A placard of a child sits on a table during a conference on human sex trafficking Monday in Atlanta. The Georgia Department of Education estimates that about 5,000 girls in the state are at risk for human sex trafficking each year, and many of those children spend some time in a public school.
ATLANTA — Law enforcement officials estimate that about 5,000 girls in the state are at risk for human sex trafficking each year, and many of those children spend some time in a public school.
That's why the Georgia Department of Education brought in law enforcement experts from Scotland Yard this week to talk to 30 educators from across the state about how to identify students that might be victims of human trafficking and how to help them. The teachers learned about one of the leading global crimes that affects more than 1 million children each year worldwide, hundreds of whom experts estimate are in the Atlanta area.
The aim, said state schools Superintendent John Barge told the educators, is for teachers to be part of helping break the cycle of child exploitation.
"The biggest thing I want you to go home with after all these sessions is the realization of the significance of a problem that impacts the children that we teach," said Barge. "We need to be aware of what the issue is and we also need to be aware of what the resources are."
The two-day seminar is the first in a series of workshops on the topic to be held between now and February for teachers. It's part of a statewide push to crack down on human trafficking in the state.
Georgia lawmakers adopted one of the nation's strongest human trafficking laws this year, making it easier to convict offenders and offering better protection for victims worried about admitting to prostitution. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation has made trafficking children one of its top law enforcement priorities.
In August, the U.S. attorney's office in Atlanta held a daylong seminar in August focusing on the issue after realizing that the city had become one of top locations in the country for human trafficking.
Victims are often immigrants who were promised a better life in a new country, only to find themselves held captive by traffickers who force them into prostitution or hard labor in a foreign land, said Roddy Llewellyn, a human trafficking expert from Scotland Yard. Sometimes parents sell their young girls to traffickers to pay off debt.
For law enforcement, what starts as a domestic violence case or a call about child abuse can lead to uncovering human trafficking, Llewellyn said. Some victims, particularly children or poor people in search of a higher-paying job, don't even know they are victims, he said.
"If you intercept them at the airport and tell them they're being trafficked, they still don't believe it because, 'That couldn't possibly happen to me,'" Llewellyn said. "It could happen to anybody."
For Shelly Smith, executive director of a regional education agency in Southeast Georgia, the workshop was a way to help train superintendents and teachers at the 18 school districts in her agency on a problem that often goes unnoticed in many communities, particularly smaller ones. The agency works with nearly 40 high schools where the immigrant population is growing, she said.
"Often a teacher or a counselor is the person to whom a kid turns. We hear all kinds of stories," Smith said. "We just need to be better prepared to hear those cases that are not as typical."
The United Nations estimates that traffickers in 137 countries make more than $31 billion in profits each year, half of which is generated in industrialized economies like the United States.