The Georgia Commission on Women has been involved in the issue of human trafficking for many years, so when Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols’s office asked us to assist with his “Unholy Tour of Atlanta,” we jumped at the chance to be involved. For the past three years, Commissioner Echols has hosted a bus tour for legislators and advocates through the parts of the city that are most notorious for human trafficking. Participants get to see firsthand the types of environments that breed trafficking activity, and local advocates and law enforcement officers tell the stories of the victims they help.
Kasey McClure, founder of the rescue group 4Sarah, leads the tour. Kasey, a former Gold Club dancer, felt the call to help other women get out of “the life” after she became pregnant with her first child. 4Sarah, which is named after Kasey’s daughter, is an outreach ministry that works inside Atlanta strip clubs to help women and girls transition out of the sex industry. They offer safe housing for women and their children to escape pimps, and they coordinate intervention programs to get women the help they need to begin a new life. The 4Sarah scholarship program funds GED courses and higher training so they can find a job.
Kasey was the perfect tour guide, and along with law enforcement officers from DeKalb County and Conyers, she put faces and stories to the dry statistics that shape public policy.
Around 5:30 pm on Wednesday, March 2, 2016 the Samson Trailways bus pulled up outside the Coverdell Legislative Office Building. Once on board, our first stop was the Greyhound bus station about six blocks from the Capitol. The bus station is often the first stop for girls and women who find themselves trapped in human trafficking. Some who step off the bus here are runaways. Some have been lured here by traffickers, and some are just looking for a fresh start and a new life in the ATL.
That new life is not always what the girls may have imagined. Magic City Gentleman’s Club, a hip-hop mecca and popular location to shoot rap videos, is right across the street. Kasey told us the bus station is often a pipeline directly into the club. The women get off the bus with little money in their pockets and find themselves in the sex industry almost immediately.
DeKalb Police Sergeants Torrey Kennedy and Hubert Brannon took the microphone and talked to us about how technology has changed sex trafficking in recent years. There are still streetwalkers, but the majority of prostitution solicitation is taking place online. Craigslist knockoffs that specialize in adult entertainment have sprouted up. Although they claim not to allow ads for illegal activity, those ads are there nonetheless, and they are prolific.
In fact, a teenager was rescued from sex traffickers as a direct result of last year’s Unholy Tour by using one of these websites. The girl’s grandmother saw the news segment about the tour on WSB-TV and contacted 4Sarah for help in locating her missing granddaughter. The rescue group got a picture of the girl and began combing the online ads. They found her listed on a website called Backpage in a matter of minutes. The girl’s ad said she was 22 years old, but really, she was just 14. Authorities were able to rescue her and reunite her with her family.
Our next stop was a quarter mile long dead end street in Decatur off Candler Road near I-20. On the right, we passed a rundown hotel with five or six DeKalb County police cars in the parking lot. A few hours earlier, DeKalb Police served a warrant for narcotics at the hotel. All the buildings around us were shabby, and it was clear the neighborhood had seen better days. Across the street was a $25 per night hotel that was notorious for attracting traffickers. Picture the seediest hotel you can think of, and you will have the idea. Sen. Renee Unterman told us that when they first came on the tour to this area three years ago, the hotel did not even have doors on the rooms. In front of the hotel parking lot was a sidewalk memorial. It was a white cross surrounded by a pile of teddy bears and stuffed animals. It was a big pile, probably 50-60 toys. The officers said it was for a recent shooting victim.
The street ended in an apartment complex. As the bus was turning around, there was a group of children playing in the road. They were no older than elementary school-age kids, and a couple were probably younger than that. They were riding bikes, skipping and jumping, just being kids. They were less than 100 yards away from where the drug bust had gone down.
I sat in my seat just shocked that on this street, that was less than 300 yards long—three football fields—we saw the scene of a narcotics bust, a seedy hotel known for human trafficking, a memorial to a shooting victim, and children playing.
A question came from the back of the bus asking what happens to the girls when they get pregnant. The police officer explained that the pimps want their girls to get pregnant, often forcing the girls to have unprotected sex with themselves or others. Pregnant girls are worth more because some johns will pay top dollar for a date with them. Once the babies are born, the pimps use the children as another way to control the girls and keep them in prostitution. They threaten to take away the children or hurt them if the moms do not obey.
Kasey told us about a girl they had rescued who was four months pregnant and had a six month old baby. Her pimp had forced her to work less than two weeks after giving birth. Just wrap your brain around that for a minute.
We made our way back toward Atlanta. It was dark by now. As we approached a streetlight on Glenwood Road, Kasey noticed a woman who looked like a streetwalker. She was crossing toward our side of the street, so the bus pulled over into a parking lot beside a convenience store. Kasey and 4Sarah Intervention Coordinator Ann Bailey got off the bus and gave the woman a “Rescue Bag.” They keep a supply of these bags filled with hygiene items, toiletries, and a pamphlet of information on where to go for help so that they have them available any time they spot a woman who might need one.
The exchange was very quick. If you did not know it was going on, you would have missed it. Kasey told us that the woman’s pimp was likely close by in a car keeping an eye on her. She said the smell of alcohol was rolling off the woman, which is not unusual. We learned drink, or something stronger, is what gets these girls through the night. She also pointed out other signs that trafficking was going on in the area—three guys were loitering at the corner of the convenience store keeping a look out, and cars were aimlessly cruising around.
After the exchange, Ann talked to us about what happens when they get a call to the hotline and need to get a girl out. When someone works up the nerve to call in, she has to be taken from her environment immediately, leaving with very few, if any, possessions. At best, she might be able to throw a few things in a garbage bag and go. Ann shared about a woman who literally left with nothing when she was rescued from her pimp. They took her shopping and got her some clothes, but the woman was most grateful for having new, clean underwear. Think about that. Think about being in a place in life where new, clean underwear makes an impact on you and how you feel about yourself.
Once out, 4Sarah takes the women and children to a safe house and begins the work of getting them into the needed programs. Eight of every ten women they rescue are addicted to something, most often meth, and before a program will be useful to them, the women have to go through detox. Rehab facilities have a limited number of beds, especially the facilities that are free. This means sometimes they have to resort to using the emergency room to begin the detox process. The hospital can hold the women for 48 hours, and if they are lucky, the women can get into a mental health facility for 7-10 days. Sometimes that is all they have—less than two weeks to get clean.
Conyers Police Department Captain Jackie Dunn spent some time talking to us about how human trafficking has come to the bedroom community of Conyers. We think of prostitution and red light districts as a big city problem. The Hollywood image of streetwalkers in micro miniskirts and pimps in outrageous hats is nowhere near reality. This is not Pretty Woman. Prostitution now looks like a Craigslist inspired website where you order a girl like you order a pizza. Conyers now has undercover police officers working vice just like their big city counterparts as well as agents posing as teenage girls working inside internet chat rooms to fight the demand side of trafficking.
We visited one of the large truck stops in the city toward the end of the tour. I have no idea where. By this point, I was feeling a little shell-shocked. Row after row of sleeper cab 18-wheelers filled the parking lot. According to Kasey, truck stops are a high traffic area for prostitution. Lot lizards, as the truckers call prostitutes, roam the parking lot looking for business.
Senator Renee Unterman, a key sponsor of human trafficking legislation, spoke about the evolution of human trafficking laws in Georgia. It has been a challenge to enact legislation that covers everything it needs to cover, and much of the current effort is focused on domestic minor sex trafficking. Many issues at the heart of human trafficking drive demand and exploit victims. Poverty, substance abuse, dysfunctional families, and inadequate education all leave women vulnerable to predatory traffickers. Opportunists, like the internet advertising websites, make exploiting women even easier.
One of my takeaways from the tour is the evil that human beings will do to other human beings does not seem to have any bounds. There are families and traffickers out there who are dealing in developmentally disabled children. These children make perfect victims—they are easy to control, and many do not even realize the adults are exploiting them. Thankfully, legislation is working its way through the General Assembly right now to protect these children.
Hearing how new information is constantly popping up on traffickers and victims, my friend leaned up between the seats and whispered, “This is like playing Whack-A-Mole with the devil.” I could not have said it better myself.
As the bus pulled back up to the Capitol around 7:30 pm or so, I felt completely wrung out, and when the lights on the bus came back on, I could tell I was not alone. There were moments on the tour when I did not know whether to cry or throw up. It was quiet as we filed off the bus back onto the sidewalk.
At the end of the night, I drove into my nice, middle class neighborhood in the suburbs. It was well after dark, and some of my neighbors were still out walking their dogs or exercising. It was quiet, no police cars, no loitering men, no strange cars prowling around.
I pulled into my garage and walked into a home where I am loved and cherished. My kids were squeaky clean from the shower and finishing up the last bit of homework. My husband was sitting on the sofa catching up on work emails. My dog greeted me at the door with her tail furiously wagging. I was happy and safe and at home with my people.
Later, I tucked the kids in bed, snuggled with them while they told me the highlights of their day, and kissed them goodnight. Then I sat in my room and finally cried. I cried for the women who are not cherished, who do not live in homes where they are loved and valued. I cried for the women whose children are conceived in violence and then used against them as chains to keep them in bondage. I cried for the women whose neighborhoods are so violent and dangerous that walking out their front door puts them at risk for assault or death.
Then I vowed to roll up my sleeves and get to work.
There are many ways you can get involved in helping human trafficking victims. You can learn about human trafficking and its impact in Georgia by visiting frontline organizations like Street Grace, Georgia Cares, Wellspring Living, and 4Sarah. Find out what projects they have going on, and sign up to help.
As always, I ask you to vote Safe Harbor Yes on the November ballot. This constitutional amendment will create a fund for providing services to children ensnared in human trafficking so they will have access to the help they need.
Together we can #EndIt.
Karla Jacobs is a member of the Georgia Commission on Women and the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council Statewide Human Trafficking Task Force. She lives in Marietta with her husband, two kids, a dog, and some fish.