Trailblazers fighting human trafficking in Georgia

Hannah Palmquist (left), the Georgia Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit chief, works with Investigator Frances Reyes on the team that was founded in 2019.

Credit: Jason Getz

Credit: Jason Getz

Hannah Palmquist (left), the Georgia Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit chief, works with Investigator Frances Reyes on the team that was founded in 2019.

When Hannah Palmquist began the hiring process for the Georgia Attorney General’s new Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit, she said she was on the lookout for the most qualified applicants.

Five years later, that unit is now staffed predominantly by women, a fact Palmquist believes inspires other women to pursue any career regardless of whether it is traditionally dominated by men.

“As a leader, my philosophy was simply to pick the right people for the job, whether they were male or female,” Palmquist told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an exclusive interview during Women’s History Month. “I think it’s cool that it just happened to turn out that way.”

Palmquist, who previously worked as an assistant district attorney in DeKalb and Cobb counties, was hired to lead the unit when it was formed in 2019. It is comprised of eight women and three men working as investigators, analysts, prosecutors and victim advocates.

The unit welcomed its first female investigator, Frances Reyes, in 2021.

“I was extremely proud, I’m still very proud of that,” Reyes said. “It’s also giving everyone out there, if they ever want to become an investigator, an example that they could do it.”

Palmquist and Reyes came from opposite upbringings, with the former growing up surrounded by the cornfields of rural Minnesota and the latter among the chaos of Washington Heights in New York City. The two did not have friends or relatives involved in law. They both discovered their passion for it through television.

At the age of 6, Palmquist remembers intensely watching the O.J. Simpson trial and being drawn to its complexity. Reyes was consumed by “Cops,” one of the longest-running shows in the United States.

Palmquist later found herself in the computer lab of her high school researching “How to get into law school.” She graduated from Emory University School of Law in 2012.

While studying criminal justice at Herzing University, Reyes stumbled across a flyer at the Atlanta college advertising the police academy. She became a deputy in 2015 with the Rockdale County Sheriff’s Office. In 2017, she went to work at the DeKalb solicitor-general’s office in the special victims unit before joining the AG’s office.

Under Palmquist’s leadership, the human trafficking unit has achieved a 100% conviction rate. She attributes that success to the diligent work of team members like Reyes.

“Human trafficking is a difficult thing to spot because it’s beneath the surface,” Palmquist said. “You come across a kilo of cocaine, it is what it is. Human trafficking, you have to dig beneath the surface, you have to ask the right questions, you have to see the right signs. It’s more subtle. It’s harder to detect.”

Earlier this year, Attorney General Chris Carr told the AJC that the state is at the forefront nationwide in the fight against society’s abhorrent exploitation of individuals. In 2023, the trafficking prosecution unit rescued 129 victims and secured 29 convictions, building on the numbers from 2022 (116 victims saved, five convictions) and 2021 (107 victims saved, three convictions).

Palmquist has been training law enforcement and victim advocates on how to notice the signs. She has also been teaching prosecutors resourcefulness to help them present a cohesive story to a jury, which particularly comes in handy when a victim does not cooperate with authorities.

During the first case Palmquist tried with the AG’s office in 2021 in Cobb, she said the 16-year-old victim testified she was never trafficked. It’s not uncommon for victims to try to protect their trafficker out of fear, according to Palmquist, who instead found an expert witness to explain to the jury and judge the reasons behind such behavior.

“Despite the fact that that was the entirety of her testimony, we still got a conviction on all counts,” Palmquist said.

Since the majority of trafficking victims are women and children, Reyes said it can sometimes be easier for them to open up to a female investigator.

“These victims, they can see you in them,” Reyes said. “They feel equal, like, ‘Oh, she’s also a woman and I can relate to her.’ And I think that’s what’s most important: being able to relate to the victim and being able to provide the services that you know they might need.”

Victim testimony is just one piece of evidence that Reyes works to gather. Her duties also include speaking to witnesses, searching crime scenes for paraphernalia tied to trafficking, digging through phone records and other technology, identifying suspects and making arrests.

While uncovering evidence and going to court is particularly exhilarating for Reyes and Palmquist, they emphasized that one of the most rewarding aspects of their job is seeing victims’ relief when they are rescued and their trafficker goes to prison.

Palmquist said she feels a deep sense of pride for pushing herself to explore this type of career.

“No matter what environment you grew up in, no matter the circumstances, you can always do something different,” Palmquist said. “It’s OK to do something different than anyone around you.”