A group of Bulloch County pastors and other interested parties met Tuesday to discuss — and pray about — a disturbing issue: child sex trafficking.
The meeting, held in the jury room at the Bulloch County Judicial Annex, was advertised as a meeting between the pastors and the Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office, but no one representing the Sheriff’s Office was present.
Instead, Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent John Barry, with the Child Exploitation/Trafficking Unit, gave a presentation.
Bulloch County Sheriff Noel Brown contacted Barry last week with a request to handle the meeting, which organizer Butch McKenzie requested “about a month ago,” he said. “Sheriff Brown sends his apologies.”
McKenzie is affiliated with Connections Church. He said he called for the meeting because the issue “weighs heavy on my heart.”
About 20 people, eight of whom said they are pastors, attended the meeting. McKenzie said the gathering was advertised and “about 90 invitations were sent.”
Barry said the turnout was typical of such presentations and said more public participation and awareness is needed as a defense against the crimes he works to prevent.
“We will invite hundreds and get a handful,” he said.
In speaking about the fight against child sex trafficking, Barry said paying attention, reporting suspicious behavior and knowing what to look for is important.
His unit catches child sex predators by setting up “houses or hotels” where offenders arrange to meet undercover agents posing online. The predators believe they are meeting children for sex. But when they arrive, “they open the door and see me,” he said.
GBI agents pose as children online but do not initiate conversations. Instead, they wait — and soon, a predator will appear in a chat room, asking questions that lead to inappropriate topics. The undercover agent will dismiss a predator on first approach, but they always come back, he said. After the online conversations lead to sexual comments, solicitations for sex with supposed minors and arrangements to meet, GBI agents wait for the offender to show up for the illicit encounter.
“It’s a dark world out there,” Barry said.
Most predators are male, even though some women get involved, usually in efforts to please a pimp that has them under his control, he said. Child sex trafficking is a “male-dominated game: 91 percent of offenders are religious, 90 percent male, and 45 percent are college educated,” he said.
Most victims of sex trafficking aren’t “snatched from the streets,” he said. They are “throw-away kids, runaways.” A pimp will spot a young girl — or young boy, although most victims are female — “pick her up, give her a Happy Meal, and that is probably the last decent meal she will get until she is rescued,” Barry said.
Victims are often from abusive or neglective homes, needing “love, family and support,” he said. The pimps pretend to appeal to these needs, and then coerce the girls into sexual slavery. They are “brainwashed, hooked on drugs and alcohol, and live hard lives. They are not trash – they are victims.”
Often they are trying to escape a bad environment and find themselves in an even worse scenario.
“They have been adopted by that ‘dark family’ and they bond with their captor,” he said.
Barry recalled one case in Savannah in which a pimp was on trial, and seven victims in the courtroom fought each other “because they still loved him.”
Multi-billion dollar business
The child sex trafficking world is vast, according to Barry. His unit deals only with child predators, and the caseload is overwhelming.
“The GBI doesn’t work (all) human trafficking but specifically child sex trafficking,” he said. “There are no resources for other human trafficking. It is like drinking from a fire hose.”
The reason child sex trafficking is such a major problem is money. A victim, often as young as 12, will be forced to interact with “15 or 20 men a day sometimes. At $100 (for each encounter), times a day, times a week, times a year, it is a multi-billion dollar industry.”
Many sex trafficking rings are not stationary and travel from state to state, Barry said. They circulate around highly populated areas or large events where demand is high. A victim could end up anywhere.
He told of two young teens from Effingham County “who thought it might be fun to sell their bodies.” They ended up in Washington, D.C., he said.
Sex traffickers have “rolling hotels” in 18-wheelers on the interstates and target places like truck stops and airports. They often brand their victims as property, sometimes with tattoos on the neck. Barry said Georgia state troopers are trained to recognize signs including these tattoos to identify possible victims during traffic stops.
He said many times, a dangerous situation begins with teens “sexting” — sending explicit photos of themselves using cellphones. Predators will find the photos and pressure or coerce them to send more, then develop further contact.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children gets calls from children as young as 10 saying they are being pursued after sexting, and sexting is one of the biggest problems in schools today, he said.
When a predator is caught, the punishment varies. Sometimes they get only probation, but in Bulloch County, “they usually get 20 years. Y’all have some good judges,” he said.
The best way a community can get involved is to discuss the issue, raise awareness and report any suspicious activity, such as an older man with a young girl who is obviously not a relative.
File cypertips, make phone calls, snap a photo and get tag numbers, he said. Doing so may provide “a piece of the puzzle” that leads to an arrest and a victim rescued.
“Be vigilant. If you see something, say something.”
McKenzie closed the presentation with an appeal to the pastors to discuss the issue with their congregations and to pray. While the hard work of the GBI and other law enforcement helps and is valuable, they alone won’t stop the problem, he said.
“It is a spiritual war.”
Anyone with information on or suspicion of child sex trafficking — including online pornography — is urged to file a report with police or call the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-MISSING-KIDS, Barry said.
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon maybe reached at (912) 489-9414.