GBI: Misconceptions muddle efforts to reduce human trafficking

tstevens@ledger-enquirer.comMay 1, 2014 

Mike Haskey mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com A crime scene specialist with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation searches the property around student housing at Columbus State University Sunday afternoon. Muscogee County Coroner Buddy Bryan has confirmed that a 20-year-old African-American male was shot and killed this afternoon at Columbus State University's Courtyard 1 North apartment complex on the main campus. 03/30/14

MIKE HASKEY — mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com Buy Photo

A new Georgia Bureau of Investigation survey shows human trafficking's magnitude in the state is almost entirely unknown — in part due to law enforcement's pervasive misconceptions about the crime.

GBI researchers partnered with several institutions, including the Georgia Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and Georgia State University, to produce research about human trafficking's effect on the state using surveys conducted in 2012. A comprehensive study including CJCC's, the Governor’s Office for Children and Families' and the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute findings is slated for release in the fall of 2014.

The survey includes information about both sex trafficking and labor-related trafficking.

The GBI's 41-page study initially used the online tool SurveyMonkey to reach out to 783 agencies (619 police departments, 159 sheriff’s offices, three state law enforcement agencies and two federal agencies), in addition to follow-up calls and roundtables with 583 agencies determined "most likely" to have encountered human trafficking. However, only 206 agencies, representing 138 of 159 Georgia counties, responded. The 21 missing counties were largely rural areas, according to the study.

At least two Muscogee County agencies were interviewed for the study, though the study did not specify which agencies contributed and what information was contributed.

Some findings:

• Victims service organizations surveyed by CJCC reported far more individual victims than law enforcement agencies did (518 victims compared to 190 cases). CJCC received responses from 175 victim service agencies during their survey, 15 of which had specific programs aimed at human trafficking victims.

Researchers at CJCC say the discrepancy might be because agencies count cases encountered, which could include multiple trafficking victims, rather than individuals. Victims also might have received services at multiple non-profits, leading them to be counted twice. Law enforcement officers' misconceptions about who qualifies as a human trafficking victim might also have contributed to the discrepancy.

• Law enforcement and victims service providers' efforts are also largely aimed at sex trafficking (such as the Urban Institute's survey of eight cities' sex economies), rather than labor-related human trafficking. Because of this, the GBI reports that an accurate number of trafficked laborers is not available. Victims also largely responded to services provided in heavily populated areas. Information about human trafficking victims in rural areas is scarce.

• The majority of human trafficking victims identified were U.S. citizens — at least two-thirds, according to the CJCC. That statistic suggests that human trafficking is more of a "homegrown" problem, opposing the commonly-held view that human trafficking victims are largely from foreign countries.

• Lack of training is one factor contributing to gross misunderstanding of who suffers from human trafficking, GBI researchers report. Misconceptions like "that doesn't happen here" or "it's prostitution" can hinder investigations, or lead detectives to charge perpetrators with lesser crimes.

• Though a slight majority of Georgia agencies don't feel qualified to handle human trafficking operations, 91 percent of GBI's respondents say they would welcome additional training.

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