Georgia’s first couple has made a priority of fighting the selling of children for sex almost since the day they entered the governor’s mansion in 2019. But it’s the kind of evil that needs fighting — and healing — from a number of angles.
Gov. Brian Kemp and First Lady Marty Kemp announced this week that new legislation is coming that would tighten up restrictions on sex traffickers and offer some new relief to victims.
Children who tend to be vulnerable to being sold for sex include runaways or those graduating out of foster care, according to Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vic Reynolds. Though Reynolds has also seen middle-class and well-off victims too. The vast majority of victims are relatively young females, he said, though the GBI does see males being trafficked.
The Kemps’ proposed legislation would have people register as sex offenders if they have a felony conviction for pimping, pandering, or keeping a place of prostitution if the victim is under the age of 18.
Another new law would close what Marty Kemp called a “loophole” by banning sexual contact between a foster parent and a minor foster child. Right now it’s only a crime if the child is under 17. Kemp also wants to ban anybody from having a commercial drivers license if they have used a commercial vehicle to commit sex or labor trafficking.
“We must strengthen our laws to hold the bad actors accountable and aid our survivors and their path to healing,” said Marty Kemp this week at a Capitol press conference. Marty Kemp co-chairs the Georgians for Refuge, Action, Compassion, and Education Commission, which she put together about a year ago to look at ways to combat sex trafficking in the state.
The legal understanding of the difference between adults and children and prostitution and trafficking is changing in Georgia. After years of some legislators asking for the change, a 2019 Georgia law now prevents minors from being charged with prostitution. And according to Reynolds, law enforcement are now more inclined to recognize someone as a trafficking victim whereas before they often saw the person as a criminal defendant.
The Kemps also want legislation to give victims the right to restrict access to any criminal record they got while being trafficked, or to have any judgement against them set aside.
“Victims of sex trafficking are pretty much under the complete control of their traffickers,” said Susan Norris, founder and executive director of Rescuing Hope, a Marietta-based nonprofit that’s working to eradicate sex trafficking and which advised Gov. Kemp’s office on the legislation.
The victim “could be stopped at a traffic stop where their trafficker has drugs or guns in the car, and he’s going to shove all that on their lap and tell them, ‘This is yours,’” Norris said.
The legislation is focused mostly on what’s happened in the past, Norris said, because now more and more law enforcement has gone through training from the victim’s perspective. Officers are learning how to recognize victims’ behavior and how to help.
The GBI’s Reynolds also said that law enforcement has to make a more concentrated effort on the demand side.
“In my opinion, that’s how to stop this, is you is you go after the individuals who are paying for sex,” Reynolds said.
State and federal agencies are important, in part, because they can work across the county and city lines that limit local police jurisdiction.
“We have a unit inside the GBI that works exploitation cases against children,” Reynolds said. “I expect that to morph into some agents who work only trafficking cases.”
Prosecutors, too, are on board with the GRACE Commission’s work and fighting across jurisdiction lines, said the director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia.
“As prosecutors, we will work together with the Attorney General’s office to ensure that county lines are not barriers to pursuing criminals,” said the council’s executive director, Peter Skandalakis.
Norris said there is still a need for services for victims, and a big one right now is transitional housing for survivors, the kind of places where people can get services to help them deal with trauma and put their lives together.
“If you are taken into ‘the life’ (of sexual servitude) at a young age and you do not finish your education, you don’t have your GED, it’s hard to get a job,” Norris said. “If you have charges on your record, it’s hard to get a job, it’s hard to get housing, it’s hard to get scholarships for schooling.”
For younger people, there is residential housing for girls who are sex trafficking victims, Norris said, but no designated place for boys or LGBTQ youth.
She also said there’s also a need for more public education, starting young. Rescuing Hope has a pilot curriculum it’s putting in front of sixth-grade students.