Geoff Rogers is co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking or USIAHT. CONTRIBUTED

How this nonprofit is decreasing the demand for sex

I think now about the girl we called Anna.

When she shared her story with me in 2005, she was 18 and known more or less for having helped prosecutors break one of Atlanta’s most notorious child prostitution rings.

Anna’s entry into the world’s oldest profession began when she was just 12 years old and dreaming of becoming a hairdresser. Then a friend introduced her to a man who promised her jewelry and clothes.

January 19, 2019

Instead of fixing hair, Anna was made to work for Andrew “Batman” Moore, a pimp who put out his cigarettes on her back and tied her to a bed for weeks without food to force her into prostitution.

Just as he was about to ship her out of town to do his business, Anna’s aunt found her and convinced her she didn’t have to live that way.

In 2001, Anna testified against Moore in the first of a dozen cases brought against men peddling children for sex.

Moore went to prison. Anna, the name given to her to protect her identity during public appearances, reclaimed her life, eventually graduating from college.

It’s a story that ends well except for one thing. The men who paid to rape Anna were never made to suffer the consequences of their actions.

That’s the side of sex trafficking we seldom, if ever, hear about, but that breach of justice is the norm in thousands of trafficking cases, said Geoff Rogers, co-founder and CEO of the nonprofit U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking or USIAHT.

RELATED: Ever tried to imagine what it’s like to be exploited for sex?

Rogers estimates that well over 100,000 kids are trafficked for sex every day in America. That’s 100,000 American kids being raped by American citizens. And they aren’t just girls. Conservative estimates are that 10 to 15 percent of trafficked children are boys. Some put that number closer to 50 percent.

“The truth is we don’t know, and we can’t know, the exact number,” Rogers said. “But from what we’re seeing, we know it’s a lot.”

And we know the buyers — call them johns if you prefer — who are the fuel in this fire are rarely held accountable. Instead, they disappear back into their families, their jobs, their communities. That is until the next kid comes along.

Bob Rodgers, CEO of the nonprofit Street Grace, has been fighting since 2009 to put a stop to the demand in metro Atlanta. I’ll tell you more about that in a future column.

Meanwhile, police announced Friday 200 people, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, face charges in connection with a massage parlor prostitution sting in Jupiter, Florida. Kraft has denied the allegation.

Just days after Atlanta hosted Super Bowl LIII, which included Kraft’s Patriots, when sex trafficking seemed to capture our collective attention, USIAHT’s Rogers and I talked about this oft-forgotten fact — the johns.

After 15 years of working in tech, Rogers, a former IBM vice president, said God had other plans for his life, and so in 2013, he and his wife decided to launch a production company. Through this journey, they were introduced to the topic of human trafficking and knew the religious community needed to respond to what was happening to our children.

Together, they began production of “Blind Eyes Opened,” a documentary about the truth of sex trafficking in America through the mouths of survivors.

“We thought it would be a year-and-a-half-long project, but we’re just now completing the film this month,” he said. “It will be released in theaters later this year.”

RELATED: Super Bowl security: 33 arrested on sex-trafficking charges

While making the film, Rogers met Kevin Malone, former general manager of the Dodgers. The two of them began asking why, with thousands of nonprofits in the fight against trafficking in the U.S., were we losing the battle.

They decided focusing on ending the demand for sex trafficking might do the trick.

Together, they created USIAHT, and began working to identify the best practices at the community level and helping replicate those.

Seattle, Rogers said, had been focused on fighting demand and, over a three-year period, had seen a 30 percent reduction in one of the measures they were using to measure demand.

“The key to the program and the profound thing we learned from them is it’s necessary to have every sector of society firing away at this problem at the same time and focused on reducing demand,” Rogers said.

The men took what they learned from Seattle and created the TraffickingFree Zone program, a national initiative much like the drug-free zones of the 1970s that made the penalty for selling drugs in certain locations so high that dealers chose not to take the risk.

Instead of selling at schools, parks and churches, they sell their wares elsewhere.

RELATED: Atlanta superintendent: Super Bowl to ‘super-size’ risk of child sex trafficking

“We have three areas of critical focus,” Rogers said. “Fighting the demand is one of them. At the same time, we’re also focused on victim services and recovery.”

Each week, Gracie Bonds Staples will bring you a perspective on life in the Atlanta area. Life with Gracie runs online Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Fridays.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

It starts with collaboration between community leaders, law enforcement, businesses, schools, and health care organizations and educating them to first recognize trafficking and then report it.

Rogers said that nearly 90 percent of human trafficking victims report that they’ve been in contact, for instance, with a health care provider at some point during their ordeal.

Training law enforcement to recognize women in prostitution as victims instead of criminals, and stricter punishment for buyers are also key. Not only does it encourage businesses to institute human resource policies that make buying sex the same as buying or using drugs, it provides resources for those who are trafficked and rehabilitation for those who buy sex.

The program also has a technology component that uses online advertising and social media campaigns to reach both online sex buyers and potential victims.

Intercept bots, which pose as individuals being sold for sex, collect buyers’ information and pass it on to law enforcement. Messages are also sent to potential victims using phone numbers collected from ads of those being advertised for sex online.

“In the four months since we’ve been doing this, we’ve had over 3,700 men and women click through those ads to the get help page,” Rogers said. “It shows there is a significant number out here that need help.”

As bad and as widespread as trafficking is, I rarely see as many story pitches about the issue as I do in January and when there are huge sporting events like the Super Bowl.

That’s too bad because kids are being raped for profit in an organized way every single day in every single community in this country.

Maybe TraffickingFree Zones is our answer.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.

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