The little girl was just 10 years old when she walked into the courtroom, her hands cuffed in front of her and her ankles shackled.
She’d been found in the back of a van with a 42-year-old man who had rented her for sex for two hours. Because pimping and pandering a child was still considered a misdemeanor in Georgia, he was given what was the equivalent of a $50 traffic citation and set free. The little girl was made to spend three days in juvenile detention.
Deborah Richardson couldn’t believe her eyes.
It’s anyone’s guess what happened to the little girl after that day, but all these years later, she still lives in Richardson’s memory.
“I’ve held her in my heart for 20 years,” Richardson said.
As director of program development for the Fulton County Juvenile Court back then, it wasn’t all that unusual for Richardson to witness such injustice, but this case would set her, Judge Nina Hickson and a group of other women on a course to raise awareness in the community and identify other metro Atlanta girls who were being trafficked for sex.
“Up until that time, the U.S. State Department was only categorizing trafficking as those who had been brought into the country for that purpose, but there were girls already here who were being trafficked,” Richardson said. “We started organizing women in the community, and within 16 months, we’d gotten the law changed that made pimping and pandering a child a felony, and we raised $1 million to open the first safe house for girls in the Southeast.”
That was 20 years ago. Twenty years and sex trafficking is still big business here.
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And so it wasn’t surprising, Richardson said, that when the city won its bid to host the Super Bowl, the problem became a topic of conversation again. For all the wrong reasons. Chief among them was the belief that the game is a magnet for human trafficking.
“That really isn’t true,” Richardson told me.
Atlanta is a hotbed for human trafficking, she said, because such events, from the Super Bowl, to the SEC Championship, the Final Four, and frequent large conventions, happen here 365 days a year.
Richardson should know. She’s executive director of the International Human Trafficking Institute, an initiative of the Center for Civil and Human Rights to raise awareness about trafficking and end it.
Early this year, the institute convened about 150 stakeholders from local businesses, churches, government agencies and civic organizations to develop a comprehensive plan to reduce trafficking in metro Atlanta. The result was a three-year plan launched in June.
“Our big goal is to train 50,000 people to recognize human trafficking,” Richardson said. “If we have that many people aware, we’ll have eyes and ears all over metro Atlanta, and it will no longer occur under this cloak of anonymity. We believe that by having this critical mass not only aware, but begin to expand the conversation that we will be able to change the culture so that the market that drives trafficking demand is no longer acceptable.”
We’ve talked a lot about sexual exploitation of children in Atlanta, and there’s no denying that’s a problem. A big one. But the majority of people trafficked, Richardson said, are for labor purposes. They are creating products we use in our homes and consume every day. Flowers harvested by Colombian women for limited wages and in unsafe conditions. Chocolate produced using abusive child labor. And nail and hair salons that force young women to work for free.
“It’s all around us, but we don’t see it because it’s hidden in plain view,” Richardson said.
At the very mention of chocolate, I was horrified. As much as 60 percent of the world’s cacao production is made possible by abusive child labor.
I promise you I will boycott any chocolate supplier who refuses to certify its products as free of coercive labor practices, child labor, and human trafficking.
Richardson told me there’s a website — slaveryfootprint.org — that will tell me just how many slaves I own as a result of my chocolate habit and other consumer products that I routinely buy. I don’t want to know, but I will not buy from companies that make money off the backs of children. You shouldn’t either.
That’s one thing we can do, but here’s another. Show up Oct. 13 at the Center for Civil and Human Rights. The International Human Trafficking Institute will host a “20 Minute Journey Through the Lives of Human Trafficking Victims.”
Stations with simulated trafficking situations will be set up so you and I can experience what it’s like when a person is being trafficked for labor or sexual exploitation. By people seeing and hopefully feeling the degradation it causes, Richardson believes the practice will become less sanitized and we will be more likely to report it.
As the three-year campaign slogan goes: Learn something. See something. Do something.
“In the South, we have a history of chattel slavery, and human trafficking is the modern-day form of slavery in which vulnerable people are stripped of their dignity,” Richardson said. “It’s a 21st-century repeat of what happened in the 18th century. Just as in that period, there were people who fought against it; there were those who wanted to continue it because they benefited from it.”
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