Teaching the Teachers How to Fight Sex Trafficking

Maria Velikonja speaking at the "Not in Georgia: Combating Human Sex Trafficking" conference at Georgia State University.

Teachers can be the first line of defense against child sex trafficking, according to Maria Velikonja, a former FBI agent who has worked on human trafficking issues for the United Nations. During a two-day conference on sex trafficking at Georgia State University, in Atlanta, Velikonja spoke about the warning signs educators should watch for in their students and what teachers can do to keep their students safe.

The conference, Not in Georgia: Combating Human Sex Trafficking, organized by the Georgia Department of Education, was the third part of an ongoing series of lectures on the sex trade. In a lecture titled, “Combating Human Sex Trafficking in Georgia: What Public School Educators Can Do,” Velikonja began by outlining some of the basics of sex trafficking for teachers.

“What does a potential sex trafficking victim look like?” she asked the small crowd. “They could look like anyone. They could be short, tall, fat or skinny. It doesn’t matter.”

So, if victims of sex trafficking come in all shapes and sizes, what other indicators can teachers watch for?

Teachers should be on the lookout for certain socio-economic factors, Velikonja says. Children living in poverty and children from single-parent households are at risk.

But more important is whether their parents are paying attention and this is not limited to low-income families, she says. In fact, upper- and middle- class families with busy, distracted parents are equally at risk.

The Office of Justice Programs says as many as 300,000 children are at risk for sexual exploitation each year in the U.S. According to Velikonja, they could be boys or girls.But one of the key indicators teachers should watch for is poor or failing grades.

Another alarm for teachers are girls with much older boyfriends, Velikonja said.

“You might see a 13-year-old girl who suddenly starts dating a 17-year-old,” she said.

But, for teachers, it may not always be as simple as having a keen eye, as a great deal of prostitution has moved to the Internet. Text messaging, Facebook and online instant messaging have given child predators easier access to young people who are often not as wary of strangers online as they would be in real life, Velikonja said.

The U.S. Department of Education says teachers should be on the lookout for the following potential indications that a child is a victim of sex trafficking:

  • Has unexplained absences from school for a period of time, and is therefore a truant
  • Demonstrates an inability to attend school on a regular basis
  • Chronically runs away from home
  • Makes references to frequent travel to other cities
  • Exhibits bruises or other physical trauma, withdrawn behavior, depression, or fear
  • Lacks control over her or his schedule or identification documents
  • Is hungry-malnourished or inappropriately dressed (based on weather conditions or surroundings)
  • Shows signs of drug addiction

However, protecting students from the sex trade extends beyond simply acting as a watchdog, Velikonja says. In the classroom, teachers should emphasize that children involved in the sex trade are victims and that the sex trade is not glamorous.

Most important is to teach kids that, reporting incidents is important. If someone they know is involved in the sex trade, not telling adults will only hurt the victim.

In the end, it’s critical parents need to be educated.

“Kids may be easily scared by this,” Velikonja said. “But speaking directly to parents may be more effective.”

Parents need to make students aware of child predators, both online and in real life, she said.

Jessica Smith, a spokesperson for Wellspring Living, a group that helps victims of sexual abuse, said it's up to parents to monitor their children's use of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter.

"Most of these transactions happen online," she wrote in an email. "It's the new 'street.'"

Equally as important for parents is to know who your children are friends with.

"Know their friends and where they are going -- always," Smith said. "We have so many stories of girls getting into this because of a friend and being trafficked right under their parent's noses. Know the parents of their friends."

As Velikonja drew her presentation to a close, audience members shared what actions they were planning to take moving forward to combat sex trafficking. Many were going to take further classes about sex trafficking.

One audience member asked the crowd if sex trafficking was being taught in sex education classes in the schools.

One teacher responded, “We’re working on it. We’re working on making it a part of curriculum in social studies classes.

Wednesday, several hundred advocates gathered in front of the Georgia capitol to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the passage of a tough, new anti-trafficking law. Supporters wore purple scarves. The bill increased penalties for those engaging in child sex trafficking.

Truancy Intervention Project: "Why Don’t They Go To School?"

Seven years ago, South Atlanta High School student Faydren Battle had the weight of the world on her shoulders. Problems at home and problems with her boyfriend kept her on edge and out of school. She says her life turned around when truancy charges landed her in court and introduced her to the Truancy Intervention Project, co-founded by former Fulton County Juvenile Court Chief Judge Glenda Hatchett and Terry Walsh, then President of the Atlanta Bar Association. The non-profit works closely with children who skip school (and their families) to address the underlying problems that keep them out of the classroom. Battle, now 25, is one of thousands of success stories the organization has celebrated over its 19-year history. With the program's help she graduated from high school and eventually college too. For the past two years, Battle has been paying it forward through service on the TIP Board of Directors. As the organization kicks off its first-ever statewide conference in Atlanta this week, Battle shares her story with JJIE’s Chandra Thomas.

How’d you get involved in the Truancy Intervention Project?

Former truant Faydren Battle now serves on the TIP Board of Directors.

In high school I became truant and eventually I was brought up on truancy charges. That’s how I got connected with the program. Caren Cloud was assigned as my attorney and they set me up with a mentor,  Denise de la Rue. Caren handled the legal aspects of the case and Denise was assigned as my guardian ad litem. Because I was a minor I needed a guardian to be a part of the court proceedings.

Why were you ditching school?

Mostly regular growing up and adolescent problems. I was having problems with my boyfriend at the time. I was having problems with the kids in my high school. My mother is hearing-impaired so that came with its own set of problems. I don’t know many people with a hearing-impaired parent. I was trying to navigate all of that, but I didn’t have the skill set to deal with everything that was going on with me. My response was to retreat from everyday life and that included school.  I wasn’t out doing anything exciting, I was basically just staying at home. My mother had a full time job so she thought I was in school.  I was at home sleeping, watching TV; just basically not at school. I wasn’t doing anything exciting. The point was just not being at school. I had so many part time jobs at that time that I would quit. When life got stressful I just checked out from reality.

What was your initial reaction to being placed in TIP?

That’s when I really began to take my situation seriously. School was not really challenging to me and before the program I didn’t really feel like missing it was a big deal. The reality did not hit me until I faced charges. I was like “wow, I’m actually in court.” That’s when it really hit me. I didn’t know much about the project as a whole so I was curious about it. I was wondering what was going to happen once I got into it. They (Cloud and de la Rue) were easy to talk to and seemed nice and genuinely concerned. That made the process much easier.

What was your experience like with your mentor?

We would talk, go out to eat. As crazy as it may sound, I had never been to Lenox (Square) Mall before. She took me there for the first time. She gave me a lot of good advice. There were other kids in the program. We started a book club and I ended up winning the Hank Aaron Award, which is given to the student with the most improved attendance. So [the program] really did really work for me.

How did TIP change your life?

Even with my truancy, I had always been able to maintain a pretty good GPA. I had never dipped below a 3.0, but through the program my attendance improved dramatically. I went from missing maybe three days a week to maybe twice a month at most. I just started getting more involved in school. I joined the debate team and just started living my life. I began hanging out with friends and doing regular teenage stuff. Not attending school was basically me just tuning out of life.

Why do you think the TIP is effective?

As a teenager you don’t know a lot of things. It helps to have a mentor to provide you with an outside perspective and a different piece of advice. My mother was able to raise three children all while being hearing-impaired. I think that she really did the best she could with the tools that she had. I would never take that away from her or the rest of my family, but it helped a lot to have another person to talk to. As a teen you can’t always go to your parents. There is no prototype of a truant. There are a lot of misconceptions out there that the kids who skip school are stupid, bad, or can’t handle the work. That’s not always the case; there’s a range of reasons. This program works to address that wide range of issues that keep kids out of school. They provide kids with a variety of resources.

Why do you think truancy is such an important issue?

The fact that you’re missing school is a symptom of a larger problem. It flows into every area of life. If you can’t be consistent in life and stick to something, that problem is going to stick with you in the future. You will have problems with work and in other areas of life. Truancy needs to be nipped in the bud before it becomes a bigger problem. That’s what the Truancy Intervention Project does. With their help I was able to attend college and keep on going on with life – not tuning out of reality.

What have you done since graduation?

I enrolled in Georgia State University in 2003 and graduated with a degree in English in 2008. Now I work as an English instructor with the Upward Bound program.

Do you share your story with your current students?

Upward Bound is a voluntary program that students sign up for in addition to their course work at school. These students generally are committed to going to school so we don’t really deal with truancy. Of course they are still teenagers and they still have their problems. I try to incorporate my experience into the classroom. For example, they were reading The Great Gatsby and they found it hard to read and felt like it did not relate to their lives, although the themes are universal. So I kind of broke down to them [what happened in] my life  from 2003 until now. They were just blown away at all the things I had been through. I told them if I can go through all that you can certainly read some pages in a book. They don’t realize how easy that they have it.
I just try to talk to them about reality.

How’d you get involved with the TIP board?

[Executive Director] Jessica Pennington approached me about it. She said they wanted a unique perspective on the board and they thought that I would be an ideal candidate for that. Basically now I attend meetings and offer my input. Lately we’ve been focusing a lot on getting more volunteers for the program. I suggested to the board that we try to target college education majors or those studying social work. The program typically targets mostly law students and those in the legal field. I felt like students studying education and social work would have the passion to work with the program and may have more time to volunteer. I’m convinced that they will see the impact that we’re trying to make and this would be a great opportunity for them to get their feet wet.

This week TIP hosts its first statewide conference. What should attendees expect?

I’m speaking at the Thursday session called “Why Don’t They Go To School?” I just want clear up the many myths out there. I want people to know that basically there’s a range of reasons why kids don’t go to school. I want to let people know there are good kids out there who can get back to school and learn; don’t paint them with a single brush stroke. We’re going to have a diverse group of speakers and attendees – everything from the CEO of Community in Schools to people who work with the court system. We’ll be presenting a variety of perspectives and there will be a lot of different perspectives to work with.

What do you ultimately hope to achieve with your TIP involvement?

I know it sounds scripted, but I think if we can help one kid get back in school, get back in life and get back on track, we’ve done our job. This is why I chose to get into education. It’s the only way to bridge the socio-economic gap. You can come from anywhere and with education you can go anywhere. Education is the way to live your dreams.

"Charting the Course: Reinvesting in and Reengaging Georgia’s Youth - A Delinquency and Truancy Intervention Conference" is Oct. 27-29  at the Hilton Atlanta/Marietta Hotel & Conference Center. __________________________

Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Atlanta, Essence and People magazines and Fox 5 News in Atlanta.

Report: Teachers Happy With Reforms

An overwhelming majority of juvenile justice teachers appear to be satisfied with reforms of the system that took place five years ago.

According to researchers at Georgia State University and Auburn University, 96 percent of juvenile justice teachers “reported being satisfied with the results of the system-wide reforms.”

“The greatest areas of dissatisfaction were in the areas of behavior management and increased stress,” says an abstract to their study, “System Reform and Job Satisfaction of Juvenile Justice Teachers.”

The study was based on a survey administered to teachers who had been in the system since 1998, when reforms were implemented.

“A comprehensive survey was administered to teachers who had been in the juvenile justice system since 1998 when reform measures were implemented.”

Judge Warns Budget Cuts “Will Have a Crippling Effect on Juvenile Justice in Georgia.”

Many people charged with carrying out juvenile justice in Georgia are concerned about how new state budget cuts will affect children, communities, and the system overall.

“I just fear that there’s going to be less policing done on juvenile behavior,” says Early County Sheriff Jimmy Murkerson, of Governor Sonny Perdue’s recent order that the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) and other state agencies amend their 2011 budget proposals with plans for four, six and eight percent cuts. “The general public seems to feel that [law enforcement] should be handling every offense from sagging pants to curfew violations, but you’ve got to have the manpower to address these minor issues. With these cuts that manpower just won’t be there.”

Gwinnett County Juvenile Judge Stephen Franzen echoes a similar sentiment.

“Our ability to respond to the needs of kids and the community is going to be severely damaged,” he says. “Child welfare is consistently underfunded in Georgia, but there’s no fat here. Now we’re just whittling away at the services provided to Georgia’s children. This will have a crippling affect on juvenile justice in Georgia.”

The governor says the budget cut mandates were necessary due to massive state budget shortfalls. The Georgia Budget & Policy Institute at Georgia State University predicts the state budget deficit is between $413 million and $613 million. That’s on the heels of $2.5 billion in budget cuts already implemented since the 2009 fiscal year.

Governor Perdue’s Director of Communications Bert Brantley has told that Governor Perdue is woefully aware that the cuts will have some impact, but Perdue must also adhere to his fiscal responsibilities.

“Will this have an impact on those who receive services from these agencies,” he says. “Definitely. But we also have a balance budget requirement that we cannot avoid. We cannot spend any more than we take in.”

Public defenders, human services and juvenile justice – all agencies that provide direct services and support to young people in the state – were among the agencies that submitted proposals by Sept. 1.

The proposed worst case scenario changes include:

  • Closing four detention centers eliminating more than 250 beds
  • Eliminating 106 beds in contracted residential treatment programs
  • Terminating the contracts of four community service providers
  • Reducing community programs and services for juveniles
  • Increasing class sizes from 15 to 20 in nine Regional Detention Centers
  • Slashing staff overtime work
  • Furlough days for all DJJ staff
  • Reducing administrative positions, including some core to the agency

Murkerson and many other frontline workers say they’re especially concerned about the impact that closing Regional Youth Detention Centers (RYDCs) will have on juvenile delinquency and deprivation cases.  Although the Blakely, GA facility (now located across the street from the county jail) is not currently slated to close, Murkerson says such closures would have major repercussions in his and other rural communities.

“I’m not sure where we would end up having to take them, maybe Albany, Thomasville, Columbus,” says Murkerson of his force, made up of 25 sworn officers. “In some cases that’s two hours going and two hours coming back. That’s a total of four hours that my deputies would be gone just to get them [the juvenile] to a detention hearing. It’s going to be so labor-intensive just to get them to a facility. It’s almost not worth it for taxpayer dollars to be spent transporting juveniles for minor offenses.”

It’s an option, Murkerson says, that is not practical.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that many officers aren’t going to be as aggressive with policing juveniles unless there’s a flagrant violation of the law,” he says. “They’re going to be very reluctant to pursue juvenile offenders. Being aggressive on the street costs money. The question is: can we, in light of the economy, afford to address the issues that the general public says we should be responsible for?”

Newly appointed DJJ Commissioner Garland Hunt is more optimistic. He says it will require hard work, but juvenile justice should not be undercut.

“While we certainly empathize with their challenges, we cannot expect [law enforcement officers] not to do their jobs,” says Hunt, who was appointed to the post in May. “All of them are being stretched and we are doing all that we can to make this transition as easy as possible for them.”

Franzen of Gwinnett County echoes Murkerson’s views.

“I think it’s going to be a disaster; but we’ll see what happens,” he says. “They’re proposing to close the Gwinnett facility. That’s 49 beds. It might seem like a miniscule amount when you think about the fact that we’re a county of 750,000 people in a huge metro area. It’s still some place to bring them. We may cut costs here, but it will be at the expense of public safety.”

Adds Franzen of the proposed RYDC closings:

“If they’re going to be warehoused hundreds of miles away it’s going to make a difference in our ability to administer justice.”

Critics of the budget cut mandates have also raised concerns about whether the closings could eventually cause overcrowding in RYDCs and Youth Development Centers (YDCs) – the very problems that several years ago led to the system’s monitoring by the United States Department of Justice. Hunt emphatically says “no.”

“Let’s stress that we have no intention of going back to any federal supervision again, but we will need legislative help to manage the cuts we’re facing,” he says. “We’re already beginning a dialogue with lawmakers in advance of the next legislative session.”

DJJ Deputy Commissioner Rob Rosenbloom says operating unconstitutional facilities is not an option.

“The facilities that remain will have the staff and programs needed to run Constitutional facilities,” he says. “We hope to be able to minimize and manage the number of kids who need to be in our facilities. We will also explore alternatives to detention options for low level offenders such as ankle bracelet monitoring or strict supervision.”

Although admittedly more optimistic about DJJs ability to operate effectively and justly with fewer resources, Hunt admits he’s concerned about the impact of proposed job cuts. Meantime, members of his staff, including Commissioner of Programs and Support Services Amy Howell, are already mapping out plans suggested in the budget proposals.

“We’ve been notifying teachers and letting them know about the changes (in class size) and working with them,” she says. “We’re shifting into a more hands-on approach from our teachers in the classroom, from a more self-directed approach. This will require more from our teachers, but we don’t feel it will have an impact as far as the quality of instruction.”

Hunts says operating with fewer resources will require better coordination among agencies, including exploring ways to streamline all processes, including the ways in which youth are transported to and from detention centers.

“We’ll have to change the way we do business and manage our resources even better,” says Hunt.

Murkerson adds that having more support from school systems could help to ease the burden often placed on law enforcement.

“Schools are going to have to handle more issues in-house, as opposed to putting so much into the juvenile courts,” he says. “That’s one way to address some of these problems.”

As for Hunt, he insists that a collaborative approach, like the ideas discussed last week at a juvenile justice forum hosted by the Governor's Office for Children and Families is the key to success.

“We want everyone to realize that we’re not the bad guys, we’re doing all of this because we have to,” he says. “That’s why we’re doing all we can to utilize the resources that we have. Everybody has to play a part. We need the officers, we need the judges; we need everyone to make this work.”


Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Atlanta Magazine and Fox 5 News in Atlanta.