By Carole Townsend
We live in a world of plenty, don’t we? In fact, we here in the United States live in a world of excess compared to much of the rest of the world. And here in Gwinnett County, we are (for the most part) both comfortable and sheltered.
You can imagine my shock and surprise, then, when I recently read an FBI report naming Atlanta as a hub for human trafficking. That means that Atlanta and her suburbs are a central point for trafficking women and children (both boys and girls) for the slave trade. Slavery is not dead, it seems. It is alive and well right here in our own back yard.
As I have shamelessly done in the past when I choose to write about a topic that is difficult and unpleasant, I ask that you continue reading. In fact in this case, I beg you to continue.
Just last year as the result of one single investigation, 71 people across the state of Georgia were arrested in connection with child sex trafficking. If you’re not already sickened by this news, consider this: much of this revolting “business” is conducted north of the perimeter. That’s right here, folks. Right under our noses. We don’t see it. I never see it. But that’s how the filth who traffic in human beings operates – under the radar and in dark, dank corners, where you and I would likely not see them.
How on earth did this problem balloon to the epidemic that it is today? Why is there even a market for children in the sex trade? Some call human trafficking a modern day form of slavery. In fact, it’s as old as the human race. There’s nothing new about it. As a society, we don’t know how to deal with it; we go about it all wrong. For many, it’s easier to pretend that the problem doesn’t exist than to acknowledge it. Acknowledging it means that someone should do something about it.
Let me share an example of what I mean when I opine that we don’t know how to deal with the sex industry. First, let’s look at adult women prostitutes. I recently had the opportunity to speak in the strictest of confidence with a man who works tirelessly with others to stop the cycle of this depraved abuse. He explained to me that at the most basic level – cops and judges – we look at the sex trafficking industry all wrong. A prostitute is in fact a victim, not a criminal. No one, he explained, chooses prostitution as a career path. A woman is either desperate for drugs, or being threatened, or simply had no place to go when a pimp snatched her up. She may well have been abducted as a young girl. Once on the streets, she is arrested, she serves time or pays a fine, and then she is turned out onto the street again. She goes right back to her pimp (and her addiction or her fear or her desperation), and the cycle continues.
The pimp, who is the cockroach hiding in the dark, is the real criminal. He is the one pulling the strings. He is the actual criminal, but far less often is he arrested and dragged before a judge. In fact today, prostitution rings are run by gangs, this man told me. There are no more small-time “mom and pop” prostitution rings any more. Today’s rings are run by gangs, and gangs are ruthless. They are rampant, and apparently, they are hard to stop. Gwinnett County, like most of her sister suburbs of Atlanta, is crawling with them.
Now, lets look at the children who are being trafficked by these evil opportunists. In the U.S. alone, there are an estimated 200,000 – 300,000 children at risk of entering the sex trade industry today. That means that, because of neglect or tragedy, naïve use of the Internet or one of a dozen other reasons, these children are exposed and at risk. Not all of those at risk are someone else’s child. If your child uses the Internet or a smart phone, the danger is very real. Thousands of children are tricked into an initial meeting with a predator, and the rest is mere child’s play to the abuser.
Children are vulnerable, and the vermin who trade in their young lives and souls are predators, trained to smell out “vulnerable” and capitalize on it. The average age of a child entering into the sex trade in the U.S. is 12-14 years old. Do you have, or have you ever had, a child that age? Try to imagine the horror of that.
A pimp makes an average of $200,000 per year per child, and one pimp exploits an average of 6 young girls a year.*
Use of the Internet and cell phones has opened the door for exploitation wider than it has ever been opened before. Children are unwittingly bringing predators into their homes day and night, and the predators are taking full advantage of that access. An at-risk child is not necessarily from a low-income family or a “broken” home. She may simply have technology at her young fingertips. He could be your child.
It is imperative that we, as parents, suburbanites, citizens of this country, sit up and take notice of the abomination of human trafficking. How can we do that? First, if you have children, be vigilant in supervising their use of the Internet, both on computers and on smart phones. If you don’t know how to monitor your child’s use of computers and phones, then a) learn, or b) don’t allow them access. It’s that important. They’ll resist your efforts. They may even try to sneak to get around the rules. Don’t relent; you love them too much, and they cannot begin to grasp what’s at stake.
Know what signs to look for in a child who is being sexually exploited. Depression, anxiety, fear of authority, hostility, any or all of these manifestations can indicate sexual exploitation. If you have reason to suspect that a child is a victim of human trafficking and sexual abuse, or if you see a sexually abusive image anywhere online of a child, report it to the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-800-843-5678. The more eyes these children have looking out for them, the better. The time between reporting an abusive image of a child and that image’s removal from the Internet has been improved to fewer than two days, thanks to the efforts of people like you who take the time to report them.
Stiffer penalties for offenders must be part of the change in how we deal with human trafficking. Thanks to the efforts of pornographers and legislators happy to look the other way, fines for sexually exploiting a child have historically been as low as $50, with maybe a slap on the wrist for good measure. In 2012, Georgia passed legislation that substantially increased the punishment for human trafficking from a possible one-year sentence to a minimum of ten years in prison. “If the trafficking causes a minor to commit sex acts by coercion or deception, human traffickers now face 25 years to life in prison, up from maximum sentence of 20 years. Offenders can also be fined up to $100,000.00.”**
We must change the way we look at the crime of prostitution. Is the prostitute herself a criminal, or is she a victim of a crime? In all likelihood, she too has been coerced into a life of desperation, despair and hopelessness. It’s the dark business machine behind prostitution that hides and protects the real criminals.
What can you do to help extinguish this most depraved and cruel crime? I can personally recommend that you visit the website outofdarkness.org, and if you can make a donation – no matter how small or substantial – your contribution will go directly to the rescue of women and children from the clutches of those who deal in the buying and selling of their souls. Of course, there are several such organizations, each as dedicated as the next to the eradication of trafficking. I cannot list them all here, so I would merely suggest that you do your homework before donating your resources. But please, do what you can.
I have only touched on the very tip of a mammoth iceberg by writing this column. There is so much more information and data, most of it horrifying, but I hope that I have at least communicated the urgency of taking action.
Human trafficking is a crime that we can no longer afford to pretend doesn’t exist. No child, no woman, is safe from it. In fact, in the words of an actual pimp who mentors other pimps in training, he boasts of being able to turn any woman or child into a lucrative source of income for himself, given enough time. Any woman or child. I’d say that’s a claim that deserves our undivided attention.
*from U.S. Department of Justice reports
** from a Dec. 7, 2012 letter penned by Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens
Carole Townsend is a Gwinnett author and freelance writer. She writes about family, from both a humorous and poignant perspective. Her newest book, MAGNOLIAS, SWEET TEA AND EXHAUST (July 2014, Skyhorse Publishing) takes a look at NASCAR from a Southern suburban mom’s perspective. She is currently writing her fourth book. Carole has appeared on local and national news and talk shows, including CNN, ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates. When not writing, she travels throughout the region, speaking to various civic and literary groups, and advocating for the health and well-being of the family, particularly women and children. For more information, visit www.caroletownsend.com.