Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Sex-Trafficking Investigation That Took Me Home


Sitting next to DeKalb County Sergeant Torrey Kennedy in his huge black SUV, I wondered why we were getting off the highway at Panola Road. This was the exit near the neighborhood where I spent the last few formative years of my childhood in Lithonia, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta.

I'd soon learn that nearly every night - and I think this was a Tuesday - 30-40 young women are being sold for sex in a handful of low-grade motels that dot this exit. To say I was alarmed is an understatement.

"I don't know you. I'm not your pimp. I'm not your friend. I'm not a family member. I'm not using you. I don't want anything from you. My sole purpose, every day I wake up and put this gun and badge on is to help young ladies like you."

I was scribbling Sgt. Kennedy's words in my notebook as fast as I could. As usual I was recording with my iPhone and iPad, but I still don't trust technology 100%. And I certainly wasn't going to rely solely on any digital device as I reported my first investigative piece - especially when I recognized that the heart of the story I was there to get was happening right in front of me.


Sgt. Kennedy, an officer in DeKalb County's Internet Crimes Against Children unit, was trying to get a young woman sitting on a bed in handcuffs to trust him. She was being arrested on suspicion of prostitution and he was offering her the opportunity to enter into a program that could save her life. There were so many reasons she wouldn't even give him her name, and neither would her pimp who was also being arrested right outside the door of that seedy motel.

As I write in the piece published in the November 2014 issue of Ebony Magazine, all of this happened numerous times until about 3:00 a.m. The night I spent on this sting changed my life. There were upwards of 150 police officers from a dozen agencies making a concerted effort to catch as many people involved in sex trafficking as they could right down the street from where I grew up.


Nearly 30 years earlier, my family left our split-level ranch style home a few exits closer to Atlanta in Decatur, Georgia, to be among the first African-American middle class folks to move into this Lithonia community. I can remember there only being a gas station on the exit during this time when my junior high thoughts of a career in journalism were beginning to intensify. Since then I've written hundreds, maybe thousands, of articles and now there is a Walmart, Publix, Lowes, Ruby Tuesdays, and a nearly a dozen fast food joints in this neighborhood.  A few years ago, just two exits down, a sprawling mall sprung up that is frequented by a plethora of upwardly mobile Black residents - judges, doctors, celebrities and those who aspire to similar status.

I wonder if these professional African Americans know what is going on adjacent to their neighborhoods; that there are Black girls - many underage - who are being trafficked nightly. I was certainly blind to the fact.

But not anymore. My eyes were opened wide during this investigation that lasted several months. I learned that the issue is complex, I have a lot more to learn, and the people who are in this fight to stem the tide of sex trafficking in Atlanta - the epicenter of the epidemic in this country - are motivated by their belief that the lives of these girls matter.

Here's what I was up to circa 1988 at 17 years old - a few years older than the average girl that's being trafficked (age 12-14 in Georgia). Who could have known that 25 years later - just a short drive from the living room where these lovely memories were made - a hub would develop where Black girls are victimized nightly by predators?

So I'm in this thing now, too. Because once you've been where I've been, seen what I've seen, learned what I've learned, you just can't step back. There's too much work to do. And everybody has to be involved. Everybody.

I'll be having this conversation periodically on this blog, via social media and through other opportunities. I'd love for you to join the discussion and get in the fight. Please share your thoughts on the article, what you know about sex trafficking, Black girls and sex trafficking, what you're doing to prevent girls from being trafficked, or how you're helping them out of these situations. Your stories are empowering. Your knowledge of resources to help girls is invaluable. So please share.

And stay encouraged. We can stop sex trafficking. We can save lives. Even if it's just through one action at a time.

#DoSomething #StopSexTraffickingNow #BlackGirlsLivesMatter


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