It could be your daughter or your son, and you might not even know it.
That theme permeated the entire evening of the Human Trafficking Awareness Forum organized by the North Oconee Rotary Club and held last week at the Oconee County Civic Center.
The video shown at the start of the three-hour session emphasized how difficult it is for parents to know if their children are being trafficked, and the final speaker, an expert on trafficking, told how her own daughter became involved in the sex trade even under her trained eyes.
Lt. Deanna Smith from the Oconee County’s Sheriff’s Office told the group “I deal with people every single day who have gone to great lengths to have sex with our children. This stuff happens. We’re not making it up.”
About 150 people participated in the three-hour session that included presentations by state legislators and by a trafficking survivor as well as focused discussions by participants at the end on what they had learned at the Forum and what they planned to do as a result.
Format And Speakers
Laura Leider, Forum co-chair, introduced the program at the Civic Center on Oct. 25 and an initial video, named Oblivious. The video showed a teenager who told her mother she was going to visit a friend but instead met a man in a hotel room after she received instructions from her handler on her smart phone.
|Lt. Deanna Smith|
Deborah Gonzalez, an Athens attorney who represents parts of Oconee County in the Georgia House of Representatives, recounted her experiences talking to attorneys, prosecutors and attorney generals around the country about sexual trafficking.
“They were amazed at what was going on in their own backyards,” she said.
Sen. Renee Unterman, a Georgia state Senator from Buford, told the group about her efforts to revise the Georgia Code dealing with human trafficking.
“The reason we did that was because we were noted as being number one in the nation–Atlanta–as the sexual hub of the whole United States.”
Oconee County And Trafficking
Lt. Smith told the audience that “You just need to get educated, you need to know what to look for, you need to know the signs.”
Children who fall victim to trafficking feel misunderstood, feel insecure, are rebellious, and have lots of fights with their parents, according to Smith. They have material things they cannot otherwise afford to buy.
“This could be your daughter. This could be your niece. This could be your next door neighbor,” Smith said.
“We talk about the girl, but the truth of the matter is that one third of the victims are actually males,” she said.
“This human trafficking,” Smith said, “It does not discriminate. It does not care what religion you are. It doesn’t care about your ethnic background. It doesn’t care about your social status. You can be rich, poor. It doesn’t care, just as long as you are producing the service.”
Oconee County is particularly susceptible to problems of trafficking because of its proximity to Atlanta, Smith said.
“So what’s in Atlanta?” Smith asked. “It’s the home to Coca-Cola, CNN, the Atlanta Falcons. But it also home to one of the biggest hubs for sex trafficking in America.”
Survivor Called Courtney
Courtney became involved in sex trafficking as a teenager and did not break free until she was 25. She now is involved in advocacy work for the victims of trafficking.
Courtney said children who are the victims of sexual abuse are more vulnerable to trafficking, and women who are poor are more vulnerable.
“It’s a shortcut,” Courtney said of the sex trade. “Often that girl or that boy, or that man or woman short cuts their dreams. They don’t have to go to college. They don’t have to face all of these obstacles that just seem like unsurpassable.”
Once involved in the trade, Courtney said, it is difficult to break free.
“Two or three times I thought I had broken away from it,” she said. “When you are already in that situation, it is easy to find yourself in that situation again.”
“If I had been identified as a trafficking victim and services had been made available to me,” Courtney said, “maybe I wouldn’t have gone through two or three situations that were trafficking before I was able to get help and break free from that.”
Divas Who Win Freedom
Chanda Santana, the founder of Divas Who Win Freedom Center in Athens, said her 17-year-old daughter was a high school graduate and had been accepted into college.
The daughter made contact with someone on social media, Santana said, and the daughter and her best friend were trafficked into the city of Atlanta.
“I was a parent that talked to my daughter about sex trafficking, about pimping, about the glamour that’s added to stripping and that life style,” Santana said. “I did all that I know to do.
“But if you’ve ever been 17 and you graduated and you think that gives you the right to be grown. Then you know what mama says doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense.”
Santana said she has worked with women who had problems with substance abuse and sexual trafficking for 11 years, and she should have known all of the signs. But she missed them.
“Is my purpose tonight to terrify you?” Santana asked. “Absolutely. Is my propose tonight to instigate outrage? Absolutely.”
Andrea Wellnitz, Forum co-chair, explained the Table Dialog procedures for the discussion after Santana spoke, and Sheila Hunter, president of the North Oconee Rotary Club, closed the program.
The video below is of all of the presentations at the Trafficking Forum.
I pointed the camera away from Courtney, the survivor, when she spoke, but her audio is included.
I also edited out the time spent in the Table Dialog.
The comments of Rep. Gonzalez begin at 11:44.
The comments of Sen. Unterman begin at 29:08.
The comments of Lt. Deanna Smith are at 45:21.
The comments of Courtney are at 1:01:37.
The comments of Chanda Santana are at 1:16:49.
I estimated the crowd size based on the fact that about eight people were seated at each of 19 tables for the Table Dialog.