Anderson and Thomas were part of the five-person team tasked with putting together the human trafficking unit in July 2011.
“My first thoughts were, we’re not going to have enough to keep us busy,” said Anderson. “But that is actually just the opposite. We have more cases than we know what to do with and it’s because now we’re actually starting to look for it. And so you’re looking around and you’re saying okay what I just thought was maybe a runaway or a child that got into some trouble was actually going to be considered human trafficking.”
“Most people," said Anderson, "the first thing that comes to mind with them is that oh, wow, that’s a really big problem – in other countries.”
In fact, human trafficking has a strong seedy underworld in Georgia and presents a real danger for vulnerable children, especially young women and girls.
There are two different types of human trafficking that the GBI office sees, and although sex trafficking is the most common, labor trafficking also occurs – in this scenario, young women are enticed to come to another country, for instance the United States, under the guise of a promised job or educational opportunity. Instead, they find themselves held hostage, their documents often taken away, as they are essentially kept on house arrest and made to perform domestic labor as live-in maids, with no compensation or opportunity to leave.
“It is equally as heinous as sex trafficking,” said Thomas. “With labor trafficking, there was a case that was handled by one of our federal counterparts a few years ago a little bit north of Atlanta where an individual approached a family overseas and asked if that individual could bring the daughter back over here to get a United States education as well as employ the daughter as the family nanny…Unfortunately, when she got over here, it wasn’t the circumstances that were described. Yes, she was acting as the nanny, but unfortunately she was also a labor slave. She was forced to sleep in the garage with no blankets. She cooked for all the children but she couldn’t eat normal food; she could only eat food that had been thrown away or spoiled…Physical force, everything you can imagine. That’s to say, labor trafficking, you’re not going to hear it all that often as the main topic in the newspaper, but it is equally as bad.
“While that is a problem," said Anderson, "the biggest thing my office has chosen to focus on is domestic sex trafficking, with a bigger emphasis on commercial sexual exploitation of children, which you guys probably know better as child prostitution...We’re trying to get rid of the mindset of saying juvenile prostitution.”
Equally as surprising and counterintuitive as their discovery that human trafficking was much more common than anticipated was its relation to areas that weren't necessarily urban.
“When we come, especially to rural counties, and I was the same way, I used to think that this just isn’t happening here,” said Anderson. “But in the year that I’ve been doing this I’d say that 90 percent of our cases come from runaways. So then what you have to ask yourself when you encounter a child that’s a runaway is, number one, what is she running from? What is so bad in her home life or what is she missing, what is she lacking that’s causing her to think about this? To run into something like this? So you’ve got a lot of psychological issues that you already have in mind.
“We’re not saying that every child that runs away is going to become a victim of human trafficking,” she said. “But most of these girls that we encounter, a lot of these girls are going to be runaways from your area. It’s not just runaways from Atlanta.”
Anderson and Thomas emphasized the importance of teachers and officers of the law in keeping an eye open for warning signs of human trafficking, and that children can become vulnerable and exploited much younger than one might think.
“We know from our experience that the average age of entry into human trafficking or into CSEC (commercial sexual exploitation of children) is 12 years old," said Anderson. "So these girls, they get upset, maybe they’re being molested at home, for whatever reason they’re being beaten, they’re missing something, they’re just looking for a father figure. They get out on the streets and they find themselves with nowhere to go, no money for food, no clothes. And so it’s usually with 24 to 48 hours, they’re going to be approached by an exploiter. And whether he takes the ‘Hey come and stay with me, I’ll give you shelter’ approach or the ‘Hey honey you’re gorgeous, you’re beautiful’ and starts befriending this girl and acting like a boyfriend. So you’re going to have all of these emotional ties. So the question becomes why didn’t she just leave?
“We’ve asked many many girls this. I asked one girl, I said ‘What was going on? What made you choose this lifestyle?’ And she said, ‘Well, I was being molested at home by my stepfather, I might as well get paid to do it.’ It’s a slap in the face of reality.
“There’s a lot more going on with these girls — and I hate to keep saying girls but that’s the majority of our cases — than what’s really on the top of the surface,” said Anderson.
If anyone notices new or unusual behavior in children — including injuries or other signs of physical abuse, malnourishment, disorientation, a lack of identification or documentation, avoiding eye contact or appearing fearful of authority figures or law enforcement — it is recommended to contact the GBI human trafficking unit at 404-270-8555.