Trafficking victims fall through cracks of programs built on guesses, distortions

An Atlanta police officer took the teen to the station because she looked so young. She was trembling when he found her. She wasn’t wearing much.

The girl told investigators she was from Arkansas and her journey to the streets of Atlanta began when she climbed into the car of a relative’s boyfriend. Mariece Sims and another man drove her to a Texas hotel room and raped her, she said.

They left for Mississippi, where Sims told her to make money by having sex with men at a truck stop, court records said. In Atlanta, he told her to do it again. He hit the girl when she did not make enough or tried to escape.

In the nine years since this girl walked the streets, the public has been told over and over again that hundreds of girls in metro Atlanta meet her same fate every night. It’s why this area is notorious as one of the nation’s worst human trafficking hubs.

That reputation ignited a decade of efforts against what is described as modern-day slavery. Now it is cause célèbre. Nonprofits, religious groups and celebrities have joined the crusade, and politicians are pouring millions of tax dollars into the fight.

But an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that the initiatives are based on facts and figures that, while preached as gospel and enshrined in legislation, are guesses or distortions. Even the widespread belief that Atlanta is one of the nation's child exploitation capitals stands on shaky ground. In this information vacuum, government officials have created programs that promise to find and help victims, but too often don't.

The AJC found:

• Agencies have failed to keep accurate information that could tell them whether taxpayer-funded initiatives have been effective. Participants in a $1 million program did not record basic information such as why a victim was in the system.

• State-backed attempts to track trafficking trends were not designed to be scientific, and national estimates are widely discredited.

• There is little proof that initiatives bring a significant percentage of traffickers to justice. Special sweeps by local and federal task forces have turned up few exploiters. Clients of a state program to combat the commercial sexual exploitation of children cooperated in only four convictions in its first two years.

• The program’s clients struggle under its care. One-third of girls it took in during its first two years returned to prostitution, some coaxed back by their pimps. More than half of those placed in safe homes in fiscal year 2011 ran away.

Despite the flaws, trafficking opponents have made some significant strides, and each rescued child is a victory.

“Atlanta and Georgia really are in the forefront of the U.S.,” said Kaffie McCullough, deputy director of youthSpark, a Fulton County juvenile justice nonprofit that fights child sex trafficking.

The legal system now takes the crime seriously. The Legislature passed tough laws, and Georgia established a statewide system to help girls who are victims of commercial sexual exploitation, noted former Fulton juvenile court judge Nina Hickson, who is credited with starting Atlanta’s movement.

“I’m not totally saying these have all been successes. There have been disappointments. But a lot of good work is being done by a lot of good people,” said Hickson.

They face long odds, Hickson and others said. Programs close within years because funding dries up. Inexperienced decision makers ignore the advice of front-line workers. Victims dodge police by calling their pimps their “boyfriends” and are beaten when they try to leave.

Yet independent experts and federal authorities say that problems here and in other communities run deeper. Poor accountability and bad data hobble the effort.

David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center, cautions against using any of the estimates to make policy.

“The data are very poor, and are not really to be relied upon for any conclusion,” he said.

‘Facts’ really estimates

Atlanta’s anti-trafficking movement coalesced around the image of a 10-year-old girl, her ankles in shackles. It was November 2000, and the runaway was in juvenile court accused of prostitution. She was being kept in detention because there was nowhere else for her to go.

A series of stories in the AJC described how she and other girls sat in jail while their adult pimps went free. The problem was dire, and child advocates asked the Justice Department for money.

Nationally “an estimated 300,000 victimized children” were “living on the streets,” the Juvenile Justice Fund, now known as youthSpark, said in an application for federal funds.

Over the years, trafficking activists have repeated this and other grim statistics to decision-makers and before ballrooms full of potential donors and volunteers.

In 2005, the FBI added Atlanta to its list of 14 field offices with the highest incidence of child prostitution or trafficking. An FBI official testifying in Washington, D.C. cited law enforcement intelligence as well as information from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

A study commissioned by a local anti-trafficking campaign came up with another bleak figure. Research firm The Schapiro Group reported that 251 underage girls were being trafficked in Georgia in August 2007. Researchers cautioned, though, that the actual count could be closer to 400.

The Governor’s Office for Children and Families agreed to take over funding for the research. From 2009 through this spring, it paid The Schapiro Group nearly $245,000 to produce a regular count, which varied between 200 and 500. The results appeared on the agency’s website.

Now these alarming numbers appear in pamphlets, recent state legislation, and even on an anti-trafficking-themed tote bag passed out at a recent forum.

“240 Girls Were Trafficked in Georgia Yesterday,” the bag warns.

But a detailed look at the numbers shows that the most widely-used facts and figures are crude estimates, unsubstantiated, or inaccurate.

An FBI spokesman declined to explain why Atlanta is a top trafficking city.

Atlanta’s size and location may well mean the metro area plays a big role in the trade, experts said. But while the FBI official said information from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children helped the FBI develop its list, a center spokeswoman said it does not issue rankings.

In the absence of hard numbers, news articles and advocacy groups have claimed the title of the nation’s human trafficking capital for Wichita, Kan., Toledo, Ohio, and Baton Rouge, La.

Some widely-used “facts” about the scope of trafficking misinterpret actual estimates.

For instance, the claim that 300,000 minors are victims of commercial, sexual exploitation in the U.S. misquotes a 2001 estimate by University of Pennsylvania researchers.

Their report said that on the high side, these children are at risk – not actual victims. This includes runaways, children living in public housing and female gang members. Critics warn the estimate may double-count kids who are part of multiple risk groups.

The study’s authors emphasized they did not conduct a head count, and a better estimate would require more research.

Other estimates of U.S. child victims range from fewer than 2,000 to more than 2 million. The gap is so wide the numbers mean next to nothing.

“Somewhere between there is the truth, but we don’t know where,” said Mary A. Finn, a professor at Georgia State University and lead author of a report evaluating a major Atlanta anti-trafficking effort.

Figures on the trade’s profitability and victims’ average age have similar problems, yet officials continue to use them.

“They gain a life of their own,” said Ronald Weitzer, a George Washington University professor and expert on sex trafficking. “They’re repeated, recited and reproduced by the media and commentators and pretty soon become conventional wisdom, although the claims are way beyond what is warranted.”

As for the Governor’s Office for Children and Families findings on child exploitation, scholars say they are fundamentally flawed. Basic rules of research require that findings be verifiable and replicable.

These results aren’t. The Schapiro Group released some, but not all, of its methodology to the AJC, saying it was proprietary.

The firm estimated the number of victims by surfing ads on the website Craigslist, driving through high-prostitution neighborhoods, calling escort services and sitting in hotel lobbies counting what its observers think are underage call girls.

It multiplies that count by 0.38. Firm President Beth Schapiro said that’s because her company’s research showed that, conservatively, observers accurately guess a female in a sexually suggestive photo is underage about 38 percent of the time.

These reports are a waste of taxpayer money, Weitzer said. The methodology is a guessing game.

“If I showed that report to anyone here in my department, they would laugh,” he said.

Numbers have power

Yet these numbers have incredible power. The Schapiro Group’s count transformed child sex trafficking into a statewide crusade.

In 2001, Georgia legislators changed state law to make the pimping of a child a felony instead of a misdemeanor. Most headway took place on the local level.

Angela’s House, one of the nation’s residential treatment homes for trafficked girls, opened in 2002. The six-bed safe house launched with $1 million in private and state funds.

Two years later, the Juvenile Justice Fund won a $1 million grant to raise awareness and to overhaul responses by service agencies and law enforcement.

In 2005, Atlanta’s then-mayor Shirley Franklin issued a thick research report outlining the problem. She followed up with the launch of the “Dear John” campaign to target johns and boost enforcement.

But the release of the Schapiro Group’s 2007 data changed everything, said state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, a supporter of tougher laws against child prostitution.

“That’s when I could go to the floor of the Senate and say, ‘Did you know that 400 children are being prostituted on the streets of Atlanta?’” Unterman said.

In 2008, the Legislature created a commission to study the commercial sex trafficking of children. Legislation passed in 2009 added child prostitution to the forms of abuse teachers and others must report to authorities. That same year, the Governor’s Office for Children and Families opened the Georgia Care Connection Office to coordinate victim treatment and other services.

It was “the nation’s first statewide response to address the needs of child sex trafficking victims,” a 2010 news release said.

Legislators toughened laws once more in 2011 and placed the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in charge of child sex trafficking investigations.

On Dec. 6, Unterman and about a dozen lawmakers from other states took the cause to the White House. President Obama’s policy advisers wanted to know what they could do to help.

Reality is messy

The well-publicized advances belied a messy reality. Mobilizing money and resources proved far easier than creating programs that find and help the exploited.

Six nationwide anti-human trafficking sweeps dubbed “Operation Cross Country” recovered nine child victims in and around Metro Atlanta in six years, according to news accounts and FBI press releases.

Angela’s House closed when it came under new management. Funding and referrals dried up, and the new provider felt the beds weren’t needed because other safe houses had opened.

At a Dec. 21 legislative committee meeting on human trafficking, Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter complained that after years of efforts, policymakers know far less about the problem than they should. While The Schapiro Group’s figures indicate the crime is widespread, Porter said, his office rarely sees cases.

“We really haven’t embarked on a process of finding out what we’re dealing with,” Porter said.

It’s unclear how many victims were helped by the $1 million awarded in 2004 to the Juvenile Justice Fund.

The program began because “serious overlaps and gaps” were causing children to fall through the cracks, advocates told the U.S. Department of Justice in a grant application.

One goal was to fill information gaps that keep victims from getting needed care and protection, the grant proposal said. Participating agencies would meet regularly and install a case tracking database for victims of child sex trafficking and other abuse.

Many fissures, however, remained, according to a $450,000 federally-funded evaluation by Georgia State University researchers. Key agencies such as the Division of Family and Children Services failed to enter basic data into the system.

Of 50 victims recorded in the child abuse database, only one entry said whether the pimp was arrested. Of the 54 clients of Angela’s House, 29 were not in the database.

The agencies said they had other priorities. Human trafficking was rare compared to child beatings, sex abuse and neglect cases, said Finn, the evaluation report’s lead author.

“We found it was not even in the front fore lobe of their consciousness. They had to struggle to remember the last time a kid they saw brought this up,” Finn said.

Whether the program improved victim care remained a mystery. There wasn’t enough information, the report said.

Deborah Richardson, now executive vice president of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, was executive director of the Juvenile Justice Fund. She said gathering information was not its central goal.

“That was never the intent of the project,” she said. “It really was about system change.”

The change wasn’t enough for victims.

Their parents and guardians reported that police and courts were helpful. So was the counseling. But it did not stop the children from dropping out of school or running away.

The teens wondered whether their futures were any brighter.

“In general, there was no clear sense of whether or not youth felt that they had ‘gotten better’ or that they were somehow at the end of a process,” the evaluation report said.

Help often lacking

Years later, it’s still not clear victims are getting better or that the government response has improved.

The Georgia Care Connection Office’s goal is to help underage girls who are commercially sexually exploited, but its own data show a majority of its referrals were not victims at all.

The office reported that it received 400 referrals during its first three years of operation. About 190 were victims. That is fewer than six per month.

About 40 children were only “at risk” of becoming prostitutes. Yet they still joined the caseload of the seven-person office. The rest were referred to other agencies or did not complete screening.

The help it did give to victims often fell short, according to a 2011 evaluation the office commissioned.

During the office’s first two years, about 35 percent of its 136 clients, all female, returned to prostitution while they were receiving state help.

Thirty-eight were arrested, some more than once. Twelve became pregnant.

Pimps were rarely brought to justice. Written statements from eight victims led to charges. Only four exploiters were convicted, the report found.

Katie Jo Ballard, executive director of the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, cancelled an interview to discuss the program’s performance. She stopped responding to repeated requests by email, telephone and in person to comment.

The evaluation report did contain success stories. One client ran away from a safe house, returned to her exploiter, became pregnant and got arrested. But with help of the office, it said, she returned to treatment, continued her education and reunited with her parents.

“Without the focused approach of GCCO, the hard-earned progress noted in this report would not exist,” the report said.

Experts who help women leave prostitution recognize that small victories are rare.

At the GCCO, even the most dedicated clients stumbled as they tried to leave their old lives, said Katrina Owens, a trafficking survivor who worked for two years as a peer support worker.

The program directed survivors to mental health services, but exploiters remained free. They called the girls relentlessly or knocked on their doors, Owens said.

Some teens could not get needed help because their parents could not afford it. Others lacked transportation to attend programs that they could afford.

Girls balked at applying to college because their criminal histories could make them ineligible for federal financial aid. They failed to find work, and the cost of books was so high they were tempted to pay for them through stripping or prostitution, Owens said.

She left the program after two years. Though civic groups lined up to ask her to speak at luncheons and fund-raisers as statewide interest in sex trafficking climbed, she was becoming a token survivor, not someone with growing expertise.

“I feel the … movement here has become somewhat of a fad,” Owens said. “That’s the truth. Once the dust settles, I’m curious to know who will still be standing up for the cause.”

Meet the reporter

Willoughby Mariano started at the AJC in 2010 as a reporter for the PolitiFact Georgia team. Previously, she worked for the Orlando Sentinel in Florida, where she covered criminal justice and wrote a blog that chronicled the lives of those affected by years of record-breaking murder rates. She is co-winner of a National Headliner Award in investigative journalism for her coverage of laborers at Orlando theme parks and hotels who worked under conditions that amounted to indentured servitude. She was born in Brooklyn, raised outside of Chicago, and lives in East Atlanta with her husband and cats.

How We Got the Story

AJC reporter Willoughby Mariano looked into evidence that Atlanta is a top human trafficking hub and discovered that it and other oft-repeated claims about the crime were unsubstantiated or incorrect. Documents revealed through freedom of information act requests and other reporting showed that anti-trafficking programs in Atlanta and across the nation struggle to find and help victims. She reviewed thousands of pages of internal government files, scholarly research, federal research reports, and court records for this story, and conducted dozens of interviews with lawmakers, academics, advocates, program organizers, members of law enforcement, and others.

About the Author