Ballot initiative Safe Harbor Yes is vitally important for getting victims the help they need.
A favorite annual event that I attend as part of the Georgia Commission on Women is DMST Lobby Day at the State Capitol. Lobby Day is hosted each February by Street Grace, Georgia Cares, and Wellspring Living, organizations that are on the front line in getting Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (DMST) victims the help they need. The day always starts with a press conference in The Historic Freight Depot right down the street from the Capitol before we head up to the Gold Dome to deliver messages to our state senators and representatives. Purple scarves show our solidarity and stand out in the sea of business suits in the halls of the Capitol. You really cannot miss us.
Energy and enthusiasm permeate the place as 500 or so men and women take their seats. This is a dedicated bunch of advocates, and their hard work has paid off mightily over the past few years. Last year was particularly exciting because shortly after we got to the Depot, we learned that one of “our” bills was to be debated and voted on that morning in the Senate. I wrote about that experience here. It was so cool to look around the Senate gallery at the purple scarves on the advocates as supporting senators in the same scarves stood up to speak in favor of the bill.
This year’s DMST Lobby Day was a celebration of seven great years of success. We now have organizations in place, like the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council’s Statewide Human Trafficking Task Force, that bring together law enforcement, advocacy groups, government entities, and others to coordinate the fight against human trafficking and provide aid to victims. Julianna McConnell and I are privileged to serve on this task force as representatives of the Georgia Commission on Women. The CJCC Human Trafficking Task Force had only a dozen members in 2009 and now boasts more than 100 members from government, community groups, law enforcement, and more. Through generous donations, victim aid groups like Wellspring Living have increased the number of beds available for residential services, and outreach efforts have increased the number of victims reported through Georgia Cares. The safety net is working.
Lobby Day was also a rally to get us ready for our biggest challenge yet—the passage of Safe Harbor Yes in November. Thanks to the General Assembly, Georgia voters have the opportunity to vote on a constitutional amendment to create a Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund, which will be on the ballot in November. Convicted sex traffickers will be required to pay fines into this fund and certain businesses with close ties to the sex trade will pay a tax into the fund as well. Groups who work closely with DMST victims will have access to these monies to provide the services victims so desperately need.
The cost of helping victims is high. GBI Director Vernon Keenan shared with us last year that it costs an average of $90,000 per child to get them everything they need to get back on their feet. Traffickers use drugs to ensnare many of their victims, so substance abuse services are needed immediately in many cases. Many children have had their educations interrupted and need GED classes and job training. They need extensive counseling to help deal with the trauma they have experienced. With more than 350 DMST victims reported last year, it is vitally important that Georgia voters approve Safe Harbor Yes when they go to the polls in November.
This ballot initiative is the culmination of years of advocacy by Georgia citizens, churches, and non-profit groups. Street Grace and other sponsors held the first DMST Lobby Day at the Georgia Capitol in 2009, and fewer than 25 people attended. Those twenty-five advocates, who were passionate about ending human trafficking in Georgia, launched a movement that has catapulted our state to the forefront of the fight to end human trafficking across the nation.
Seven years later, those numbers have swollen to around 500 advocates who come in person to DMST Lobby Day each year. They come from all over Georgia—by buses, church vans, and carpool groups. I saw teenagers, college students, and many retirees walking the halls of the Capitol in their purple scarves this year. They come to be a part of the legislative process and to show by their numbers that Georgians want human trafficking eradicated in our state.
The successes of the movement to end human trafficking have been a combination of old-fashioned grass roots organizing and dogged determination to get bills passed. A supporter of DMST Lobby Day from the very beginning, Senator Renee Unterman (R-Buford) has kept human trafficking on the radars of her fellow legislators, and over the years, a bi-partisan coalition has picked up her message as well. Last year 206 senators and representatives supported legislation to help victims and punish offenders.
State leadership on DMST legislation and enforcement has followed two tracks. Legislators have worked to strengthen laws against trafficking, increasing penalties and jail time for convicted traffickers and raising the statute of limitation for these crimes. Attorney General Sam Olens has focused on combatting the demand side of human trafficking going after both buyers and sellers, and his “Georgia’s Not Buying It” initiative and ad campaign have become a template for success that other states are following. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is active on the CJCC Task Force and in training law enforcement officers across the state. Director Keenan is a staunch supporter of victims and works tirelessly each year to keep elected officials informed of what his department is seeing regarding human trafficking in the state.
The leadership has also focused on assisting victims. A major initiative in helping children caught in DMST has been to ensure that the law treats them as victims of a crime and not as criminals, and all legislation that has come out in the past few years reflects this. This was a big shift. Before, DMST victims arrested for prostitution found themselves in the court system instead of treatment facilities, leaving with a criminal record that followed them around for the rest of their lives. A re-write of the Juvenile Justice Code in 2014 fixed this and sealed the records of juveniles convicted on prostitution charges.
Legislators amended mandated reporter statutes to include child sexual exploitation as a reportable abuse. In 2013, they passed a law requiring certain businesses—including hotels, transportation hubs, and adult entertainment venues—to post the human trafficking hotline number so victims will know where to get help. Both of these initiatives resulted in more referrals to aid agencies that assist victims.
The state budget in 2010 included funding for community interventions including the training of law enforcement officers on Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC). Before 2009, less than 15 law enforcement officers were trained in handling CSEC cases. Now Georgia has more than 7,000 trained law enforcement officers ready to assist human trafficking victims.
Last year, 2015, was a watershed year for anti-human trafficking legislation in Georgia. With the passage of the Safe Harbor/Rachel’s Law, the state increased the penalties for human trafficking. A big addition to those penalties includes a requirement that convicted traffickers register with the state as sex offenders. The law also extends protections for victims by allowing them to bring civil charges against their traffickers until they are 25 years old. The legislature passed a companion bill, Senate Resolution 7, which puts a state constitutional amendment on the November 2016 ballot to create the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund. This fund will help victims get the medical and counseling services they need to put their lives back together.
All these efforts have brought us to this moment where people across the state have the power to stand up and be a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves. Georgia voters have the opportunity to join the General Assembly, Attorney General, GBI Director, and advocates across the state in the campaign to end human trafficking in Georgia. There are lots of ways you can help us be successful in November. You can go to Safe Harbor Yes and sign the pledge. You can become an advocate for DMST victims by sharing information about the ballot initiative on your own social media sites. You can vote Safe Harbor Yes in November.
Join us in the fight to #EndDMST in Georgia!
Karla Jacobs is a member of the Georgia Commission on Women. She lives in Marietta with her husband, two kids, a dog, and assorted fish.