Street Grace, a faith-based organization that uses demand reduction strategies to eradicate the commercial sexual exploitation of children, held a Night of Awareness in Coweta Jan. 21.
Coweta FORCE, Coweta’s recovery community organization, and Community Christian Church partnered to hold the event, where local law enforcement and Street Grace Executive Director Camila Zolfaghari talked about trafficking in Georgia, and in the community.
Zolfaghari has a background in law enforcement as former chief human trafficking prosecutor for the attorney general, and former chief human trafficking prosecutor for Fulton County.
She said one of the reasons she’s at Street Grace is its focus on ending trafficking, and preventing it from happening. They do that through prevention, protection, policy and pursuit.
Zolfaghari said sex trafficking is any type of commercial sex that is compelled by force, fraud or coercion. When dealing with children, you don’t have to show coercion or deception.
In Georgia, children under 16 can’t consent to sex, and children under 18 can’t consent to commercial sex, Zolfaghari said.
“So anyone who buys or sells a child for sex is a trafficker,” Zolfaghari said.
Zolfaghari said language matters when talking about sex trafficking. She said there’s no such thing as a teen prostitute in Georgia because they legally can’t consent to sex.
She said traffickers look for the most vulnerable – whether that’s someone who is young, left unsupervised online or has already been abused.
“Traffickers are specifically looking for the vulnerable to target, and that means they don’t have to coerce them by kidnapping,” Zolfaghari said.
Coercion could be giving a child or teen drugs if they have a drug dependency, threatening to send explicit photos of them or threatening to kick them out of a home. Deception is lying about things like telling them they have to do something to get into the movie business, or convincing them they’re showing up for a casting call.
Zolfaghari said commercial sex doesn’t have to be in exchange for money, but it can also be in exchange for food, housing or clothing.
She said in the Atlanta area, buyers of sex trafficking tend to be married men or businessmen – people who don’t expect to spend any of their life in jail.
She said trafficking is such a big problem because it’s easily undetected, it’s a renewable resource, there’s access to supply and high demand, and it’s lucrative.
“It’s actually a $290 million industry in metro Atlanta each year,” Zolfaghari said.
What can make children most vulnerable to trafficking is if they are homeless or abandoned, marginalized or have been in foster care; previous sexual abuse; truancy; substance abuse; and access to technology. She said 70 to 90 percent of trafficking victims have been sexually abused prior to being trafficked.
“It is very, very rare that somebody wasn’t abused prior to being trafficked,” Zolfaghari said.
She said it’s a common misconception that Atlanta is a hot spot for trafficking because of the airport. Zolfaghari said there are very few cases that come out of the airport because the employees are well trained to look for trafficking.
Zolfaghari said so many cases originate near the airport because it’s where some of the cheapest hotels are in metro Atlanta.
She said in the last five years, in almost every case she has encountered, the victim met his or her trafficker online prior to running. Zolfaghari said this makes a broader number of people vulnerable.
“(Traffickers’) business model used to be cruising by the bus stop outside of juvenile court, walking through the juvenile court halls, looking at the mall during school hours,” Zolfaghari said. “But now (traffickers) are all online, and they are shooting messages to 50 people, and they can catch anyone when they’re vulnerable.”
Zolfaghari said boys are trafficked as well, and 16 percent of identified trafficking victims last year were male.
The average age of entry into sex trafficking is 13.9 – or between 12 and 14, Zolfaghari said. Thirty percent of identified victims were solely recruited online, and 69 percent of identified youth didn’t fully understand that they were being exploited.
Zolfaghari said some of the warning signs for those being trafficked includes having a significantly older boyfriend or girlfriend, being a chronic runaway, homelessness, suddently having new material goods, special tattoos or “branding,” sudden change in appearance or behavior, explicitly sexual online presence, multiple STI’s and a family history in the sex industry.
She said more trafficking cases in the community don’t necessarily mean trafficking is increasing, but that awareness may be increasing.
“As you see more cases, you want to applaud and support your leaders and your officers who are doing that, because they’re out there keeping us all safe,” Zolfaghari said.
Coweta County Sheriff's Office
Inv. Leslie Fluegeman with the Coweta County Sheriff’s Office Crime Suppression Unit also gave an update about what CCSO has done locally to combat sex trafficking.
Since October 2019, CCSO has carried out several prostituiton stings at local motels and made 71 arrests. Fluegeman said most of the motels are involved in the operation and want to help law enforcement.
“Most of the times they’re willing to give us rooms for the evening so we can try to lure some of these people to us, in hopes of identifying victims of sex trafficking,” Fluegeman said.
She said they’ll respond to ads of prositiution, most of which are online, through websites and social media. They’ll have the women, or men, come to the hotel, where undercover officers talk to the subjects.
Fluegeman said it’s usually half women and half men who show up. Once they come in, the undercover officers make contact with them, and then they begin making arrests.
Fluegeman interviews the suspects. She mainly talks to the females, as many of them are hesitant to talk to men.
She asks them when they last had a full meal, if they know where they are, how they got there and if they came there voluntarily. While she’s asking them questions, she’s also looking for bruises, cuts, cigarette burns or any other potential signs of physical abuse.
“I have to do a quick assessment and figure out is this someone we need to continue talking to, is this someone who is a victim of sex trafficking,” Fluegeman said.
Fluegeman said most of the women she deals with have children at home.
“It’s just trying to get to the root of why are you doing this, why are you in this situation, and what can we do to help get you out of it, is what our goal is,” Fluegeman said.
She said the sheriff’s office provides a list of resources – even to those who are there voluntarily – and most are receptive to the help.
“Even if they’re not a victim, still in the line of work that they’re doing, it’s very dangerous, obviously bad for their health, so anything that we can do to help them is what we’re trying to do,” Fluegeman said.
Fluegeman said just because they’ve arrested many people over the last couple of years in prostitution stings doesn’t mean Coweta isn’t a safe county.
“(That) couldn’t be more wrong,” Fluegeman said. “We have a unit who is dedicated to this that is actually making the cases and being proactive and trying to provide resources, bring awareness to the problem that we have.”
In the future, CCSO is hoping to hold classes for patrol officers to teach them to identify signs of sex trafficking, Fluegeman said.
“If we can save at least one person … all this is worth it,” Fluegeman said. “If it takes two years, five years, and we find one victim, then it’s all worth it.”
What if I know someone who is being trafficked?
If you suspect sex trafficking, report it right away. Report what you see or know, and let an expert determine if an investigation needs to be conducted. If someone is in immediate danger, call 911.
Resources for reporting sex trafficking:
• Georgia Cares Hotline 1-844-842-3678
• GBI Cyber Tip Line 1-800-843-5678
• National Human Trafficking Hotline 1-888-373-7888