“It goes on closer than you think,” said Captain Ronnette Smith, director of the Salvation Army of Lee County.
The Lee County Salvation Army division will host “Traffic Jam,” an informational fair, Wednesday to help raise local awareness about the issue.
“A lot of people think, ‘Well, that’s just something that … happens in foreign countries. It doesn’t happen here in the United States. Or if it does, it’s about people selling people,’” Smith said. “But really, it’s much more than that, and we want to make sure people know what they can do to protect their children, their grandchildren, their families-from the issue of human trafficking.”
Smith said she doesn’t think many know that Atlanta—not even two hours away—is the U.S. capital for human trafficking.
“Knowing what human trafficking is (and) who the victims are—that’s the first place to really start,” Smith said.
Lisa Clark, administrative director of Street GRACE, an Atlanta-based organization consisting of local Christian churches and community members united to stop the commercial sexual exploitation of children, said the issue shows up in many ways in Atlanta.
“It could be the single mom who’s trying to pay her bills and is selling her child for an exchange for money,” Clark said. “… A runaway situation where the child is getting sexually abused in the house and wants to get away from it and within 24–48 hours is having to have survival sex to stay alive.”
She said the victims can be from the inner city or even gated neighborhoods: “It doesn’t have one face.”
Street GRACE deals specifically with children under the age of 17. Clark said the average age of child being sexually exploited in Atlanta is 14, with abuse usually beginning at 8 or 9 years old.
Smith said most victims have been physically, emotionally or sexually abused prior to actually being trafficked.
“The choice was made for them a long time ago,” Smith said.
Tapestri Inc., an advocate group in Atlanta, is also working to end exploitation and injustice, specifically among the immigrant community in Georgia.
Maja, whose last name has been withheld for confidentiality, is the program director of Tapestri’s anti-human trafficking program. She said Atlanta’s high numbers may not have to do with the city’s airports, strip clubs or conventions held there.
“Recent studies have shown that, actually, the individuals that are buying sex from minors are coming from the suburbs around the metro-Atlanta area,” Maja said.
Clark echoed Maja’s point. She said in February 2010 alone, 492 girls were bought for sex by 7200 men in Georgia. Of those more than 7000, 68 percent came from around the perimeter of Atlanta.
In other words, she said the men are coming from the affluent areas surrounding the city.
When asked to define human trafficking, Maja said “It’s when somebody’s recruited, transported, abducted, harbored, transferred for the purpose of exploitation, and that is through force, fraud or coercion. Unless that individual is under the age of 18, then force, fraud or coercion does not have to apply.”
She said an individual under the age of 18 is considered a victim regardless of consent because they are a minor.
Meredith Powell, senior in human development and family studies and intern at the United Way of Lee County, defined human trafficking as “the exploitation of human beings that are being sold, whether it’s through … pornography (or) … actually being sold in that business.
“It’s just like a modern-day slavery.”
Powell has helped Smith organize the Traffic Jam event and said the hope is that, because of Auburn’s closeness to Atlanta, more people will have their eyes opened to the problem through the event.
She said Traffic Jam will have representatives from various local agencies working with human trafficking, specifically sexual abuse and child advocacy.
The organizers also hope to have law enforcement present.
“If they’re educated about it, then they can look out for that,” Powell said.
Working to raise awareness on Auburn’s campus about the issue is the International Justice Mission, who will have a table set up at the Salvation Army’s event.
Sarah Kuykendall, president of IJM and sophomore in nutrition and dietetics, said seeing others’ passion for the issue has been what’s kept her active in working to fix it.
“You yourself have your passion, but when you see how much other people are really wanting to stop this, that just kind of kicks it into high gear,” Kuykendall said.
Kuykendall also referred to the issue as “modern-day slavery,” but said it goes beyond just sexual exploitation.
“Human trafficking isn’t just sex trafficking,” Kuykendall said. “It’s child labor, child exploitation, forced labor.”
Kuykendall said it is about opening up one’s senses to a world they may not have known existed.
“If you don’t know what it is, how can you prevent it?” she said.
At salvationarmyusa.org, there are many resources and information to help the public become educated on the issue.
On the site’s “Help Identify and Refer Victims” page, there is a list of red flags to spot victims, including such things as “appears to be under someone else’s control,” “live with multiple people in a very cramped space,” “have no English language skills or knowledge of the local community” and “are unpaid for their work or paid very little.”
The efforts of these several groups in Atlanta may be achieving results. Clark said the numbers for the fourth quarter of 2011 show that approximately 265 individuals were trafficked, down from the 492 in the February the year prior.
“So we are seeing a decline,” Clark said. “We believe that that’s because of the awareness that is being raised about this issue and because of the stiffer penalties that have been passed in the last year.”
The two speakers at Traffic Jam will be the Salvation Army’s Captain Sandra Pawar, who works in Atlanta to combat human trafficking, and Alesia Adams, a national speaker on the subject who has appeared on CNN and the Oxygen channel.
The event will start at 9 a.m. and breakfast will be provided.
Organizations present will be the Rape Counselors of East Alabama, Domestic Violence Intervention Center, Lee County Youth Development Center, IJM, Child Advocacy Center and Safe Harbor.