Opinion: Long fight to end trafficking continues

The International Human Trafficking Institute’s “The Truth in Trafficking” billboard campaign focuses on disrupting and re-orienting the perception of predators. Photos by Emilie Steele/LEGEND
The International Human Trafficking Institute’s “The Truth in Trafficking” billboard campaign focuses on disrupting and re-orienting the perception of predators. Photos by Emilie Steele/LEGEND

Georgia’s movement to end human trafficking began in 2000 with legislation that made pimping and pandering children a felony. Until then, children as young as age 10 were arrested and detained for child prostitution, while predators trafficking and buying these children only faced a misdemeanor. There were no safe houses or therapeutic facilities. Instead, children remained in juvenile detention and returned to environments where they were often re-victimized.

In 20 years, we have moved forward with deliberate speed to change the course in our response to this scourge. Now, those who sell or buy children may be charged with a felony, our child welfare system recognizes that these victims are exploited, and there is a statewide response protocol for identified children. With these safety nets in place, we must now shift our attention to addressing the systemic issues which create vulnerability in children susceptible to trafficking, and enforcing the laws to punish those who sell and buy these children as commodities.

In 2018, the International Human Trafficking Institute, an initiative of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, convened the Metropolitan Coalition to End Human Trafficking. This multi-sector coalition is comprised of private, public, education, multi-faith, civic, nonprofit and philanthropic entities from the City of Atlanta, Clayton, Cobb, DeKalb, Douglas, Fulton, Gwinnett, and Paulding counties. We believe our coordinated response strengthens the safety net for our children and helps human trafficking-proof our communities.

These are our learnings to date:

  • Training is a critical tool in the fight to end human trafficking: To date, we've trained almost 19,000 people out of our 50,000-person goal. They're trained to recognize signs of human trafficking, and what to do when they see it. Those trained include school personnel, public health workers, middle school, high school and college youth, and faith and community groups.

  • Boys are victims as well. The 2018 Metro Atlanta Homeless Youth Count found that 74% of homeless boys were trafficked. We need gendered interventions and services for males and LGBTQI youth.
  • Labor trafficking occurs here in our communities: There are a number of schemes where vulnerable persons are exploited in plain sight. For example, children selling items on street corners, in parking lots, and door to door, are earning pennies on the dollar of their sales, and often subject to physical punishment if they don't reach their daily quota. The Polaris Project found that these sales crews are the second-highest reported form of labor trafficking in the United States.
  • Those who are creating harm are not held accountable: Even though laws exist to hold those who sell and buy our youth culpable, predators who create the market demand are rarely arrested and convicted. Shared Hope USA found that 24% of men who were arrested and convicted of buying sex with a child did not spend a day in jail. The number of repeat predators who never get arrested or brought to trial is much higher. If there is strong public will to arrest and convict predators, the business model of child sexual exploitation is disrupted. Be mindful that these predators are persons we interact with every day in our places of work, worship or community.

As a native Atlantan, born during the height of the American Civil Rights Movement, I saw collective action that created social change. Now is the time to make ending labor and sexual exploitation our urgent mandate.

Deborah Richardson is executive director of the International Human Trafficking Institute. She has testified before Congress, opened the first safe house for exploited girls in the Southeast, coordinated national campaigns to end online trafficking platforms, and continues a 20-year quest to change laws, policies and hearts to end the trafficking of persons.

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