2018-10-10 / Front Page

Could it happen here?


It was the start of Homecoming Week, and the three teenage girls had just finished working on their parade float with classmates. Just after 8 p.m. the girls ran into the Waynesboro Walmart, excited to pick up some paint to decorate their powder puff game T-shirts. The events that followed on that Monday night left a 16-year-old girl terrified and now serve as a reminder that we are never as safe as we think we are.

Between their banter and giggles, trying to decide which color paint to use, the trio of girls didn’t at first notice the man following them from aisle to aisle. But he kept showing up. In the craft section. By the paint. At the self checkout register. “He stopped and stared us up and down,” she recalls, “and I just tried to ignore him.”

Then she noticed an unusually large group of Hispanic men dispersed throughout the store. “They were all over Walmart, and all of them were on their phones,” she said, describing how she and her friends felt as though they were being watched. “It was just very fishy.”

As she and her friends exited the store, the one man who seemed to be following them was on their heels. While he headed to a truck directly across from where their separate vehicles were parked, she says she noticed several men hovering, sitting around the sides and on the tailgate. Half a dozen or so piled into the truck’s cab. When she drove off, alone, they were right behind her.

“They followed me to Taco Bell,” she recalls with terror, “and they didn’t even order. They followed my car into the line and everything and as soon as I pulled out, they came, too. They wouldn’t stop following me.”

A red light ultimately put a stop to the chase, but her mother can’t help but wonder what could have happened to her only daughter if that truck full of men had continued their pursuit. While human trafficking does not appear to be an issue locally, Waynesboro Police Chief Augustus Palmer says that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

“There’s not a huge outcry or a lot of reports coming to us,” he said, adding that more rural areas like Burke County aren’t hotspots like Augusta or Atlanta. “However, we would rather investigate a situation and it turn out to be nothing than for someone to become a victim. Anyone who feels threatened should report it, and let us determine if there’s any merit. That’s what we are here for.”

Burke County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Lewis Blanchard says the county has not received any reports of human trafficking either, and both men also said prostitution is a common offense within the community’s borders.

However, according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, human trafficking is oftentimes disguised as prostitution, and victims are forced to say they keep the money from each rendezvous and deny having a “pimp” or “daddy” who schedules their dates with random men. “There’s not one easy thing that points to it, nothing that says, ‘These people are involved in human trafficking,’” Chief Palmer says, adding that many of the pimps in metropolitan areas like Atlanta come to the city specifi- cally to work their girls. “They live in suburbia, in nice normal neighborhoods. You wouldn’t normally suspect them.”

According to iCare, an Augusta based advocate group for victims of human sex trafficking, 200 girls are sold per night in the state of Georgia, and many of them are lured into the dangerous world by older men who gain their trust just to exploit them. While they tend to target young girls who are victims of abuse or have low self-esteem, anyone can become a victim, regardless of their sex, race or ethnicity. While many of the women involved in human trafficking willingly join the sex workforce, some are kidnapped and forced to expend their bodies for the monetary gain of the men who take them.

Chief Palmer says anyone who thinks they are being followed should always get to somewhere safe, well-lit and inhabited by other people. “Don’t ever isolate yourself, and you should immediately call law enforcement,” he says, adding that being observant can help save lives. “If there’s a vehicle involved, look at it and get as much information as you can: color, make, model, year. Get a good description of the offender: race, sex, height, clothing. Are they wearing a coat or a sweater? Jeans or khakis? If they’re wearing a cap, what color is it? Be very observant and aware of your surroundings, and always, always seek out a place of safety.”


Myth: Trafficked persons can only be foreign nationals or are only immigrants from other countries.

Reality: The federal definition of human trafficking victims includes both U.S. citizens and foreign nationals. Both are protected under the federal trafficking statutes and have been since the TVPA of 2000. Human trafficking within the United States affects victims who are U.S. citizens, lawful permanent residents, visa holders and undocumented workers.

Myth: Human trafficking is essentially a crime that must involve some form of travel, transportation or movement across state or national borders.

Reality: Trafficking does not require transportation. Although transportation may be involved as a control mechanism to keep victims in unfamiliar places, it is not a required element of the trafficking definition. Human trafficking is not synonymous with forced migration or smuggling, which involve border crossings.

Myth: Victims of human trafficking will immediately ask for help or assistance and will self-identify as a victim of a crime.

Reality: Victims of human trafficking often do not immediately seek help or self-identify as victims of a crime due to a variety of factors, including lack of trust, self-blame or specific instructions by the traffickers regarding how to behave when talking to law enforcement or social services. It is important to avoid making a snap judgment about who is or who is not a trafficking victim based on first encounters. Trust often takes time to develop. Continued trust-building and patient interviewing is often required to get to the whole story and uncover the full experience of what a victim has gone through.

Myth: Human trafficking victims always come from situations of poverty or from small rural villages.

Reality: Although poverty can be a factor in human trafficking because it is often an indicator of vulnerability, poverty alone is not a single causal factor or universal indicator of a human trafficking victim. Trafficking victims can come from a range of income levels, and many may come from families with higher socioeconomic status.

Myth: Sex trafficking is the only form of human trafficking.

Reality: The federal definition of human trafficking encompasses both sex trafficking and labor trafficking, and the crime can affect men and women, children and adults.

Myth: Human trafficking only occurs in illegal underground industries.

Reality: Trafficking can occur in legal and legitimate business settings as well as underground markets. Human trafficking has been reported in business markets such as restaurants, hotels and manufacturing plants, as well as underground markets such as commercial sex in residential brothels and street based commercial sex.

*from the National Human Trafficking Hotline

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