Breaking the chain

Nonprofits are an essential part of a team approach to halt sex trafficking in metro Atlanta and care for its vulnerable survivors

Illustration by Shout

An eclectic and energetic mix of groups are joining forces to combat a common opponent: sex trafficking in metro Atlanta. Nonprofits, faith-based organizations, elected officials, government agencies, law enforcement, and volunteers are using the buildup to next year’s Super Bowl to boost awareness and attack a problem that plagues the area.

The Atlanta-based International Human Trafficking Institute is working with the Super Bowl Host Committee to train its 10,000 volunteers as the February 3 event approaches. Nonprofit leaders hope to both educate people to identify potential victims and dispel misconceptions where people equate sex trafficking with what’s seen in movies.

“Atlanta has been on the FBI’s top 10 list for human trafficking activity now for 15 years,” says Deborah J. Richardson, executive director of the institute, founded in 2014 by the Center for Civil and Human Rights. “We have a trafficking problem today, and we’re going to have one after the Super Bowl.”

The hurt is too real: Every month, 354 minors are sold for sex to 7,200 men in Georgia, according to the state attorney general’s office.

The daily work by nonprofits is being bolstered by elected officials and government agencies. Earlier this year, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms appointed Oulèye N. Warnock as the city’s first senior human trafficking fellow to develop and help implement a citywide policy to prevent human trafficking and support survivors. The state relaunched the Demand An End Initiative in 2017 with Street Grace and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to train city and county workers here and in other states to identify the signs of suspected sex trafficking and to equip law enforcement.

“Atlanta has long been regarded as one of the greatest offenders in this space of sex trafficking,” says Bob Rodgers, president and CEO of Street Grace, an Atlanta-based organization seeking to end sex trafficking. “I think it’s very appropriate for us to be a national leader now.”

Atlanta’s high amount of trafficking is due to a number of factors, including corporate and convention entertaining, an international airport, and multiple interstates. “Being able to come in and out of this city so easily makes us a very easy place to harbor, unfortunately, human trafficking victims,” says Junior League of Atlanta President Carla C. Smith.

The Junior League of Atlanta supports programs that are decreasing the demand and raising awareness for the prevention of the commercial sexual exploitation of children and human trafficking, as well as assisting survivors and individuals at risk. Partners include the Georgia Center for Child Advocacy, Georgia Asylum and Immigration Network (GAIN), Georgia Cares, Street Grace, Wellspring Living, and youthSpark.

The organization is also an advocate for policy changes. For example, it was part of a statewide coalition that worked to pass a constitutional amendment creating the state’s Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund. Voters in 2016 approved the fund, which is expected to provide up to $2 million annually for nonprofits, faith-based groups, and agencies that provide resources such as housing, counseling, and medical treatment to victims.

“Initially, it was very taboo for the Junior League. That’s where the educational piece came in. When you think about a young child that’s 11 years old and being abducted and sold for sexual purposes, how could you not want to be involved?” Smith says. “We are fire starters, so that lit a fire under the women of the league. And it hasn’t gone away. It’s continued to be one of our largest volunteer areas.”

In 2015, the Junior League of Atlanta awarded $100,000 to youthSpark for its campaign to build out safe housing. And in 2017, it gave a $240,000 grant to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to launch the Institute on Healthcare and Human Trafficking. The institute, within CHOA’s Stephanie V. Blank Center for Safe and Healthy Children, provides resources and research to prevent trafficking and identify and treat victims. It also offers online and on-site training and conducts research on trafficking among youth. “It’s not just girls. We’re also seeing numbers go up in cases for boys now,” Smith says.

In its first year with the grant, CHOA has trained more than 2,500 healthcare professionals and trainees, including pediatric, internal medicine, emergency department, and labor and delivery staff, as well as medical, nursing, and public health students.

“We realize we can’t really help victims unless we all work together,” says Dr. Jordan Greenbaum, the institute’s medical director.

Street Grace, a faith-based organization, provides education and runs campaigns to identify buyers of sex and stop transactions around the U.S. Rodgers says although there’s a belief that most of the victims are brought into the community from other states and countries, the majority of kids and adults bought and sold for sex live in metro Atlanta. “It is primarily
a community problem,” he says.

A 2014 report by the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center estimated the commercial sex economy in Atlanta was worth about $290 million annually in 2008, a figure that Rodgers believes has declined because of efforts by law enforcement, legislation, corporations, nonprofits, and the faith community.

By using programs such as Transaction Intercept that use decoy ads, Street Grace intercepted about 3,000 potential sex transactions in 2016, 10,000 in 2017, and anticipates disrupting tens of thousands of transactions in 2018. Street Grace received $20,000 this year from the United Way of Greater Atlanta to support its work.

“We will end the problem when we remove the cloak of anonymity,” Rodgers says. “That’s where we will cause a breakdown in the overall industry.”

Super Bowl education and training efforts will move Human Traffick Proof the ATL, a group that includes nonprofit leaders, toward its three-year goal to train 50,000 people. “This strategic initiative led by our partners will live long past Super Bowl LIII,” says Lee Hendrickson, vice president of community engagement and volunteer programs. “Our goal is for more groups to work together to bring awareness to this horrific social issue and positively impact change.”

More than 200 people from the public, philanthropic, private, public safety, and faith sectors joined to create a multi-sector, three-year strategic plan.

Workers at hotels and motels, restaurants, gas stations, and convenience stores, as well as shared-ride drivers may be the first to see individuals being trafficked, Richardson says. Individuals from these key groups receive training at their workplace or during events such as Human Trafficking Awareness Day on January 11.

“They’re thinking Taken, or they’re thinking, ‘It would never happen in my community,’ and so the approach is to help people understand the true picture of trafficking,” says Mary Frances Bowley, founder and executive director of Wellspring Living, which provides residential campuses in Atlanta and Duluth, and community-based programs for survivors.

In the past year, sex trafficking arrests have resulted in stings in Lawrenceville and Dunwoody, where Bowley says one of Wellspring’s current residents was found at an apartment complex across from the police department. That victim told Bowley that most of the men who received sex were middle-aged, white businessmen, doctors, lawyers, and politicians who are married with children.

“There’s this big myth that this is an inner-city problem,” Smith says.

The training in advance of the Super Bowl could have an exponential, long-term effect, Rodgers says, in equipping those residents to identify the signs of sex trafficking.

“Eventually the goal is to no longer have victims to rescue,” Richardson says.

On Wellspring’s eight-acre campus near the airport, Bowley touches her key card on a security pad to enter the two-story building where 12- to 17-year-old females live for up to 13 months. A sign written in marker reminds these victims of domestic minor sex trafficking, “Even at your weakest you are still strong because you survived.” On a piece of notebook paper in the hallway, someone has written, “You’re awesome. Always remember that.”

Next door, a recently renovated and redecorated building provides 12 more units for women age 18 to 21; its campus in Duluth also is a residential community for women ages 18 to 32, for up to 18 months.

Bowley walks past painted signs with words like Joy, Peace, Discover, and Inspire above the bedroom doorways. They’re meant to remind the girls who they can be.

Wellspring also offers its residents trauma therapy, life skills training, and education as a state-recognized residential school. Its Women’s Academy provides career readiness training plus paid 12-week apprenticeships with companies and agencies including UPS, Randstad, Fulton County, Accenture, and Delta Air Lines. Cohorts of 20 women start four times a year, and its summer cohort was over capacity. An estimated 85 percent of apprentices are hired.

“We are extremely excited because truly what we’re seeing also is that most of our women who come into the academy have children, so you’re talking about a two-generation impact,” Bowley says. “If we’re going to stop trafficking, we’ve also got to make children less vulnerable. So, this is both responsive and preventative.”

In their education, awareness, and fundraising efforts, nonprofits emphasize how sex trafficking is an illegal activity where victims are abused.

“The work is really challenging. You’re consistently hearing the worst things that people can do to other humans,” says Amelia Quinn, founder of BeLoved Atlanta, which offers a two-year program for women 18 and up with free housing and a focus on restoration, education, and employment.

BeLoved, which began in 2012, has grown to accommodate 11 women in its program that provides housing, counseling, job readiness training, and apprenticeships. “The amount of beds we still offer as a city are very low,” she says.

As training opportunities expand, nonprofits continue to add ways to help survivors. For example, The Junior League and Georgia Center for Child Advocacy launched earlier this year the Envision Project, a job training and mentoring program funded by a three-year, $600,000 grant. Tahirih Justice Center, which provides legal services to immigrant women and girls, also opened an Atlanta office this year. “It’s been really inspiring to see the Atlanta community coming together,” says Shana Tabak, executive director of Tahirih.

This fall, Wellspring launched a partnership with Atlanta Public Schools to provide mental health services, a clothing boutique (stocked by the Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta), a food and toiletries pantry, and laundry facilities, in hopes of identifying female victims and taking them out of trafficking. The first program is at Crim Open Campus High School, says Bowley, who cites that 90 percent of victims are in high school when they are being trafficked.

“There’s a greater recognition now than ever before that this is ugly, it’s horrific, it’s dark, and it’s evil,” Rodgers says. “But if we don’t step into it, it will continue to grow.

“And fortunately we have begun to lock arms and say, ‘Enough is enough, we are stepping into the darkness and we’re going to do something about this,’ and that’s pretty cool.”

Want to Know More?
These upcoming events educate and promote awareness of sex trafficking.

Linking Freedom in Our Backyard
Event at Atlanta’s Renovation Church
9 a.m.–2 p.m., January 26

Bus Tours
Human Traffick Proof The ATL will partner with Wellspring Living for tours that expose the reality of trafficking. Bus tours start at the Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta. For info about tour dates and times, visit