Legislator discusses laws to combat sex trafficking - Oconee Enterprise: News

     Watkinsville, Oconee County, Georgia

Legislator discusses laws to combat sex trafficking

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Posted: Thursday, November 8, 2018 10:00 pm

Many times, when a child is trafficked, he or she knows the trafficker well, said Rep. Deborah Gonzalez at the human trafficking awareness forum Oct. 25.

“We had a case right here in Georgia where the parents would take their young daughter, who was 13, to the place where they had bought a used car and give her over to the 66-year-old owner, and that was how they paid their monthly car payment,” Gonzalez said to a shocked audience at the Oconee County Civic Center. “Think about that for a moment. Because it also means that traffickers aren’t always who we think they are or how the media portrays them. They could be our neighbors, someone we work with, someone we trust.”

Gonzalez, of Georgia District 117, and Sen. Renee Unterman of District 45 have been working for years to bring the issue of sex trafficking to the forefront of the state’s consciousness.

“Human trafficking is a highly profitable crime and there are two basic categories for human trafficking: labor and sex,” explained Gonzalez, who has worked with the Atlanta organization Street Grace and advocated for the Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Act during her career as a lawyer.

Despite Atlanta being named one of the hubs for sex trafficking in the nation—due, in part, to the location of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport—lawmakers in recent years have created progressive legislation meant to end child sex trafficking, said Gonzalez.

“There are still states around this country that will look at these children and prosecute them as criminals, as prostitutes,” said Gonzalez. “It was a big change when Georgia was able to say that there is no way that these children could have given any type of consent for the situation they find themselves in. And so instead of punishment for these victims, they actually look at how to get them treatment.”

Both federal and state laws play a part in preventing the trafficking of minors in the United States. At the federal level, the main piece of legislation protecting trafficking victims is known as the Trafficking Victim Protection Act.

“This is what, at the federal level, brings us this idea that these children are not criminals but victims,” explained Gonzalez. “What’s interesting about this act is that it was reauthorized in 2003, 2005, 2008, but in 2013 they did something: they did not reauthorize it as a separate bill. What they did do was put it as a part of another bill called the Violence Against Women Act, which is set to expire. This current legislature session, Congress has refused to reauthorize it. That’s important because without that federal legislation, a lot of the state legislation cannot be enforced as well.”

Sen. Renee Unterman of District 45 began championing the rights of sex trafficking victims in the Georgia Senate in 2009.

“To begin with, there was a huge resistance,” said Unterman, who was the only woman in her Republican caucus at the time. “And we have gone through this educational process since 2009. The very first bill I passed, it was so difficult. It was like moving the Earth.”

In 2011, House Bill 200, sponsored by Rep. Ed Lindsey and by Unterman in the Senate, increased the penalties that sex traffickers face.

“Previously, you got a tap on the wrist if you were a pimp in Atlanta—a $50 fine,” Unterman explained. “We increased so that you can get 10 to 20 years imprisonment and you can get fined up to $100,000.”

During the 2011 legislative session, Georgia Congress also created a unit within the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to confront child sex trafficking.

In 2015, Unterman sponsored Rachel’s Law, an amendment to the state Constitution that would extend the statute of limitations for sex trafficking victims from 23 years of age to 25 years of age.

83 percent of Georgia voters said ‘Yes’ to Rachel’s Law.

“What is most important is not these laws on the law books,” said Unterman. “The most important thing is the infrastructure that supports these children. We have 50,000 kids right now in the Georgia foster care system. Can you imagine how many of them come from child abuse histories—and how you have to take care of them? Unfortunately, for a child who has been involved in this industry, it’s not like other types of child abuse. It takes a lot of money, it takes a long time for remediation and therapeutic services. We had to change and create an infrastructure because at that time we didn’t have one.”

At that time, Georgia treated child sex trafficking victims like juvenile criminals.

“It doesn’t matter how young they are and it doesn’t matter how little time they spend as a sexual trafficking victim, it stays with them forever,” said Gonzalez.

“The hardest part of the laws that I had to get changed was the mentality of treating these children as victims, not criminals, and not having a permanent record that followed them from when they were 15 years old to 25 years old,” said Unterman. “If you do have that record, and you do have that history, what hope of a future do you have?”

Gonzalez said the most important change Georgians can make is a shift in their perception.

“We need federal legislation, we need state legislation, we need public awareness, but we also need a cultural change,” she said. “We have to change the way that women and young girls and young men are looked at as objects. If we continue to allow that to happen, we have a problem.”

For more stories, see the Nov. 7 edition of The Oconee Enterprise, on sale now at convenience stores and grocery stores and newspaper boxes throughout Oconee County. To subscribe, go to oconeeenterprise.com or call (706) 769-5175.

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