A trifecta unfolded to help rid Georgia of the ever-growing number of sexual exploitation of children and human trafficking cases.
By Lindsay Field Penticuff
It all started by happenstance.
“I was at a groundbreaking for the Receiving Hope Center, which is a residential intake center for trafficked youth in Georgia, when I met Georgia First Lady Marty Kemp and started talking to her about the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Georgia (CACGA),” recalls Aleks Jagiella-Litts, CEO and General Counsel for CACGA
With 52 centers spanning across Georgia, Jagiella-Litts was confident that the CACGA could play an integral role in supporting the First Lady’s initiative, as children who are victims of sexual exploitation and human trafficking are also victims of child abuse.
“No one takes better care of children in these situations than interventional specialists, detectives and health care staffs that work across the state in our children’s advocacy centers,” Jagiella-Litts says. “Our centers have the specialists who can walk through these cases all along the way with children, and we can help change the trajectory for these children, which can have a ripple effect that can go on for generations.”
Why human trafficking?
While attending a press conference at Atlantic Station in early 2019 for her husband, First Lady Kemp saw 72 school buses lined up in the street outside the event. “It represented 3,600 children who are taken into human trafficking in a single year in Georgia,” she recalls learning that day. After campaigning for more than two years with her husband, First Lady Kemp wanted to know why she hadn’t heard this statistic before. “I wanted to know why we weren’t talking about it, and after I started learning about it, I figured out why people aren’t talking more about it — because it’s so difficult to talk about — but we are going to talk about it now.”
In February of 2019, First Lady Kemp formed the Georgians for Refuge, Action, Compassion and Education (GRACE) Commission, which was created to combat the threat of human trafficking in Georgia. “Sexual exploitation of children and human trafficking is everywhere,” she says. “It’s not just in metro Atlanta, and it’s not just in poverty-stricken areas. It gives nobody a hall pass and affects everybody. We just need to be able to talk about it so that our kids are aware of it, and so that we can help protect our vulnerable.”
In order to support First Lady Kemp’s push to end human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children in Georgia, CACGA helped create the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) Response Team. Launched in October 2020, the team is a multiyear project administered by the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and funded in part by an $800,000 grant from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Office for Victims of Crime. The CSEC Response Team is designed to improve the lives and overall outcomes for child and youth victims of human trafficking, child sex trafficking, and other sexual exploitation of children for commercial purposes.
“We formed the GRACE Commission so that Gov. Brian Kemp and I could bring all the experts to the table, and we learned through the creation of the CSEC Response Team that there have been experts who have been working on this for decades all along,” says First Lady Kemp. “I’m humbled and honored to be associated with so many great people who are working so hard. I’m just here to support them.”
Jagiella-Litts says that Georgia is lucky to have our CSEC Response Ream, as well as support from First Lady Kemp and the state, because programs like this are not available in some states. “People are often afraid to talk about this, because it’s a very secretive topic,” she adds. “But we protect the perpetrators by keeping it in the dark, and you can’t eradicate something you can’t see or isn’t being talked about.”
SafePath stepped up to serve
Before launching the CSEC Response Team, Jagiella-Litts reviewed state data to help identify regions that are considered “hot spots” for the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Three of the hot pots are in the Atlanta area, including Cobb County, and a fourth is in middle Georgia. Each hot spot received a $40,000 grant to help support their response to CSEC in their regions.
“I was one of the first people Aleks reached out to,” says Jinger Robins, CEO and founder of Marietta-based SafePath Children’s Advocacy Center, which serves children and families in Cobb County and surrounding areas. “She asked if we’d be willing to take on this challenge as one of the core regions with higher numbers, and I didn’t even stop for a second to think about it. I knew we wanted to say, ‘yes.’”
SafePath is one of the strongest children’s advocacy centers in the state, says Jagiella-Litts. “Jinger has a phenomenal intervention team. They are on every training we provide, and they are always there and want to know how they can do better to serve the kids across our state.”
Upon learning about the CSEC Response Team and how children’s advocacy centers would support First Lady Kemp’s initiative, Robins recalled a child abuse case her team responded to 15 years ago. “The parents were having their teenage daughter engage in sexual behavior with the owner of their trailer for their rent,” Robins recalls. “Looking back, we’ve had a number of cases like that, but they were never identified as sexual exploitation or human trafficking.”
They have also realized that runaways aren’t always runaways. “Through a different lens of human trafficking and child exploitation, we are trying to figure out who or what those children may have been running away from or to,” adds Robins. And with support from First Lady Kemp, the GRACE Commission, and the CSEC Response Team, SafePath is now able to better identify and serve children who are victims of sexual exploitation and human trafficking.
“This partnership makes Cobb an even a better place to live,” Robins adds. “We are offering an ‘out’ for these children, and we are offering the services it takes to protect our children — not just from a basic level, but from all the intricate levels that get involved with children who are sexually exploited and victims of trafficking. That is huge, because it shows that Cobb’s commitment to protecting children has grown to the next level.”
And First Lady Kemp is extremely appreciative for the work of Robins, SafePath, and other children’s advocacy centers across the state that are working diligently to combat this issue. “Thank you for putting a louder voice on this,” she concludes. “Everybody deserves a good life. These kids don’t deserve to lose their childhood. We are going to fight for them — every single day — until we can get this out of our state.”
A snapshot of CSEC Response Team referrals received since Oct. 1, 2020:
Total number of referrals: 181
Active cases: 138
Closed cases: 40
Hotline calls: 103
Web referrals: 171 (overlap with Hotline for many)
It’s time to open your eyes
The internet is so prevalent these days, especially with the pandemic, so it’s even more important for parents, teachers, and caregivers to keep a watchful eye on the changing behaviors of young people.
“A lot of parents are handing an iPad over to their child and asking them to entertain themselves while they work,” Jagiella-Litts says. “That child could get on an app and you think it’s just a game, but people are able to communicate through those games. And it’s not just strangers, it’s people children may know. There are also young ladies and men who are selling naked pictures of themselves on the internet.”
Things to watch out for may include children who suddenly have a cell phone or extra cash — when the child doesn’t have a job and won’t really say where the money comes from — or if they notice the child has a tattoo, as it’s illegal for children under 18 to get tattoos in Georgia, even with parental consent.
“There are a lot of parents who are exploiting their own children to pay rent, make a car payment, pay grocery bills,” Jagiella-Litts adds. “You can’t do anything about something you don’t see, but if people in Cobb County would just open their eyes and look, they would see it.”
To learn more about how to identify the signs of sexual exploitation of children or human trafficking, visit youtube.com/embed/uaXBI-qF9wc?rel=0. The Georgia Department of Administrative Services worked with First Lady Kemp to create a 30-minute training video. “It equips you with the tools to know what to look for, because once you learn how to identify it, you can’t help but want to do something about it,” First Lady Kemp said.
Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC) Hotline: 1-866-NHTGA
Local and state websites:
GRACE Commission: gov.georgia.gov/first-lady/grace-commission
Children’s Advocacy Centers of Georgia: cacga.org
SafePath Children’s Advocacy Center: safepath.org
First Lady and GRACE Commissions Human Trafficking Awareness training video: youtube.com/embed/uaXBI-qF9wc?rel=0