Eleven years ago, the FBI issued a status report that shook much of the country out of its blissful slumber. Child sex trafficking was no longer that horrible thing that happened to kids in foreign territories. It had reached epidemic proportions in 14 major U.S. metropolises — right under the noses of everyday civilians — and the “Black Mecca” was one of the biggest playgrounds for child predators.
World-class entertainment and convention centers, popular sports franchises and the globe’s busiest airport have made the city of Atlanta a magnet for sexual deviants. With an estimated $32 billion in profit up for grabs, human trafficking is the third-largest international crime industry. Only drug and arms trafficking generate more. Yet experts say it is the fastest growing criminal trade.
A developmental psychologist at Georgia State University, a public research institution that weaves through the heart of the city, was one of the many residents awakened by the startling news.
“I was deeply shocked to read that Atlanta was on that list,” Dr. Ann Cale Kruger said in a phone interview with Atlanta Black Star.
In September of that same year, a public health study highlighting the city’s problem of commercial sexual exploitation of children revealed that Atlanta’s typical victim was an African-American girl between 12 and 13 years of age. “Hidden in Plain View: The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Girls in Atlanta” exposed the seedy underground network of escort agencies, massage parlors and strip clubs that harbor these underage victims. The study’s accompanying map showed that areas with the highest crime activity were also, not surprisingly, the most socioeconomically disadvantaged.
“These are children who have either been snatched, abducted or lured or have been runaways and then find themselves in an unplanned, unintentional and horrific nightmare of being unable to leave — being basically enslaved,” Kruger noted.
Kruger, who teaches classes on educational psychology, special education, and communication disorders at the College of Education & Human Development, said she was particularly dismayed by the fact that a significant portion of the high-risk zones were clustered around schools in the Atlanta Public system. The college of education had a longstanding relationship with the district.
“These are the very schools where we send our students to conduct research or to become licensed psychologists, teachers – all of the different school services that we prepare our students for,” she said.
The associate professor was concerned that she regularly trained aspiring researchers and health practitioners in the local schools on how to create the best possible environment for children and provide the best services for them, yet this was happening in the same spaces where she worked.
She partnered with colleague Joel Meyers, executive director of the GSU Center for Research on School Safety, School Climate and Classroom Management, and the two called for a meeting of the minds: researchers, policymakers, social workers, law enforcement officials and other criminal justice representatives who were in the trenches, for some insight into the ongoing battle.
Stephanie Davis, adviser on women’s issues to then-mayor Shirley Franklin, had worked on the public health study. She was in attendance for the meeting.
“She would look out our conference room window and point to buildings,” Kruger recalled, “and say, ‘I know that in this building and in that building, and in that building, there are children being held there.’ It was so disturbing. It was an unreal feeling.”
The conference left Kruger and Meyers reeling, but as prevention researchers, they felt compelled to do what they know best.
“Rather than deal with the horrible outcome of trafficking, we wanted to study. What are the lives like of the children who live in the neighborhoods? What might prompt the child to run away? What might prompt the child to be vulnerable to being lured or snatched?,” Kruger said. “And how can we work in schools to make the school environment the best and most supportive place for those girls and minimize the chance that something terrible like this will happen to them?”
The team headed back to the schools with a new mission: to talk to these high-risk children before they became lost to the cycle. Thanks to a well-connected coworker, they were able to organize an after-school intervention program.
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SOURCE: Atlanta Black Star, Shaundra Selvaggi