A victim of human trafficking shares her story during a press conference at the Georgia State Capitol on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. Gov. Brian P. Kemp and First Lady Marty Kemp (center) joined Georgians for Refuge, Action, Compassion, and Education (GRACE) Commission members and special guests to announce legislative measures to combat human trafficking here. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Opinion: Ga. will persist in fighting human trafficking

Right now in Georgia, thousands of innocent lives are enslaved in human trafficking. The average age of these victims is 14 years old. This heinous, illegal enterprise exists in every Georgia community, fueled by profit-driven criminal networks – including street gangs – selling sex to johns from every walk of life and mercilessly exploiting the vulnerable. Victims are beaten, drugged, raped, and hidden in the shadows – right in your backyard.

Brian and I are determined to end human trafficking in our home state, once and for all.

Shortly after Brian’s inauguration last January, we launched the Georgians for Refuge, Action, Compassion, and Education (GRACE) Commission. By bringing together public officials, law enforcement, for-profit organizations, non-profit organizations, faith-based institutions, and subject-matter experts, we are raising awareness, working to disable legal and societal loopholes, and connecting with survivors to help them heal and hold their captors accountable.

Over the past year, I have traveled around the state to meet with dozens of survivors. These strong, courageous women have shared their stories and become dear friends. They did not deserve what happened to them; no human does. They were abused and robbed of their childhoods. Their scars will never fade. Sadly, there are thousands more across Georgia still trapped in this evil industry.

Recognizing that education and awareness are critical weapons in this battle, I collaborated with the Department of Administrative Services to develop human trafficking awareness training program for 80,000 state employees and the general public. By taking this half-hour video course, citizens can learn the signs of trafficking and how to report suspicious activity. We are creating an army of trained eyes – in urban, suburban, and rural Georgia – equipped with the right knowledge and tools to save lives.

Just last week, we were honored to host Ivanka Trump, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, and Trump administration officials at two local safe havens for survivors. We heard powerful testimony from courageous women once trapped in modern-day slavery.

Hearing from survivors, you quickly learn that some have been able to temporarily escape from the vicious cycle of human trafficking. However, for far too many, it is nearly impossible to leave the past behind and start anew. Left without viable options, vulnerable souls become easy targets, and the exploitation continues – unchecked. The time for change is now.

A few days ago, Brian and I unveiled new legislation to empower survivors. By changing state law, we will create new pathways for survivors to erase criminal arrests and convictions related to their victimization. We will force felons who committed dangerous sexual offenses – pimping, buying sex, or keeping a place of prostitution – to now register as sex offenders.

We will revoke someone’s commercial driver’s license and ban the driver for life if he or she is convicted of human trafficking and used a commercial motor vehicle to do it. We will close a loophole to ensure that foster parents cannot exploit children in their custody and claim “consent.” Yes – that is a real loophole.

With this legislation, we are showing the world that Georgians care about everyone who calls our state home — even those who feel invisible, even those who have no voice.

In the days, months, and years ahead, we will continue to back our words with action to make Georgia a safe haven for survivors, not abusers. We will not stop until every victim is rescued and every captor is brought to justice.

Marty Kemp is Georgia’s First Lady.

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