“Building Bridges: Uniting to Combat Human Trafficking in Georgia” Summit hosted in Downtown Atlanta

Originally posted on MeetJustice.org August 2, 2011

On August 1, 2011, the Georgia State University Student center was bustling with Law Enforcement officers, Prosecutors, Victim Advocates, NGO representatives, and the Media– but they weren’t the only ones there. Everyday citizens also came out to attend the 2011 Building Bridges: Uniting to Combat Human Trafficking in Georgia summit. In sum, there were 158 law enforcement officers, 48 prosecutors, 45 community activists, 45 victim services representatives, 55 Government Health and Social Service representatives, 22 concerned citizens, and 90 others in attendance.

The biggest assembly of anti-trafficking leaders that’s ever occurred on a state level was organized and presented by U.S. Attorney Sally Quillian Yates and featured panelists and speakers from every category mentioned above. Governor Nathan Deal and First Lady Sandra Deal were also present to express their support. Many topics were up for discussion, but the major theme of the day was communication, cooperation and partnership among every one involved in the anti-trafficking community.

Four panels throughout the day covered different facets of human trafficking. The first panel was perhaps the most difficult of the day to work through: three survivors as well as the father of someone who did not survive the sex trafficking industry exhibited exceptional strength as they explained what victims of human trafficking can look like. Their testimonies, met with standing ovations, were accompanied by testimonies of key legal figures in their cases ( Defendants Amador Cortes-Meza and Jimmie Jones, AKA Mike Spadeare both currently serving time), formed a discussion of case studies in Georgia.

The second panel discussed federal and state laws that address human trafficking. There has been a significant shift in the way human trafficking cases are prosecuted. Historically, human traffickers were charged under broad racquettering laws and punished with paltry sentences. Hilary Axam, Director of the Human Trafficking Unit/Civil Rights Division, enumerated the multiple statutes that can now be used by officials to prosecute trafficking crimes. [1] After the session, Dekalb District Attorney Robert D. James, Jr. described his own personal mindset change. Up until meeting a survivor of sex trafficking and realizing that she “looked just like [him]”, James believed that his job as a prosecutor cleaning up the streets was to arrest the prostitutes. After what he coined as his “Damascus moment of understanding”, James realized that these women and children were victims of crime- and his role in the legal field is to help victims of crime.

Two guest speakers addressed the audience during a working lunch: Roy Austin, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Civil Rights Division and Richard Luis, a reporter with MSNBC. Austin continued with the theme of collaboration as he described the efforts of two police officers with no awareness training that compiled extensive profiles of human traffickers and their victims using a humble three-ring binder. Through the coordination of vice detectives and prosecutors, cops and rehabilitative services, NGO’s and private businesses and et cetera, human trafficking is an issue that can be confronted head on. Luis represented the reel of footage that documented the story of two of the victims who spoke earlier at the summit. They were Mexican teenage girls who were smuggled into Georgia under false pretence and forced to work as prostitutes. Along with this story, Luis highlighted the important role the media can play in awareness with a second story that explained how internationally trafficked victims can get assistance through T-Visas.

The third panel highlighted community perspectives and anti-trafficking efforts. In the previous panel, Senator Renee Unterman credited her joint success in developing HB 200 with Representative Lindsey and Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, to the community’s involvement in pushing for legislative change. Indeed, local grassroots groups, heavily dependent on volunteers, have been enormously important in stepping in to fill the financial and service gaps that the public sector cannot currently accomodate. Kaffie McCullogh of A Future. Not a Past provided an example of this by describing The Safety Gap, a fund that is supported by donors to rehabilitate victims of sex trafficking.

The fourth panel continued in that spirit by describing the needs of human trafficking victims. Representatives from Immigrations and Custom Enforcement (ICE) , Georgia Care Connection, A Future. Not a Past, and Tapestri all addressed how they helped victims of trafficking in their transition from victim to survivor. Keisha Head, a panelist representing A Future. Not a Past stood as living proof- she herself was a survivor, and confirmed the need for support. The transition, she said, was “very difficult”.

The final panel offered an open discussion, including a brief question-and-answer session with the audience. Important points and questions were raised about the need for improvement in awareness and training: one officer pointed out that, even as a commanding officer working in Five Points and the Airport, two hotspots for sex trafficking in Atlanta, he’d never even heard of the problem there. His statement revealed that while both NGO’s and government agencies have made miles of progress, there is still much work to be done in terms of working together to spread awareness among communities that need it most, such as police officers.

The good news: Awareness is being spread. The government is recognizing human trafficking victims as victims. In fact, many of the people that went to the event were there for continuing education credits, showing just how concerned government agencies like Immigration and Custom Enforcement are with addressing the issue of the sale of human beings. District Attorney James’ story is proof of the change that is taking place not only in public ideas, but also in legal practice. Throughout the summit, one thing was made clear. Georgia’s citizens and officials are committed to taking a stand against labor and sex trafficking, and working together is one more way of doing so.

[1] For a list of these statutes, as well as more detailed notes about the discussions of the Building Bridges Summit, check out Robyn Dooley’s notes.

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