Georgia Commission on Women’s Statement on Voter Access

Free and fair elections are the cornerstone of our democracy whose power is in the voices of its people at the ballot box. Citizens in many Georgia communities have faced prohibitively long lines, some several hours long, at polling places throughout the state in recent elections, particularly in the Atlanta area. Myriad explanations have been offered including machine malfunction, closed polling places, lack of poll workers, and general disorganization. The time for finger pointing is over, and our leaders must focus on finding and implementing solutions by the November general election. The voting access issues in the primary election on June 9, 2020 must not happen again. The Georgia Commission on Women encourages the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, local Boards of Election, and the State of Georgia to work together to find solutions to ensure all Georgia voters have equal access to the ballot box.

Georgia Commission on Women’s Statement in Support of HB 426

We watched in sadness and horror as a young unarmed black man was gunned down while jogging in a local neighborhood in Brunswick. Our hearts are broken for Ahmaud Arbery’s mother, his family, and friends, and we are angered that he was targeted, harassed, and murdered. We are angered that justice was slow in coming.

We know that Georgia can be better than this. We must be better than this for our children’s sake. And we will continue to fight for a better future for all our neighbors. Black lives matter, and until we are all equal, until every one of us matters, we still have work to do.

This is why we are supporting the passage of Georgia HB 426 and urge our state senators to take up and pass the bill when the General Assembly reconvenes on June 15, 2020. Georgia is one of only four states that does not have a hate crime law on the books, and this is an important step in leading us toward a more equal Georgia.

We can’t do it alone. We encourage all Georgians to make their voices heard. Contact your state legislators and tell them how important it is that they stand strong on behalf of their constituents and support this bill. It has already passed the House and is awaiting a vote in the senate. It could be signed into law this year if we act now. Call or email your legislators’ offices and register your support for HB 426 with them.

If you are unsure whom your state senator and representative are, you can find them here. This site also includes a link to their office phone number and email address.

Autism, Nick’s Ongoing Journey

By Commissioner Tena Blakey, Nick’s Sister

On one cold rainy night at Hartsfield International Airport, I met my mom, stepfather and baby brother as they were coming out of the International Terminal. I was 25 years old and was/is very excited to be a big sister. You see, they had been in Russia for two weeks for a third time to adopt Nicholas. The rest of my family had never met Nicholas. Nicholas weighed 13 pounds, had a double ear infection, couldn’t rollover, didn’t sit up, and despised being in the prone position at nine months old.

Nick was the perfect baby. He didn’t cry, at all, for any reason. He was fine playing by himself in his crib or on the floor. He would entertain himself for long periods of time. After he was evaluated by Babies Can’t Wait Early Intervention Program it was determined Nick needed Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy and Speech Therapy. He wasn’t hitting most of the milestones a “typical” baby would.

Fast forward to age five when he was due to start school. Nicholas previously met his PT goals but continued OT and Speech in school. He had a wonderful school experience with caring teachers and administrators. Looking back, there were many signs that in addition to Nicholas’ therapies, there were other areas where he wasn’t “typical.” As a young child, Nick went through phases of obsessions. He would line up his matchbox cars by color. Nick also loved all things fire truck. He would line them up by several categories at the same time. One, they would have to be lined up by tanker or pumper truck, then by ascending numbers, then by size. Nick’s longest obsession that is still true today is with the Titanic and her sister ships. If you want to know anything about these ships, Nick can tell you.

In the third grade, my parents were referred to additional testing at the Marcus Institute of Autism at Emory. The school Psychologist determined Nick to have Autism through routine testing. At Marcus, their testing began. After weeks of driving back and forth from Gainesville, it was determined Nicholas had a diagnosis of Autism and Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. FAS, as it’s known, mirrors Autism in a lot of ways in addition to some physical characteristics.

Nicholas spent time in Special Education classes as well as inclusive classes all throughout his school career. He received a tremendous education and other opportunities throughout school. It is the other parts of being a child and going through school that he missed out on. Nick was never invited to a birthday party, sleepover (besides my house), prom and other activities that revolve around being social. He watched a YouTube video on how to play the Guitar. He taught himself in a couple of weeks. He also taught himself how to play the Ukulele, piano and drums. Once he has an “obsession” he will devote massive amounts of time day and night to mastering it. Nick set a goal when he was in the 9th grade to shoot 1000 half court basketball shots before he graduated. He would get to school early, stay late and even give up lunch since it is a social time for most students. Nick was on the North Hall High School basketball team as a “shooting coach” because he can’t dribble the ball well as this takes more coordination than what he can do. Nick was infamous at school for shooting his perfect 3-point shots as well as his half court shots. I am super proud to say Nick made his goal January 24, 2015. It was his senior night; both of the basketball team coaches had decided they were going to put Nick in the 4th quarter for one play. He went in, the ball was passed to him and he made a basket, and he made his 1000th half-court shot at halftime in front of all the spectators.

Nicholas has many characteristics of someone with an Autism diagnosis. Some of his behaviors mimic traditional defined behaviors. My brother Nick has Autism, but it doesn’t define him, limit his purpose, or hold him back from loving God or from God loving him.

Nick may never live alone without supports, cook a meal, manage finances or most activities that adults do, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a purpose. Nick has Autism and FAS but that’s not who Nick is. We all must push through and look past a diagnosis written on a page to see who people are, without judgment or preconceived notions of who they are. I read once, “because you meet someone with Autism only means you have met one person with Autism.”

Nick celebrated his 25th birthday April 2 which is also World Autism Awareness Day. He lives at home with our parents and attends a very small bible college two nights a week. Nick spends some weekends with us as a respite for our parents. My daughter Isabelle is 17 and son Braxton is 15. They have grown up with Uncle Nick. One day when Braxton was around nine he was in the kitchen with me. He asked, “What happens to Nick when Mimi and Pops are in heaven?” To this I responded, “Nick will come live with us, and we will take care of him.” Braxton pondered this for a few minutes and said, “What will happen to Nick when you and daddy are in heaven?” To this I responded, “I am not sure buddy, why all the questions?” Braxton quickly said, “Don’t worry mama; I will take care of Nick.” Even as a nine-year-old he knew we would take care of Nick as he probably wouldn’t be able to live alone without supports. The lack of activities of daily living skills still does not define who Nick is, what his purpose is nor what’s to become of his future. Nick has never been employed and his plans for ministry are a dream, his dream and one he is focused on achieving. I have no doubt Nick will be laser focused on achieving this just as he was with lining up his firetrucks or learning to play instruments.

Autism facts from the Autism Speaks website:

  • In 2020, the CDC reported that approximately 1 in 54 children in the U.S. is diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to 2016 data.
    • 1 in 34 boys identified with autism
    • 1 in 144 girls identified with autism
  • Boys are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls.
  • Most children were still being diagnosed after age 4, though autism can be reliably diagnosed as early as age 2.
  • 31% of children with ASD have an intellectual disability (intelligence quotient [IQ] <70), 25% are in the borderline range (IQ 71–85), and 44% have IQ scores in the average to above average range (i.e., IQ >85).
  • Autism affects all ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
  • Autism can affect the whole body.
  • Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) affects an estimated 30 to 61 percent of children with autism.
  • More than half of children with autism have one or more chronic sleep problems.
  • Anxiety disorders affect an estimated 11 to 40 percent of children and teens on the autism spectrum.
  • Depression affects an estimated 7% of children and 26% of adults with autism.
  • Children with autism are nearly eight times more likely to suffer from one or more chronic gastrointestinal disorders than are other children.
  • As many as one-third of people with autism have epilepsy (seizure disorder).
  • Over the next decade, an estimated 707,000 to 1,116,000 teens (70,700 to 111,600 each year) will enter adulthood and age out of school-based autism services.
  • More than half of young adults with autism remain unemployed and unenrolled in higher education in the two years after high school. This is a lower rate than that of young adults in other disability categories, including learning disabilities, intellectual disability or speech-language impairment.
  • Of the nearly 18,000 people with autism who used state-funded vocational rehabilitation programs in 2014, only 60 percent left the program with a job. Of these, 80 percent worked part-time at a median weekly rate of $160, putting them well below the poverty level.
  • Nearly half of 25-year-olds with autism have never held a paying job.


Planning For Your (Or Your Parents’) Senior Years? Can Help

Source: Pixabay

In her book, They’re Your Parents, Too! How Siblings Can Survive Their Parents’ Aging Without Driving Each Other Crazy, Francine Russo calls it “the last transition of our first family.” It’s the time when families reconvene decades after the children left the nest to help aging parents navigate their senior years.

If we are lucky, our parents begin the process of planning for this time early enough that they are able to make their own choices.

What do they need exactly? That’s the big question, and the hard part is that the answer is going to be different for every family. Are Mom and Dad healthy and mobile enough for Independent Living or do they need more assistance? Do they want to move into a senior community, or do they want to have in-home help so they can stay in their home? Do they have enough money to pay for the options they want?

When reached out to us for a possible partnership a few months ago, I was finishing up a year of helping my 93-year-old mother-in-law with this transition. It’s a hard decision to leave a house that is familiar for an apartment that is not, sort through and downsize a lifetime of acquired treasures, and give up the car. She chose a continuing care community where she can “graduate” to more assistance as she needs it, but we did look at many different care options.

However, hers is not the right choice for everyone, and is a great source for information on different care options for seniors. They have general information on the types of care available as well as resources for family caregivers. They also have specific resources organized by city and state so you can drill down to facilities and caregiving options in your area. It is an important tool in the toolkit for families working their way through this change.

As Russo demonstrates in her book, the “twilight” of the family does not have to be a time of conflict and stress, but careful planning is the key. Good planning starts with good information, and is a great place to start for aging seniors and their children.

For more information, go to

The Trailblazing Women of WWII

The following are the prepared remarks for a speech GCW Chair Karla Jacobs gave to the Creative Arts Study Club in Gainesville, Georgia on November 8, 2018.


Four WASP pilots leaving their B-17 Flying Fortress the Pistol Packin’ Mama at Lockbourne AAF, Ohio.
L-R Frances Green, Margaret (Peg) Kirchner, Ann Waldner, Blanche Osborn
U.S. Air Force/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Thank you so much for inviting me to speak to your study club today. It’s always a pleasure to be back in Gainesville and to see dear friends who were important to me growing up and still are today. I was thrilled when Mrs. Lovett ask me to come. This is not the first time she has wrangled me into a speaking engagement. In 1984, her class assignment (she was my 9th grade English teacher) landed me in the Optimist Club speech competition. At this point, I don’t remember how I did; I just remember that I did it.

I want to talk to you today about some of the things my organization, the Georgia Commission on Women, is doing, but I also want to talk to you about the women who broke barriers in the mid-20th century and opened the door for the women of my generation. The foundation they made is what a lot of our work is built on. They proved women were every bit as capable as men are, and their legacy has been true equality for our daughters. I love to talk about history and I love to talk about books, so I’m going to do a little of both today.

The Georgia Commission on Women was created in 1992 by legislation from the General Assembly that was signed by then Governor Zell Miller. There are 15 commissioners appointed by the governor, lieutenant governor, and speaker of the House. They each get five appointments to the commission. We serve in staggered four-year terms. Our members are from across the state. Our youngest member just turned 40, and our oldest member is about to turn 86.

Our mandate from the legislature is very broad. We are to monitor and report on the status of women in Georgia and celebrate their accomplishments however we see fit. We’ve done lots of different things over the years. We wrote a report on Women and the Law in the 1990’s that highlighted different ways Georgia laws impact women. We have been very active in osteoporosis prevention and education in the past. Currently we are focusing on three main areas—human trafficking, different women’s health initiatives, and early literacy with the Department of Public Health’s Talk With Me Baby program.

The Commission has been a member of the statewide human trafficking task force since the very beginning of that task force, and the vice-chair and I sit on the task force on behalf of the commission. We also work with other advocates like Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols who leads what he calls the Unholy Tour which is an educational bus tour for legislators and advocates through the neighborhoods in metro Atlanta most affected by sex trafficking.

The Talk With Me Baby program is really cool. It is based on research into early brain development that found the brain grows neural pathways at a tremendous rate from birth to three years old. It is the largest jump in brain development that we will ever have in our lives. It is the prime time when language acquisition occurs, and the more the brain is used, the more neural pathways form. We also know that the children with the largest vocabularies at age three are more prepared for kindergarten at age five and are more likely to be reading on grade level by 3rd grade.

In the 1990’s, social science researchers found that children in families who are low income hear 30 million fewer words by age three than those in higher income families. The resulting difference in vocabulary affects kindergarten readiness. That gap is significant enough that it affects reading level at 3rd grade, which is an early indicator of graduating from high school.

After putting all this research together, Talk With Me Baby was developed to teach all new parents about the importance of talking to their babies. They don’t need any special books or equipment they just need to talk to them and model the back and forth of conversation. The program was initially rolled out through WIC clinics throughout the state, so counselors could teach about the importance of talking to babies and model that behavior for mothers who come to the clinics. It is now also available through hospitals that have received the training.

We are looking at expanding our reach in the coming years. We lost our funding during the recession and were just able to restore it this year. Having funds is huge for us and our ability to do more in the state.

One of the things we are very conscious of is that we are building on a foundation that was laid by the women who came before us. We have women on the commission who have spent their lives pushing for equality in the workplace and before the law. Did you know that Georgia did not ratify the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote until 1970? Women were able to vote because of federal voting laws, but Georgia did not formally recognize that right until the year I was born. Also, I’m told up until the 1960’s there was a footnote added to some Georgia laws that read something like “The above does not apply to women, idiots, or children.” Thankfully, that’s long gone.

One of our members was one of the first African Americans to integrate the University of Georgia. It has been humbling to serve side by side with women who made history in our state.

We owe the women who were the trailblazers a debt of gratitude for the work they did. The World War II years saw women enter the workforce in record numbers as they took jobs in the factories to free up men to fight overseas. We’ve all seen the images of Rosie the Riveter calling women to factories and shipyards across the nation.

Women also served in niche industries as well, and I’d like to talk about three key ones today and share with you recent books that have come out about them.

How many of you have seen the movie “Hidden Figures”? It’s based on a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. The story follows Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, and Christine Darden as they broke down race and gender barriers on the way to some of NASA’s greatest successes.

During World War II, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the precursor of NASA, needed to staff up quickly with mathematicians to do the complex math calculations the engineers needed. What we would do today with a hand-held calculator, these women did meticulously by hand using slide rules and lots of paper. Remember, this was before the big IBM mainframe computers that took up an entire room. Every calculation had to be done by hand.

NACA turned to women to fill this role, both white women and black women. As we will talk about in a minute, they were competing with other government agencies at the time for highly skilled women. NACA recruiters targeted schoolteachers in particular. At that time, employment opportunities for both women and African Americans were limited, so most college graduates in these groups became high school teachers. Remember also this was during the Jim Crow era in the South, so black teacher pay wasn’t great and schools were segregated. A job teaching school was considered a very good job in the black community, but the NACA computer jobs were an unheard of opportunity for the women who took them.

The NACA facilities in Langley, Virginia were segregated. The black computers had offices in a separate building from the white computers, they had to use different restrooms and water fountains, and they were required to sit at assigned tables in the cafeteria. Some of my favorite scenes from both the book and the movie were the ones where the barriers started to crumble. In one scene, Miriam Mann, offended by the “colored table” sign in the cafeteria, began slipping the sign into her purse every day. A day or two later, a new sign would appear, and she would slip it into her purse again. This continued until the sign-maker finally gave up, and the women sat wherever they wanted. Langley eventually fully desegregated.

In the epilogue, Shetterly tells us “Their goal wasn’t to stand out because of their differences; it was to fit in because of their talent.” And they did. Dorothy Vaughn became the first African American woman to be a supervisor at Langley, Mary Jackson became the first African American woman to be an engineer anywhere, and Katherine Johnson personally hand-calculated all the trajectories of John Glenn’s mission to be the first American to orbit the earth. He didn’t trust the mainframe computers and asked specifically that she be the one to do the math.

These trailblazers at what became the NASA space program not only improved job prospects for women, they improved job prospects for African Americans, and we owe them a debt of gratitude.

Another group of women of this generation made contributions that were vital to the United States’ victory in World War II. They were the women who broke coded messages for the Army and the Navy. Liza Mundy captured their stories in her book ‘Code Girls.’

Again, this was the time before computers, so each encoded enemy message had to be evaluated individually by hand. More than 10,000 women served as cryptographers, or code breakers, and they spent 12 hour days staring at columns of numbers looking for patterns. I cannot imagine how incredibly tedious that would be.

The Army and the Navy had separate code breaking units, creating all the kinds of tension you would imagine. They recruited from different populations—the Navy recruited from the Seven Sisters women’s colleges of the Ivy League, and like NACA, the Army recruited schoolteachers. They asked potential recruits, “Do you like doing crossword puzzles? Do you have imminent wedding plans? Can you keep a secret?” Recruits were picked based on their studies in history, English, math, foreign languages, and astronomy. They lived in barracks or the dormitories of colleges pressed into giving up their facilities for the program. All were located in the Washington, DC area.

There was an urgency to their work, and they worked under extreme secrecy. They couldn’t even tell their closest friends and family what they were doing, and they understood that they could be executed for spilling secrets about the program. They did not speak about their work for decades, and many of their families never knew what they did during the war.

Code girls assigned to the European theater worked in conjunction with their British counterparts at Bletchley Park decoding German messages from the famous Enigma machine. The 2014 movie “The Imitation Game” tells the story of how the British, led by Alan Turing, broke the Enigma code. The ladies in the U.S. had a replica of the Enigma machine that they were able to use to break codes once they found the correct settings for the machine in the messages. The messages would contain a bit of code that told the recipient how to set the machine to decode the message.

The team working the Pacific theater had to just muscle their way through the codes by shear will. There was no machine to help them. The codes would change from time to time, so they had to keep breaking the codes over and over again. However, they became so proficient at it they intercepted battle plans and disrupted Japanese supply lines. Their work was key in the victory at the Battle of the Midway in 1942. The U.S. Navy had advance notice, thanks to the work of the code girls, and they surprised the Japanese by having the aircraft carriers, Hornet, Yorktown, and Enterprise, nearby to engage in the battle. It was a lopsided victory and a turning point in the war in the Pacific.

In 1942, only 4 percent of American women had completed four years of college, and job opportunities for female college graduates were scarce before the war. As Mundy says, “It was a rare moment in American history—unprecedented—where educated women were not only wanted but competed for.” At the end of the war a number of female code breakers went on to higher posts in the National Security Agency, but most left, got married, and raised families.

The last group I want to talk about has been in the news a few times in recent years as they have been successful in their requests to be buried with military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. These are the WASP—Women Air Service Pilots—of World War II. Remember Rosie the Riveter who built planes for the war effort? Somebody had to fly those planes from the factory to military bases all over the U.S., and the WASP were created to do just that.

Fannie Flagg, one of my favorite southern authors, wrote a very good novel called “The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion.” I love the structure of it. There are two story lines—one in the present and one in the past—that kind of dance around each other until they meet up toward the end. The protagonist, Sukie Poole, is delightful. She has married off three daughters in a year’s time, and she is tired, y’all. The Jurdabralinski sisters, whom we meet in the timeline in the past, are firecrackers, and the WASP play a major role. If you enjoy historical fiction, this one is definitely for you.

There were slightly more than 1,100 WASP, but they flew more than 50 percent of the combat aircraft in the United States from 1942 when they were created to 1944 when they were disbanded. They even flew planes towing targets for target practice with live ammunition. Thirty-eight WASP pilots were killed in training and on missions. It was dangerous work.

Unlike the code girls and the mathematicians we talked about earlier, the WASP did not operate under a veil of secrecy. The public knew about the program, but perhaps not widely. The women were hired to free up men to fly combat aircraft overseas. However, once the war started winding down in Europe, male pilots who were working stateside as trainers began to worry that they would be drafted into combat units for the Pacific push.

Public perception of the WASP mission changed, and where they were once viewed as freeing men to fight, they were now seen as taking away jobs that rightfully belonged to men. The program was disbanded in 1944, and the women went back home. WASP records were classified and sealed from the public until the 1970’s when Jimmy Carter finally recognized the WASP, granting them veterans status for their service. In 2016 WASP won the right to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

The interesting thing to me about this era is how, for the first time, women were wanted and actively recruited for professional jobs that before had been considered only appropriate for men. I mean, women even took over professional baseball while the men were away at war. Have you all seen “A League of Their Own”? Professional baseball scouts recruited women from across the country to play in the professional baseball league, and they did a good job of it.

The Langley computers proved women could go toe to toe with men in engineering and mathematics, the code girls proved they had the aptitude and tenacity to break enemy codes, and the WASP proved they could fly the big combat planes as well, and sometimes better, than the men did. They all had added pressure, though. They had to be better at their jobs with character beyond reproach to prove they belonged there in a way the men didn’t have to.

One of my favorite scenes from “A League of Their Own” is a montage of the comportment classes the ball players had to go through. We see them learning to walk gracefully, sit and cross their ankles modestly, and use proper etiquette at the table. Men would never have been asked to do that sort of thing. They may be doing a man’s job, but they still had to be first and foremost a lady.

We laugh at this now—my generation rolls our eyes pretty hard—but the women who were the trailblazers at this time had to put up with a lot. In speaking about the gender and racial prejudice she encountered at Langley, Dorothy Vaughn said, “What I changed, I could; what I couldn’t, I endured.” When the men came home from war, the women who had staffed the factories, boatyards, baseball fields, and airplanes were expected to go back home and make way for the men. They sort of did, but they really didn’t. Like the song from World War I says, “How you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm, now that they’ve seen Paree?”

Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, makes a cameo appearance in ‘The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion.’ The WASP paved the way for her trip into space. They proved women could fly military planes, and then she flew one into space. Just like the women of Hidden Figures and Code Girls broke down barriers for women in engineering and mathematics. My 16-year-old daughter wants to be an engineer, and she knows there is nothing stopping her.

And so we owe a debt of gratitude to these women, the pioneers who showed us what was not only possible but completely doable.

And we will continue to build on their foundation.

Thank you so much again for inviting me to talk to you. I think we have a few minutes left, and I’ll be glad to take questions about the work we are doing on the Georgia Commission on Women and the Human Trafficking Task Force or the women we’ve talked about this morning.

The Unholy Tour of Atlanta Continues to Roll


It’s no secret that Atlanta is a center for sex trafficking activity.  A busy international airport, the convergence of three major interstate highways, and a booming convention and sports industry create a ripe environment for the practice to flourish.  And flourish it does as Atlanta repeatedly finds itself on many lists of top cities in the United States for human trafficking.

In an effort to raise awareness and educate state leaders on the breadth and depth of the sex trafficking problem in Atlanta, Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols began hosting an educational event he dubbed The Unholy Tour of Atlanta to take leaders on a tour of where sex trafficking is happening so they can see for themselves the environments that drive this industry, an industry the Urban Institute estimates is valued at $290 million a year in Atlanta alone.

While his day job is to regulate energy in the state of Georgia, Commissioner Echols works to affect policy by shining a light in the dark corners where the sex industry hides.  He got the idea for the tour from the movie Amazing Grace, the story of the life of British abolitionist William Wilberforce.  In the film, Wilberforce takes members of parliament on a tour of London’s harbor so they can see firsthand the sights, sounds, and smells of the slave ships docked in the harbor.  Georgia’s leaders get the same type of up close view of what many call modern day slavery as they listen to local organizations and law enforcement officers tell the stories of girls and women they have rescued and the work they are doing to fight trafficking and help survivors get their lives back together.  The tour begins, fittingly, at the Greyhound Bus Station in downtown Atlanta, the first stop for many women who find themselves in the Atlanta sex industry.

I recently went on my fourth Unholy Tour of Atlanta.  The Georgia Commission on Women provides sack dinners for the participants—legislators and legislative aides, local leaders and advocates—who take the tour through the most notorious areas of Atlanta’s sex trade.  It is an eye-opening and at times emotional night for those who are not familiar with how the trade operates.  My first Unholy Tour changed me, and I wrote about that night here.

The areas the tour visits change a bit each year, but this year we returned to the area of Metro Atlanta we visited on my first tour.  Fulton Industrial Boulevard, just a few short miles from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, is part of the newly formed city of South Fulton and is an infamous stretch of strip clubs, bars, and seedy hotels.  Sadly, nothing much has changed in this area over time.  The seedy hotels are still seedy, the neighborhood is still run down, leaders are still chasing solutions, and our fellow human beings—women and girls, boys and men—are still being exploited daily.  Progress is being made, at least at the state level, but progress on the street and in the lives of these people is moving frustratingly slow.

One thing that made the tour different for me this time is I have actually set foot in the hotels we were driving by.  As part of a project, I talked with the managers of these hotels and left behind materials with information for victims on how to find help.  As chair of the GCW, I also sit on Georgia’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council’s Human Trafficking Task Force, and my work group focuses on helping hotels come into compliance with state law requiring them to post the human trafficking hotline number in the lobby and public restrooms.  Our first project in 2016 was the area that is now the City of South Fulton.

Because this is a high crime area, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, a fellow task force member, insisted we have local law enforcement officers accompany us on our hotel visits, and I had three community outreach officers from the Fulton County Police Department as my law enforcement escorts that day.  We visited 10-12 hotels, left a copy of the law outlining what each hotel was required to do, and handed out posters that contained all required information printed in both English and Spanish.  All the hotels had to do was hang them up.

I got a mixed response from hotel managers.  Most nodded along with me, took the posters, and assured me they would post them.  One handed me a roll of tape and told me to put them up wherever I thought best.  A couple of managers talked earnestly about the problem of sex trafficking and steps they were taking to keep that kind of activity out of their hotels.  At the worst hotel I visited—I had to walk around a used condom in the parking lot to get to the front door—the front desk employee met me with indifference, and I’m sure the posters and copy of the law went straight in the trash instead of the manager’s hands.

The sex trafficking issue is an interesting one to work on.  At the legislative and policy level, there is the eternal struggle of keeping up with what the bad guys are doing.  Gangs are moving into sex trafficking as a money-making business because they can sell a bag of drugs only one time, but they can sell woman 5-10 times a night.  The streetwalker of Pretty Woman fame is not the rule now as most solicitation for prostitution has migrated online.  A few years ago when Craig’s List shut down their escort section, popped up.  As has been hobbled, others will come online to take its place.  You get the problem snuffed out in one place, and it pops up in another.  As one of my friends once said, “It’s like playing Whack-A-Mole with the Devil.”

At the community level, it is frustrating how slowly things get better, if they ever do.  As a local organization helps a woman transition out of the sex industry, more are getting off the bus at the downtown bus station to get drawn into the trade.  It’s a vicious cycle that is hard to break.

From survivors, though, I hear nothing but hope.  Hope in the future.  Hope for a full recovery.  Hope that they can reach out and help others find hope and help for themselves.

The week before the 2018 Unholy Tour, I heard the testimony of a young survivor.  She had battled addiction from a very young age, quit high school to get married, had a child at 17 years old, turned to prostitution because her trafficker supplied her drug habit, lost custody of her son, almost died of a drug overdose, and went to jail.  In jail, a group called Out of Darkness found her and convinced her that she could get better.  She said, “I didn’t know there was anyone out there who would love somebody like me.”  Out of Darkness got her into a safe house and then a treatment program, and she is now an intake counselor for that treatment program.  A success story.

For those of us who work as advocates for human trafficking victims, it is the survivors’ stories that keep us going.  It is hard to hear these young women, and sometimes men, talk about the abuse, the beatings, the rapes, to know that they felt like they were garbage and no one cared, and to know it starts over again with a new crop of victims each day.  But these survivors are the reason legislators and local leaders continue to get on that Unholy Tour bus year after year.  Like the members of Parliament William Wilberforce took to the London Harbor, once they know about the lives victims lead they can’t unknow it and are compelled to take action.


Karla Jacobs is the chair of the Georgia Commission on Women and a member of the CJCC Human Trafficking Task Force.  She lives in Marietta with her husband, two kids, a dog, and some fish.

Happy New Year!

explosion-firework-pixelI do realize that January is almost over, so I’m a little late on the New Year’s Day greetings.  The month has passed by in a blur of snow and ice and busyness, and it doesn’t look like things are going to slow down any time soon.

The Commission had a productive 2016.  We welcomed our new leadership team last January, and we spent the spring reorganizing and pointing ourselves in a new strategic direction.  We will speak out on many topics as they come up, but our main focus is going to be on human trafficking issues, women’s health issues, and early literacy issues.

On the human trafficking front, we continued our partnership with the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council Statewide Human Trafficking Task Force.  Commissioner Julianna McConnell and I represent the GCW on the task force in different work groups, and we were both part of successful projects there.  The GCW assisted Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols with three Unholy Tours, two in Atlanta and one in Savannah.  These tours are educational opportunities for legislators and local leaders to see firsthand the neighborhoods that have the most human trafficking problems.  As we do every year, we participated in the Anti-Sex Trafficking Lobby Day sponsored by Street Grace, Georgia Cares, and others.

The most exciting news on the human trafficking issue in 2016 was the passing of Amendment 2, the Safe Harbor Law in November by Georgia voters.  The measure passed with an almost unheard of 83 percent of the votes.  This is a huge victory for human trafficking survivors and will ensure that victims across the state will receive the restorative services that they need.

In Health news, we continued our focus on osteoporosis education and had the pleasure of working with the Department of Public Health at their annual Falls Prevention Day event.  Commissioners Sharon Baker and Martha Long provided bone density screenings for event participants.  We are also continuing to keep an eye on Georgia’s rural healthcare crisis.

We are excited to announce that in September, Commissioner Sharon Baker was awarded the Hologic Inspiration in Women’s Health Award for Education at the Nurse Practitioners in Women’s Health Conference in New Orleans.  Congratulations to Commissioner Baker!  The award is well deserved.

As we turn the page to 2017, we have a new partnership and program to tell you about.  We will be working with the Department of Public Health on their “Talk With Me Baby” program, an early literacy initiative that has seen success in WIC clinics across the state.  The Colquitt County Family Connection Collaborative along with DPH launched the first “Talk With Me Baby” community-wide program.  We will be assisting DPH in their efforts to expand their program beyond community WIC clinics to all caregivers for infants and young children.  Commissioner Susan Whiddon will lead this project on our end.

We have some events coming up that you will want to know about.  February 28, 2017 will be the next Anti-Sex Trafficking Day at the Capitol.  You will want to join us for that.  Registration is free, but there is a small fee if you want to stay for lunch.  You’ll need to sign up for that ahead of time.  March 8, 2017 we will celebrate International Women’s Day, as we do every year.  Plans are still in the works, so check back with our events page for more information.

All of the commissioners at the Georgia Commission on Women wish you and your families a happy and healthy 2017.


Karla Jacobs is the chair of the Georgia Commission on Women and a member of the CJCC Human Trafficking Task Force.  She lives in Marietta with her husband, two kids, a dog, and some fish.


Human Trafficking: A Statewide Problem That Needs A Statewide Solution

Photo by Todd Rehm

Photo by Todd Rehm

We have more to consider on the Georgia ballot this year than candidates for local, state, and national offices.  There are also four amendments to the Georgia constitution to think about as well.  I encourage you to do your research ahead of time so you will be prepared to make informed choices.

Amendment 2 is the one I want to talk about here because the state fund and the commission that the amendment creates are key components in Georgia’s statewide strategy to combat child sex trafficking in our state.  If you are unaware of the scope of this issue in Georgia, I have previously written about it here, here, and here.  On Thursday, October 27, 2016, Senator Renee Unterman and Representative Mary Margaret Oliver hosted a press conference at the State Capitol to outline past efforts to combat the child sex trafficking problem in our state as well as to encourage Georgia voters to support Amendment 2.

The extent of the problem in Georgia is daunting because Atlanta regularly appears on various lists as one of the Top 10 cities in the nation for child sex trafficking.  However, sex trafficking in Georgia is not only found in Atlanta.  The internet, including websites like, has moved the trafficking issue outside of large cities to every corner of our state.  Georgia Cares, the state’s intake agency for child victims, reports victim referrals from more than 100 counties in all regions of Georgia.

Child sex trafficking is not just an Atlanta problem.  It is a statewide problem that requires a statewide solution.

As alarming as the problem is here in Georgia, we are fortunate to be a state that is leading the nation in both tackling the problem and providing services for its victims.  This has been a team effort spanning almost a decade and involving Georgians from the law enforcement community, the GBI, the Attorney General’s office, legislators, and victim services providers.  Strong support from the highest levels of state government–the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and Speaker of the House–has ensured that Georgia has laws on the books to punish those who exploit our children as well as to provide restorative services for our most vulnerable victims.

Law enforcement officers and lawmakers have focused on increasing penalties for child sex traffickers and ensuring that children are granted victim status by the court system and are not treated as criminals.  Training programs across the state equip our local law enforcement officers to identify victims and investigate cases to ensure convictions of the people who traffic them.  Meanwhile, local non-profits have stepped in to provide services to trafficked children to help them restore their lives.

Sex trafficking victims are subjected to extensive mental and physical abuse and require a wide range of services to restore them to health.  As much as 80 percent of victims are addicted to drugs and need rehab, many have suffered trauma and require counseling, and others have had their education interrupted and need help getting a GED or additional job training.  Victims sometimes need residential housing if their families cannot provide proper care or if they are at risk from retaliation by their pimps.  These services are expensive—an average of $80,000 per child—and demand for these services is on the rise.

Sen. Renee Unterman and Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver Photo by Todd Rehm

Sen. Renee Unterman and Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver
Photo by Todd Rehm

Our statewide community and law enforcement training programs are bearing fruit as more victims are identified and rescued from their traffickers.  Heather Stockdale, CEO of Georgia Cares, reported at the press conference that they have had 469 youth referred to them for services in 2016.  Additional services are needed for children with unique needs such as young boys, pregnant youth, LGBTQ youth, and youth with low IQ.

Georgia’s reputation as an innovator in fighting sex trafficking is tied in part to our statewide response to the problem.  Amendment 2, the Safe Harbor Amendment, is a vital component in ensuring that funds are available across the state for victim services.  Taxes on adult entertainment establishments as well as additional fines added to the judgments against convicted traffickers will generate approximately $2 million per year.  The service providers in local communities can then apply to the commission for grants from the fund to help them deliver the treatment needed by trafficking victims.

Amendment 2 gives Georgia voters an opportunity to be a partner in the fight against child sex trafficking across our state.  Please vote Yes when you go to the polls this election.

Together we can #EndIt.

You can watch the video of the Thursday, October 27, 2016 press conference on Facebook at Safe Harbor Yes.


Karla Jacobs is the chair of the Georgia Commission on Women and a member of the CJCC Statewide Human Trafficking Task Force.  She lives in Marietta with her husband, two kids, a dog, and some fish.

Walk Through History at Georgia’s New Echota Historic Site

ne-legislature-webThere is a crispness to the October morning air in Georgia now that signals the seasons are finally turning the corner into fall.  Leaves will shift their colors soon to the golds, oranges, and reds that lure folks to the mountains and clog the winding roads with leaf peepers out to take in the scenery.

Touring through the mountains in the fall is a great time to check out some of Georgia’s smaller state parks.  One of my family’s favorites is the New Echota Historic Site in Calhoun.  New Echota was the capital of the Cherokee Nation from 1825 until 1838 when the U.S. government forced the Cherokee to relocate to Oklahoma in what became known as the Trail of Tears.

By the time the Cherokee Nation founded New Echota, their culture looked very similar to that of the European settlers who were their neighbors.  They adopted the same dress and became farmers, businessmen, and politicians.  They were also the first Native American tribe to create their own alphabet.  In 1827, the Cherokee ratified the Cherokee Constitution modeled after the U.S. Constitution, and created a government that was similar to our own—an executive, a legislature with an upper and lower house, and a supreme court.  The Cherokee Phoenix newspaper, published in both English and Cherokee, had a circulation that included not just the Cherokee Nation but the United States and parts of Europe as well.

ne-print-type-webVisitors to the New Echota Historic Site can see 12 original and reconstructed buildings on the site today.  You can walk through the Council House and Court House, visit a reconstructed farmstead with barns and outbuildings, see Missionary Samuel Worchester’s home, and get a look inside the restored Vanns Tavern.  Our favorite was the reconstructed print shop with a working printing press from that era.

The Visitors Center is not to be missed.  It tells the story of the Cherokee Nation and its capital through exhibits and a 20-minute film on the history of the Cherokee at New Echota.  It is a tale of progress, hope, and great betrayal.  It portrays a dark time in the history of our nation and our state, and it is one we all need to know and remember.

As you head into the mountains to take in the scenery of a beautiful fall day in Georgia, take some time to learn a little about the history of the area and the people who once called it home.  You will be glad you did.


Karla Jacobs is chair of the Georgia Commission on Women.  She lives in Marietta with her husband, two kids, a dog, and various fish.

Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Victims Need Safe Harbor

Deidre Harrison of SWAHT speaks during the Savannah Unholy Tour

Deidre Harrison of SWAHT speaks during the Savannah Unholy Tour

Better behaved than New Orleans and more demure than Charleston, Savannah takes its place among the great Southern grandes dames as a city of beauty, hospitality, and charm.  Laid out with an engineer’s precision, old Savannah is beautiful in the way of all intricately designed things.  Spanish moss draped live oaks give this historic town a feeling of mystery and a sense of place.  It is a personality unto itself.

Savannah is a city of 136,000 people with a metro area of about 2.5 times that.  It is not a small town, but it is not a big city either.  A port city, Savannah and Chatham County are home to major manufacturers, and the Army’s Fort Stewart is nearby.  Tourism is booming with millions of visitors bringing around $1.5 billion into the local economy each year.

Savannah’s small city status does not make it immune to big city problems, however.  Human trafficking, and the suffering it brings, touches this community too.

In 2013, federal, state, and local authorities dismantled an international sex trafficking ring with roots in Mexico and Central America and operations based out of Savannah.  Operation Dark Night, as the investigation was called, rescued 12 victims and resulted in the convictions of 23 defendants.  The ringleader, Joaquin Mendez-Hernandez, also known as El Flaco, was sentenced to life in prison for exploiting dozens of women.

Members of the sex trafficking ring enticed young women and girls from Mexico and other Latin American countries to come to the United States on the promise of work and prosperity.  What the young women found instead was a life of abuse and slavery.

Organization members forced these women to perform sex acts with as many as 50 men a day.  They were threatened, beaten, and made to go without food and sleep until they met their quotas.  One victim reported being pregnant and lying face down on the floor when a trafficker jumped on her back to force her to have a miscarriage.  Other victims reported being forced to become pregnant by organization members so those children could be used to threaten the women into submission.  Pimps from Florida to North Carolina traded the women amongst themselves like pieces of property.

This was modern day indentured servitude.  The women saw very little of the money they made, if they saw any at all.  They were working off a debt that would never be repaid.  Meanwhile, the ringleader, Mendez-Hernandez, was making enough money to send $1,500 a week to his family back in Mexico.

Operation Dark Night was the largest sex trafficking investigation prosecuted in the Southern District of Georgia.  Multiple organizations at the federal, state, and local level, led by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations, cooperated in the investigation.  “It is reprehensible that an international sex trafficking organization set up shop within our very own communities,” stated United States Attorney Edward J. Tarver.  “This organization destroyed the lives of many victims through fear, violence, and intimidation, all for the love of money.  Those responsible will now pay the price in federal prison.”

In addition to sentencing Mendez-Hernandez to life in prison, U.S. District Court Judge B. Avant Edenfield ordered him to pay $705,000 in restitution to the victims.

Many consider Operation Dark Night to be a benchmark in the investigating and sentencing of human traffickers.  With all eyes on Atlanta as a known human trafficking hub, many Georgians do not realize that investigations like this one are busting up rings in other areas of the state.

Human trafficking is a statewide problem that requires a statewide solution.  At the heart of that solution are our efforts to help human trafficking victims, like the ones freed in Operation Dark Night, to reintegrate into our communities.

The Georgia Legislature has given voters an opportunity to participate in helping child sex trafficking victims put their lives back together.  The November ballot will ask voters to decide on several amendments to the state constitution.  Amendment 2 on the ballot, the Safe Harbor amendment, will create a fund, and a commission to administer that fund, to help pay for rehabilitation services for domestic minor sex trafficking victims in our state.  Victim service providers will be able to access those funds through grants to help victims of trafficking statewide receive the medical, counseling, and education services they need to reintegrate into their communities.

According to ICE Director John Morton, “ICE investigates a wide array of crimes, but the trafficking of women and girls for prostitution is among the most sinister.  Few crimes so damage their victims and undermine basic human decency.  Our fight against this evil must be relentless, both here and abroad.”

Georgia voters have the opportunity to provide funds to help heal the wounds of trafficking in our youngest victims.  I encourage you to vote yes on Amendment 2 to provide Safe Harbor for the children of Georgia.

The Georgia Commission on Women would like to give special thanks to Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols for hosting an Unholy Tour in the Savannah area.  Events like this shine a light on the fact that human trafficking is not just a big city problem.  It touches communities big and small across our state, and we must all come together to ensure victims get the help they need.


Karla Jacobs is the chair of the Georgia Commission on Women and a member of the CJCC Statewide Human Trafficking Task Force.  She lives in Marietta with her husband, two kids, a dog, and some fish.

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