SAVANNAH, Ga. (CN) – Three teenage girls, all dressed in onesie pajamas, arrived at a local hospital. At least two of them had been brought there in the back of a police cruiser. One was in handcuffs, a shocking contrast to her fresh face and well-kept hair.
This is what human trafficking can look like in Savannah, Ga.
“This was the first time we’d ever had three underage girls all at once,” said Brenda Lewis, a victim advocate at of the Rape Crisis Center of the Coastal Empire, a nonprofit serving victims of rape and sexual assault in Southeast Georgia.
“You don’t believe it’s happening in the community, but it’s our homeless kids, abused kids, our affluent kids, our smart kids. It’s happening in every hotel you can think of it. Before I got this case, I didn’t understand. It’s literally what you see in the movies,” Lewis said.
This was the fall of 2015. The girl in handcuffs was just 13, but looked years younger and weighed no more than100 pounds, Lewis recalled. The two girls in the police car were 16 and 17.
The FBI discovered the girls living in a Chatham County, Ga. motel room, dressed as little girls. Their pimp, Timothy Lewis, made the 16-year-old sleep in a bathtub and the girls were forced to have sex up to ten times per day, with Lewis pocketing the proceeds, prosecutors said.
A Georgia jury convicted more of 13 child sex trafficking charges in March 2017. He is currently being held in federal prison.
The common misconceptions about the victims of human trafficking are that they are from other countries, are often impoverished, and are of certain ethnicities. None of the three girls in the motel room fit this profile.
The one attribute victims typically share is they all come from homes where they were subjected to emotional, physical or sexual abuse, said Philip Wislar, supervisory special agent in the Savannah FBI office.
“It’s similar to young gang members who say that ‘this gang is my family.’ We’ve seen some parallels sometimes to this. These victims feel they have nowhere else to go,” Wislar said.
He said the psychological damage is almost akin to Stockholm Syndrome. “Perpetrators of this heinous crime prey on this … so the victim doesn’t feel they have a way out.”
Lewis recalled what 13 year old told her the first time they spoke in the hospital. According to the victim’s advocate, the girl had had fight with her mother at a Savannah mall, and shortly afterwards was approached by a “somewhat attractive guy in his late twenties” who said, ‘”Why don’t you come live with me for a while? I’ll get you a cell phone. We can get your hair done. I’ll take care of you.”
Lewis said when the girl agreed to go with him, he took her to a van filled with other men in the mall parking lot.
The men proceeded to “beat her into submission, gave her drugs, and took her to a Savannah motel to have sex with her and keep her there,” Lewis said.
After weeks of being forced to have sex with a minimum of four men per day, these men said they’d lay off her if she recruits more girls, Lewis said.
“This girl was a pistol. She was engaging — you’d fall in love with her. She told me she’d go to house parties and find the girls who sat alone and they’d say, ‘Of course I’ll go with you!’” Lewis said.
This is how the 13 year old enlisted the two other girls taken to the hospital that night in 2015. The FBI believes the girls had been in the same motel for weeks when they were rescued. Agents called the Rape Crisis Center at 4 a.m. to meet the victims at the hospital for rape examinations, Lewis said.
Since that morning, the reported number of underage human trafficking victims has increased in Chatham County, according to Laura Weatherly, another victim advocate at the Rape Crisis Center.
The FBI Savannah office lists human trafficking as one of its top three priorities. Agents there said this is true of agency offices across the country.
But despite the recognition by law enforcement that human sex trafficking is a crisis that touches communities throughout in the United States, public misconceptions about the victims have only made it difficult to address.
“The largest misconception about these victims is that they willingly engage in this behavior, that they enjoy it, and that they are somehow profiting from participating,” said Nancy Uveges, an FBI victims specialist. “So is the common misconception that it mostly affects lower income people.”
Victims of human trafficking hail from all socioeconomic levels and all ethnicities, she added.
“In most cases, but not at all, they’ve typically experienced some type of abuse and are searching for a sense of belonging,” Wislar said.
Traffickers start with a very vulnerable child, place him or her into this lifestyle where they stay at hotels, eat McDonalds, and buy the child a new pair of shoes and a haircut once a month, Uveges said.
“Those targeting victims of human sex trafficking are masters of manipulation. Victims are promised wealth, material goods, safety and security, sustenance, and often convinced that they are the objects of love and affection by their trafficker,” said Uveges.
Human trafficking does not also require people to cross state lines or transport to different countries. “This is a huge misconception. You can be a trafficker and never leave the state of Georgia,” Wislar said.
Victims typically aren’t kidnapped either, they’re recruited, according to Jennifer Guyer, child sexual abuse prosecutor in the Chatham County District Attorney’s office.
“A lot of people have the image of child sex trafficking victims as being kidnapped and kept hostage,” she said. “Sometimes their lives at home are so horrible, they’d rather this.”
“They [human traffickers] get one girl involved and then they ask her if she has other friends. They’re not physically taking them,” Guyer continued. “The idea of making money or having things is appealing to them [the minors]. They’re children. They can’t consent to it.”
The term “prostitute” is often interpreted by the public as one who is making a conscious choice, however, victims of human trafficking are often victims of force, fraud, and coercion, Uveges said.
Last month, the FBI, along with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, conducted a targeted, nationwide effort to deal with the human trafficking of underage victims. The initiative, called Operation Cross Country XI, and now in its eleventh year, recovered 84 minors and 120 traffickers nationwide, with two female arrests in Chatham County.
The two women, age 21 and 25,, were described as “prostitutes” on the front page of local newspaper, The Savannah Morning News. Their mugshots were also posted.
“Labeling in any setting or circumstance often establishes meaning and perception when the audience does not benefit from a full context to understand such labels,” Uveges said. “It can create an environment in which a community may become less apt to provide resources and services.”
Savannah is a community where there is no safe house for victims of human trafficking, despite the numbers being reported locally, Lewis said.
After the three minors went through their rape exams at the Savannah hospital in 2015, the Rape Crisis Center couldn’t find a place for the girls.
“Because no one would claim the girls, they had nowhere to go,” Laura Weatherly said. “Here we are calling the DFCS [Division of Family and Children Services], law enforcement, and the girls’ family members. That was the most upsetting part: Everyone left these three girls but us.”
“This had never been a concern until this point. We’d always been able to send people home, but this was the first time we couldn’t send them home,” Lewis said.
The 17-year-old was eventually sent to Wellspring Living, a safe house in Atlanta, because her mother was found and agreed to it. The other two girls disappeared.
“We don’t know what happened to the other two girls. They could have gone right back to a similar scenario,” Weatherly said.
After this incident, Rape Crisis Center partnered with more than ten additional service providers around the Coastal Region and spearheaded the creation of the Child Sex Trafficking Taskforce, a partnership of federal, state and local law enforcement.
The mission of the task force is to “establish a comprehensive protocol” for dealing with rescued girls and establishing a safe house where they can live temporarily after their rescues.
Lewis said while the need for a safe house for the girls is obvious, its importance extends well beyond providing victims with a place to begin their recovery. Over time, she said, it’ll be a place where victims can help other victims.
“These are children who are going to take over when we go. They can provide vital information to our survivors that I can’t,” Lewis said.
Guyer believes that the most crucial issue with regards to human trafficking is training local law enforcement to be able to recognize and investigate human trafficking situations.
“Unfortunately, there are far too many ‘possible indicators’ [of human trafficking],” said FBI Special Agent Eric Pauley, who is the program coordinator of Violent Crimes Against Children division at the FBI’s Atlanta headquarters. “Independently many of these indicators are not 100 percent reliable or a guarantee that the situation is, or may be human trafficking.”
Signs to look for include: Out-of-place high security measures existing in the work and/or living locations (such as opaque windows, boarded up windows, bars
on windows, barbed wire, security cameras); a person acting in a fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or paranoid manner; a person avoiding eye contact or having poor physical health (for example, appearing malnourished, or shows signs of physical or sexual abuse); a person appearing to have few or no personal possessions and not being in control of her own money, no financial records, or bank account; an individual not being allowed or able to speak for themselves.
Officials and victim advocates said non-emergency information or tips can be provided to the FBI by calling 1-800-CALL-FBI; the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) at 1-800-THE-LOST, or the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHRTC) at 1-888-373-7888.