Eyes opened to human trafficking

by Sarah Fay Campbell

“As long as we assume that the problem is someplace else, we don’t really deal with what is going on,” said Cynthia Myers, who runs the “Prestige” program at World Changers Church in College Park.

Myers spoke about her experience at last week’s symposium on human trafficking, hosted by several local Rotary Clubs.

Myers, of Tyrone, works with women in the sex industry as part of her job. Once a month, she and others visit strip clubs and speak with prostitutes on the streets of Atlanta. They work with adults only, and while many of the women are in the industry of their own free will, not all of them are.

Myers wants men to know “you don’t know if the woman entertaining you is there because she is being forced to be there by her pimp. … what you think is a woman walking up and down the street may actually be a young girl,” she said.

Myers said she’d like to see seminars about human trafficking held all over the state.

“Because it is in every community,” she said. “In some communities it is perhaps more obvious, but I assure you that it is everywhere.”

Sometimes young girls run away — or just go out — and end up drugged and taken to the other side of the country. Myers recollects a call she received from Seattle, Washington, regarding a young girl who was taken by a man, and when she woke up, she was in New York. There, she was arrested for prostitution.

Just before this year’s Super Bowl, law enforcement busted a sex trafficking ring and rescued 16 teenagers. Some of the teens were as young as 13, and several had been reported missing by their families. The “recovery” operation took place in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and included the arrest of 45 pimps and their associates.

In many cases, teens are lured into human trafficking by pimps and others who are, initially, very nice to them. Often, these teenagers have experienced sexual abuse or have been abused or neglected at home.

“The way things are going, there is a never-ending supply of young ladies, and a never-ending supply of men who are prepared to pay for sex,” said Myers. “It is very sobering.”

“There are many layers to this. What I find in talking with people, in general, folks are just absolutely oblivious when it comes to understanding how pervasive the problem is,” Myers said.

Grantville Police Chief Doug Jordan was one of several law enforcement officers who attended the symposium, held at Cornerstone United Methodist Church.

“The symposium was excellent,” Jordan said. “It’s a problem that people don’t hear about. So it’s not at the top of the list, but it is there,” he said.

The symposium featured a panel discussion with representatives from the GBI and Immigrations and Custom Enforcement, U.S. Attorney Susan Coppedge, Ga. Attorney General Sam Olens, and Mary Frances Bowley of Wellspring Living, which provides a home for victims of human trafficking. There were also breakout sessions, including one for law enforcement, one for teens, one for men, and one about services provided to victims of trafficking.

“Olens spoke about changes to state law that will increase prosecution of those who buy sex,” Jordan said.

A lot of the girls who are being trafficked are “afraid of law enforcement,” he said. “They are afraid to be taken out of the only world they know.”

Teenagers Tavaris Johnson and AnnaLisa Chavez are members of the Youth Advisory Board for Family Patterns Matter and both attended the symposium.

“It was really informative for me, personally,” said Chavez, who is involved with other agencies working to end human trafficking.

During the presentation, she was watching the reactions of others. “When they would tell stories, like about a 14-year-old girl, it was shocking. They didn’t want to believe it was real,” she said.

Johnson said he had no idea how prevalent human trafficking is. “It kind of opened my eyes to the situation,” he said.

Ginger Jackson-Queener, president of the Coweta-Fayette Rotary Club, said the community response was overwhelming.

Queener said she counted 236 participants at the event, including law enforcement officers from five counties.

“To me, it was powerful. As bad and as tough as the topic is, it was a beautiful thing to see our community come together,” Queener said.

“I was in awe that so many people came out. It was just amazing.”

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