Q&A: In Georgia, a Collective Focus on Ending Sex Trafficking

Photograph of a young woman on the street.

When it comes to combatting sex trafficking, experts and advocates agree that no one organization, program or government agency can solve the problem alone.

Recognizing that fact, the state of Georgia has taken a collaborative approach to ending the commercial sexual exploitation of young people. A statewide taskforce on the issue, led by the Governor’s Office for Children and Families has put in place a unified protocol for identifying and serving sexually exploited children and youth. The task force and its 30 partner-level members and 32 affiliate members are also educating the public about the realities and effects of sex trafficking and working toward ending demand for paid sex in the state.

We spoke to Katie Jo Ballard, executive director of the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, and Katherine Peterson, grants specialist, about how the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Task Force got started, the challenges of staying focused on a shared mission, and what runaway and homeless youth programs can do to prevent trafficking and identify victims.

NCFY: What are the key things needed to launch a collaboration to combat [sex trafficking]?

Ballard: The [anti-sex trafficking] movement in Georgia was grassroots driven. It started with a few advocates educating the general assembly about what was going on in the state. The assembly decided to dedicate funding for services to victims. Once dollars are allocated towards that -- once you have support – the next challenge is to build infrastructure. We know we’re not the experts, so we went to recruit community members – that’s how the task force was born, in 2008.

NCFY: What challenges did you face and what did you learn from them?

Ballard: The Georgia Governor’s Office for Children and Families came up with projects. Things went smoothly for a while, but then people started to get burnt out, so we had to rethink how to work this. We drew on the collective impact model. We knew [the initiative] really needed to be community-driven, not driven by a single entity. Our agency could be the backbone, but it was really something driven by the community members.

We came up with a common mission for the task force that everybody believed in. But these are all different agencies, and everyone has their own mission and agenda for their agency. We learned that agreeing to a common mission means that sometimes we have to set aside our own priorities at our organization to see how we each fit into the puzzle of how to solve the problem.

We decided to establish working groups and hire a dedicated full-time person to oversee that. That’s where Katherine comes in.

NCFY: What roles can youth workers at programs serving runaway and homeless youth, a population often involved in sex trafficking, play?

Peterson: Educate your youth on what this is, what a pimp could look like and what risk factors look like. For example, one of the risk factors is that if a child has run away more than four times from a foster care placement, he or she is at risk of being exploited. Both youth and staff need to know what [sex trafficking] is and how to prevent it.

Ballard:  If it’s the fourth time a young person has run away, we conduct a biopsychosocial assessment to determine whether or not they’ve been exploited. It is conducted by a licensed social worker through the Georgia Care Connection Office--the single point of entry for sexually exploited children--who goes to the home or wherever the young person is located, and conducts a series of interview-style questions to help identify if he or she is exploited or not. This type of assessment meets them where they are and helps them figure out where they need to go.

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