SPECIAL REPORT: Human Trafficking in Savannah

One hundred girls are sexually exploited each and every night in Georgia.

Another disturbing number, 12,400. That’s how many men buy sex with young women in one month.

Call it sexual slavery or human trafficking, it is a growing trend worldwide, and it’s happening right here in Savannah.

Girls, boys, some who could be one who lives right next door.

“Her innocence has been taken”

Mary Florence is talking about her granddaughter Nigeria.

Just 15 years old, she is sitting in juvenile jail. Her future and her life, uncertain.

“She wants to have friends so bad so she reached out.” explained Florence. “And somehow this time she reached out to the wrong people.”

Mary says the wrong people in this case were older men with money and an agenda.. to recruit young girls.

“Strangers or predators saw her in the street and started making her friends,” said Florence. “And they gave her a phone.”

That phone was a link to these men, and their seedy underworld at local hotels.

“She told me they would give her a drink, they would give her drugs and get her really to the point she couldn’t function and make her have sex with grown men,” said an emotional Florence.

Nigeria ran away five times in just six months. Was gone for long periods of time, her family left to drive the streets hoping to find her..

“I was confused” remembers Florence. “I didn’t think it would knock on my door. And I’m really angry. Angry hurt crying praying. All i want was for her to come back home safe. That’s all i wanted.”

{Diane McLeod/Deputy Chief District Attorney Juvenile Court}
19:30 -“they are walking the streets of Savannah. they are approached by men and due to their young ages they tend to go.”

The District Attorney liason for Chatham County Juvenile Court, Diane McLeod says its not just runaways, its girls walking home from school, coming home or hanging out with friends.

“The lure of money and its just the lure of them being flashy and having items the girls may be interested in,” said Diane McLeod, Deputy Chief District Attorney Juvenile Court

An interest which leads them down the wrong path. A path they can’t be rescued from easily.

“for a lot of the girls its difficult for them to actually verbalize what happened to them and disclose the traffickers who were involved,” explained McLeod. “Most of these girls will not tell you that these men are trafficking them.”

That’s part of what makes these men so hard to find and prosecute.

“You try to go after the one website or place they are advertising and then as soon as you shut that down another pops up,” explains Chatham County District Attorney Meg Heap

Websites like backpage.com where “johns” can find pimps and young girls ready to have sex for money.

“One mom stayed on it and found her daughter in a brothel,” said Heap. “14 years old in a brothel right here in Savannah.”

“Once the cops come in. You arrest the Johns, you arrest the Pimps, what do you do with these girls?”

That’s the problem agencies like the Chatham County DA’s office is facing.

Specialized treatment for these girls is only available at facilities in North Georgia and can take 6-8 months. The price is as much as $6000 a month, which is not covered by insurance.

“If we have a child who is a victim of a gunshot, they can go to Memorial (Medical Center) and get all the treatment they need. If we have a girl who’s been sexually exploited, we don’t have the resources here to give that child the intensive services they really need,” said Diane McLeod. “Its difficult without getting them the treatment because they are going to run. And the biggest problem i have with being on the run is them recruiting other girls,”

That’s the next step. The same girls that were once preyed on themselves are becoming the predators.. indoctrinating the next generation of victims.

“You never expect your grandchild to do what she’s doing now. You never expect your grandchild to go to jail. You thought your granddaughter would go to prom, graduate and go to college. You never expect this,” said Mary Florence.

“How does that make you feel she’s in a jail cell right now?”
“If that’s the safest place where she’s not getting killed or she’s not being abused. Id rather have her there than in the street,” said a teary Florence.

Streets which Florence feels are filled with more dangerous people. Attackers. Vultures waiting to pounce.

“My first thought was if I knew them i’d run them over with a car. If i knew them I’d find somebody to put them out of their misery,” explained Florence. “But for now i want to let them know that they’ve hurt a family and they need to stop, really stop because those are innocent children. If people can think about it its their next door neighbor child, their child.”

A child like Mary’s granddaughter, like Nigeria.

“Nigeria, Grandmama loves you. Grandmama wants to keep you safe. Always remember you are a beautiful girl, respect yourself, love yourself. Stop reaching out for the wrong thing.”

Nigeria is in juvenile jail right now after cutting her ankle bracelet off, twice.

The Chatham County District Attorney’s office says incarceration is one of the only ways to get girls like her into treatment programs they need without the money they need to have.

Right now Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens is working on grants that may help pay for the cost. To help end the cycle of trafficking and help give these girls a second chance at life off the streets.

McLeod says there are ways for kids to reach out and get help.

“Talk to adult, find someone to confide in and it may not necessarily be your mom,” explains Diane. “It may be someone else you trust, you believe in and you can share what’s going on.”

A National Hotline has been set up for tips and information about human trafficking cases. Call them for help at 1-888-373-7888.

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