ATLANTA — Federal and state lawmakers joined forces with the hospitality industry against human trafficking.
Gov. Brian Kemp and First Lady Marty Kemp hosted a blue-ribbon panel discussion Tuesday focusing on legislative steps being taken to combat human trafficking in Georgia.
U.S. Sen. David Perdue, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, Georgia House Pro-Tempore Jan Jones and Attorney General Chris Carr all spoke during the panel talks.
In Georgia alone, 3,600 children are "sold into modern day slavery” every year, Kemp said as he opened the event. These children, he said, never got to experience childhood.
“We have not only the opportunity to do something about this in our state, but across the country,” Kemp said. “... We want to send a clear message (to people) that are selling our children for sex: that we will not put up with that. That we are going to continue to do everything in our power, every single day, to end this evil industry. To fight the fight but also help the victims that are in the aftermath.”
The Georgians for Refuge, Action, Compassion and Education Commission was created to combat human trafficking in Georgia. Marty Kemp and Jones are co-chairs of the group.
“I think people just didn’t want to talk about it because it’s such an evil and ugly industry,” Marty Kemp said, "but we have to talk about it.”
Lawmakers and hotel industry stakeholders emphasized the need to train law enforcement and service industry professionals across the board — from hotel staff to Uber drivers — to spot red flags of a possible human trafficking situation.
Carr’s office combats human trafficking through training law enforcement-officials to identify it. The office now has a full human trafficking unit that includes prosecutors and victim advocates. It has been operational since Labor Day.
“You get more eye-balls on the problem, that just multiplies our ability to be successful. And for you to understand what the red flags are,” Carr said.
Legislation has been pushed to combat the problem, including immunity for child victims, Jones said.
"What was once considered prostitution, is no longer considered that because there is no consent from victims,” he added.
After last session, Gov. Kemp signed multiple bills addressing the problem, including increasing penalties associated with human trafficking, improving victim protections and including certain crimes in the state’s definition of gang activity. Lawmakers hinted at upcoming legislation that would focus on required training to be able to identify human trafficking.
Perdue and Collins said on a federal level, other states are already looking at Georgia for “best practices” in combatting human trafficking.
“We don’t want to be the number one state for human trafficking but we want to be the number one state in terms of fixing it,” Perdue said.
But real change, Collins said, is having everyone — from industry professionals to lawmakers to Georgia residents — to stand up and say “this is something we don’t want to be a part of.”
The lawmakers are partnering with the Asian American Hotel Owners Association and the American Hotel and Lodging Association on their national campaigns to spread awareness of human trafficking throughout the industry and provide free training to hotel employees to help spot red flags of human trafficking.
Members of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association own about half the hotels across the United States, said Interim President Rachel Humphrey, “which I know makes us uniquely situated to play an important part in the fight against human trafficking.
“What Gov. Kemp allows is to let Georgia lead as an example for other states to follow suit. So when you have a strong proponent that sees the hotel industry as part of the solution, that touts training that AAHOA provides for hotel owners and employees, that can only make our efforts more successful.”
Chip Rogers, president of the American Hotel and Lodging Association, said you can show numbers as much as you want, but it’s the stories of the survivors that get people involved in helping.
“Our influence, from the American Hotel and Lodging Association perspective,” he said, “we touch every brand, we touch virtually every hotel, how do we use that influence to make other people aware of this?”
In lawmaking, he said, there are a lot of great ideas, but you need momentum.
“We have influencers at the highest level — the governor and the First Lady, the speaker pro-tem, the attorney general, Sen. Perdue, Congressman Collins — these are people that when you get behind something,” he said, “you’ll probably see movement.”
Gov. Kemp praised his wife's work with the human-trafficking panel Tuesday evening during the Boy Scouts dinner honoring Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk in Valdosta.
The governor told the story of meeting a 15-year-old girl who had survived human trafficking after being abducted at the age of 9.
"I told Marty, I can't believe she is only 15," Gov. Kemp said. "I feel like I was talking to a 25- or 30-year-old. She was 15. Marty said that's because the girl never had a childhood."
Riley Bunch covers the Georgia Statehouse for The Valdosta Daily Times, CNHI's newspapers and websites. Dean Poling contributed to this story.