part to her Unterman’s diligence, laws on human trafficking have become stricter in the past decade.
Georgia is regarded as a leader in fighting human trafficking, Bowley said. But she added children younger than 18 who are affected by this criminal industry need to be the main focus.
“We are responsible for our children,” Bowley said.
Unterman got a first-hand look at the system she helped establish. Four weeks ago, the state senator helped save a victim from the hands of her traffickers.
A Romanian immigrant named George Pruteanu who Unterman had mentored and helped raise sent her a text message pleading for help. His neighbor’s best friend knew a 15-year-old girl who had run away from home.
Pruteanu told Unterman that she had lived on the street for a day and a half before she was picked up by traffickers. The girl was taken to a motel for a week in Stone Mountain, tried to escape her captors and was eventually successful. She ended up in a convenience store nearby and didn’t know what to do.
Pruteanu called Unterman for help.
“I said, ‘Well, I developed this system. I’ve written all these laws. I’ve educated all these people. I go all over the country talking about this. I help other states develop their system of care and how they can replicate what we’ve done in the state of Georgia. I’m going to see if it works,’” Unterman said.
Unterman picked up the phone and called Georgia Cares. A caseworker helped Unterman assess the situation and she told Pruteanu how to get the girl to safety.
Pruteanu went to the store and tried to help the girl, but she was hesitant to leave with him at first. Eventually the pair made it to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and met a nurse who helped place the girl into the system of care.
Pruteanu called Unterman to let her know that the girl was safe.
“I started crying,” Unterman said.
Dealing with the warning signs
The best way to eliminate human trafficking is to stop it before it starts by paying attention to the warning signs, Bowley said.
A history of sexual abuse, unexplained items, tattoos or branding and promiscuous social media content are warning signs of a human trafficking victim.
Those who suspect such cases are asked to call law enforcement, Lt. Christopher Rafanelli of the Gwinnett County Police Department told the attendees at the church forum.
“We’ll investigate,” Rafanelli said.
Once police become involved, they notice similarities among the girls and women who are trafficked.
More than 90 percent of trafficking victims have a history of sexual abuse, Gunther said.
“They want to feel wanted,” Gunther said.
If teens don’t feel wanted or loved, they may seek affection online, as Lambert High School junior Megha Sequeria explained at the church’s forum in South Hall County. She said social media adds to teenagers’ vulnerability, which makes them easy targets.
“Teens are vulnerable. (Traffickers) take advantage of that,” she said.
“Like any good predator, they’re going to find the weak prey,” he said.
Rafanelli works in the vice unit, which specializes in the handling of prostitution and human trafficking cases. He and other police officers rely on the public to inform them of situations in their communities, saying they can only do so much to stop the issue.
“The police department can’t be everywhere all the time,” Rafanelli said.
But officers can be instrumental in capturing and arresting traffickers.
Trafficking humans ranges from the sex industry to manual labor. Once someone is immersed in the system, it is difficult to almost impossible to get out, Rafanelli said.
Traffickers maintain control over their victims through debt bondage. Traffickers charge for every item their captives use, such as food, clothing, shelter and life essentials such as toilet paper.
“(It is so) they are unable to ever leave their captors,” said Mary de Chesnay, a professor and author of “Sex Trafficking: A Clinical Guide for Nurses.”
Sometimes the girls and women do not know how to fight back. And victims sometimes are never heard from again.
“These girls don’t have a voice,” Bowley said.
The problem is fueled by money. At least 35.9 million individuals are victims of human trafficking worldwide, with their captors making more than $32 million each year, de Chesnay said. She also believes the numbers are higher, since most trafficking cases are undocumented.
Dan DeVore, chairman of the Gwinnett County Human Relations Commission, said traffickers can make up to $38,000 a week.
“It’s the worst kind of slavery you can imagine,” DeVore said.
However, helping the trafficked victims proves daunting. The cost of rehabilitating, housing and deprogramming the victims is about $80,000 a year, Unterman said.
There are programs to help girls reintegrate into society. The Empowered Living Academy, an offshoot of the Wellspring organization, helps women ages 18 to 32 get their GED diplomas and secure jobs with career readiness courses.
Organizations such as Wellspring and Georgia Cares also exist to help spread awareness of this issue, but some residents are still ignorant.
Lisa Porter thinks more events like the forum should be held throughout Georgia to educate the public and raise awareness.
“It needs to be something we talk about,” Porter said.