Speakers told those gathered last week at the Human Trafficking Awareness Forum sponsored by the North Oconee Rotary Club that they have the power to combat the dual problems of labor trafficking and sex trafficking.
Deborah Richardson, executive director of the International Human Trafficking Institute of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, presented the group with a list of indicators so they can identify victims of sex trafficking.
“Talk to your children about their bodies and boundaries,” Tameka Rish, vice president, corporate partnerships, for the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United, said. “Have real conversations with young boys about sex and the respect of women.”
Rish gave a powerful and personal account of the experience of being a victim and called on those present to “Be an advocate to end human trafficking.”
At the end of the program, the organizers asked the participants to complete a commitment form.
The form asked for those present to agree to learn something, to say something, and to do something to combat human trafficking.
Audience For Program
Paula Nezda, North Oconee Rotary Club president, introduced the Feb. 6 program on human trafficking at the Oconee County Civic Center. Eighty people were in attendance at the session, which lasted a little more than an hour and a half.
The North Oconee Rotary Club held its first session on human trafficking in November of 2018, and about 150 people participated in that three-hour session.
Among those attending last Thursday night were Mokah Jasmine Johnson, candidate for the 117th Georgia House District seat, and Superior Court Judge Lisa Lott.
County Commissioner Mark Saxon was there, as were James Hale, candidate for Sheriff, Mike Hunsinger, candidate for Probate Judge, Johnny Pritchett, mayor of Bishop and candidate for Board of Commissioners Chair, and Brian Patterson, candidate for District Attorney.
The session was organized in collaboration with the Oconee County Sheriff’s Office, and Sheriff Scott Berry spoke at the front of the session.
“We tend to think this always happens to somebody else,” Berry said. “We have it right here in Oconee County. We have it in Oconee County today.”
Trafficking And Smuggling
Sally Sheppard, executive director of the Cottage Sexual Assault Center and Children’s Advocacy Center of Athens, told the group at the program’s beginning about the services provided by her centers to help victims of sex trafficking.
“It gives me great hope to see all of you here,” she said.
“One of the things we heard last year was that people wanted more detailed information on what it is they can do to help prevent human trafficking,” North Oconee Rotary Club Service Projects Chair Andrea Wellnitz said.
With that, she turned the program over to Richardson, who over the next 40 minutes used a series of slides and videos dealing with trafficking.
Richardson differentiated between human smuggling, which she called the illegal movement of someone across a border, and human trafficking, which she called the illegal exploitation of a person.
She also differentiated between labor trafficking and sex trafficking.
“We talk about sex trafficking a lot,” Richardson said, “but the reality is that more people are trafficked at labor even in the United States than by sex.”
“We are all part of the labor trafficking ring by not having awareness of the goods and services that we purchase and what their source is,” Richardson said. “We have a responsibility as consumers to do something about labor trafficking.”
Richardson asked the audience members to consider the foods that they eat, the personal services they use, and even the sales crews that they encounter selling or seeking donations.
“We also need to go to the source of this business and interrupt the business demand,” she said. “If the trafficker did not have a demand for men or some women who wanted to buy sex or exploit people for labor, they would not be recruiting victims.
“And too long that demand side has been left untouched,” she said.
Richardson said parents need to look at the apps their children use and the sites they visit to guard against their children being victims of sex trafficking.
She suggested some of the sites be blocked.
She said it also is important that parents know how to recognize trafficking.
Traffickers brand their victims with tattoos, using words like “daddy” or “cash,” according to a video that Richardson used.
Victims show sudden changes in dress and behavior and suddenly have possessions that they usually cannot afford, the video stated.
The victims have unusually long working hours, may have new relationships with boyfriends or girlfriends that are noticeably older, and have difficulty making eye contact, especially with men, the video stated.
Victims may have untreated medical problems such as cuts, bruises and burns and broken bones, may miss school frequently, make frequent trips, be unable to speak independently, and have other people insisting on answering questions for them, according to the video.
Richardson turned the program over to Rish from the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United, and Rish continued the discussion of sex trafficking.
Both the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United are owned by the Blank Family of Businesses. Arthur Blank, co-founder of Home Depot, owns the Blank Family of Businesses.
“Each month in Georgia, approximately 7,200 men will purchase sex from a minor,” Rish said. The average age of entry is 13 and a half, she added.
“Tonight, while you are sleeping, 100 juvenile girls will be sold for a sex act that would be too graphic to even discuss,” Rish said.
“Tonight, I want to talk to the parents and the grandparents in the room,” Rish said. “I want to challenge those of you with influence.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” she said. “For the most part, your children don’t look like the demographic of our trafficked victim. It’s not to say it’s not a possibility. But the majority of victims do not come from families that have the ability to attend a Rotary meeting.
“However you should be aware of the dangers so that you can arm the children in your lives for the possibility,” Rish added.
“The trafficker is going to approach them in places they feel safe, like shopping malls and movie theaters,” Rish said. “Places that you let them go alone. He’s going to be their friend. He might even start as their boyfriend. He may recruit them from one of their friends. He needs their trust.”
“He’s going to blend in where your children blend in,” Rish said. “Don’t discount that the trafficker may also be a woman. And don’t underestimate the fact that your child who is a male could also be the victim.”
Victims also recruit online, Rish told the audience.
“As concerned as you should be about protecting your children from the trafficker, I’m here today to ask you to consider an actual greater danger,” Rish said. “I want you to consider the uncomfortable chance that you might know the buyer.”
Buyer Lives Here
“If we can convince ourselves that he’s a guest or a visitor, it give us some sort of out that it’s not our problem and the responsibility is not ours,” Rish said. “Don’t get distracted by what makes it easy.”
“Our buyer lives here,” Rish said. “He’s here on a Wednesday or Thursday in the middle of February.”
Between 42 and 65 percent of the men purchasing sex from a child in Atlanta live in the golden triangle of north Atlanta, Rish said.
“He’s a father of two. He’s Caucasian. He makes six figures. And he lives in a neighborhood much like yours,” she said.
“He blends in so well that you don’t even know he’s there,” Rish said. “And your children may be spending the night at his house with his children.
“Meanwhile you’ve only warned them about the creepy guy driving slowly through the neighborhood in a white van, knowing that the real danger might be who is tucking them in at the Saturday night sleepover,” Rish said.
“It’s not just random people who are trafficking our children,” Rish said. “It’s often someone they know and trust.”
“For me, it’s personal,” Rish said. “I want to end with a story about a 12-year-old little girl.
“Her world view would forever be shattered one Saturday in September. She had just started seventh grade, “ she said. “But on that day with friends she became separated from the group and life as she knew it would never be the same.
“She got away from a man she knew trying to take advantage of her. She ran, locked herself in the bathroom, and cried,” Rish said.
“And when she regained composure she called her mother to come get her, and, out of fear, never spoke of it,” Rish continued. “Fear of retribution. Fear of not being believed. Fear of what would it do to her family.
“She would write it down on a piece of paper, prepared to give it to someone, and then tear it up and throw it away,” Rish continued. “From that moment on, she would rely on her faith and herself for protection.”
“I stand before you here today because that 12-year-old girl was me,” Rish said.
Fear Of Being Taken
“No, I’ve never been trafficked,” Rish said. “No where close. However I do know the fear of being taken. A fear that haunted me every day and every night. I was afraid he would come back.”
“I became actually afraid of everyone,” Rish said.
She said she developed tremors and a rapid heart rate and still suffers from these problems today.
“On that day the meaning of the word theft changed from taking something from me to taking something of me,” Rish said. “It was a moment in time that became a fixture in my mind. It was a moment I knew that I had to be an advocate for those that had no one else.”
“Statistics say that 20 percent of the women in this room can relate to this story,” Rish told the gathering.
“Had my story had a different ending, I do not believe I would be standing here in front of you today,” Rish said. “Nearly every child trafficking victim was first abused by someone they know.
“No one says anything about it because we have a culture of silence around sexual abuse,” Rish said. “We would rather cover it up than deal with it’s uncomfortable ramifications.”
What Can Be Done
“We have to have tough conversations to create change,” Rish said. “My ask of you is that you do what you can. When you think about the buyer, and you think that our kids might be spending the night at his house, it does create a sense of urgency, as it should.
“So what can you do?” Rish asked.
“First, talk to your children about their bodies and boundaries,” Rish said. “Have open dialog that they know they can come to you and that you’ll act responsibly.”
“Notice changes taking place in their lives,” she added.
“Men, I want to speak to you, because the only common statistic is men,” Rish said.
“Men have to hold men accountable,” Rish said. “The jokes, the stories, what happens on the business trips. You can’t push it aside. You’re complicit when you ignore it.”
Talk Is Crucial
“Women, we’re the worst at making excuses and covering things up,” Rish said.
“Trauma does not have to repeat itself,” she added. “Just because it happened to you doesn’t mean it has to happen to someone else.
“Have real conversations with young boys about sex and the respect of women,” Rish said.
“I grew up in an independent Baptist church, and the word sex was almost like saying a four-letter curse word,” Rish said.
“If we don’t talk about it, we only talk about our daughters, of how to protect themselves, when are we going to start raising boys that don’t need to be protected against?” Rish asked.
Conversations With Friends
“Have open conversations about trafficking with your friends,” Rish said. “At dinner parties, at church, at your places of work.
“What we won’t talk about can grow untethered,” she said. “As long as you won’t discuss it, it can continue to grow because there is nothing that can happen.”
“Educate yourself and your workforce,” Rish continued. “Know what to do when you see something.”
“Lastly, be an advocate to end human trafficking,” Rish said.
The videos below are of the session on Feb. 6 at the Civic Center.
Penny Mills and I both recorded the session, from different locations in the large room. I decided to make both of these available.
The first video is the one I recorded, and the second is the one recorded by Mills.
Richardson began speaking at 11:01 in the videos.
Rish began speaking at 50:02.
I spoke with Rish after the session and, at her request, edited out from the videos two sentences she had spoken. The length of that edit was less than 16 seconds.
The first video otherwise is a complete record of the evening, including of the time allowed for discussion following the formal presentations.
I cut out the work session at the end of the session from the second video.