SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - Crimes of a sexual nature against kids and teenagers is a growing problem in Georgia and in the Coastal Empire.
The GBI tells WTOC the crimes reach all 159 counties in the state of Georgia.
Inside the GBI headquarters in Atlanta is a plain room with a loud hum. A hum that’s welcome to investigators who have to hear and watch horrific things happening to innocent victims in order to help catch predators.
“Over the last few years, we’ve seen an increase in child pornography which is essentially the rape of a child,” says Debbie Garner, GBI Special Agent in Charge of the Child Exploitation and Computer Crimes Unit.
The GBI Child Exploitation and Cyber Crimes Unit focuses on three main areas: stopping the production and spread of child porn, sex trafficking, and the online enticement of minors. Garner says all three areas are growing both statewide and locally.
“It absolutely happens in Savannah, especially with I-95 coming up from Florida going up the coast, it absolutely is happening in Savannah,” Garner said.
The GBI’s Child Exploitation and Cyber Crimes Unit along with their affiliates say in 2017, they investigated 4,000 tips. In 2018, they investigated 6,000 tips, and this year in 2019, they expect that number to grow higher.
Julie Wade is the Executive Director of Park Place Outreach in Savannah, a shelter for at risk kids 11-17 years old. She says even though the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System has more than 1,000 homeless students, the most vulnerable to sex trafficking, any kid can become a victim.
“Social media and phones and the computers have really opened up vulnerabilities for all teens regardless of background and regardless of your families’ situation,” Wade said.
The GBI says predators are highly skilled at using video games with virtual chat rooms like Fortnite and social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Kick, and Snapchat to find their victims.
“They find children who are vulnerable, and they know exactly how to manipulate them into doing what they want them to do," Garner said.
According to the GBI, one of the fastest growing crimes is sextortion - where a predator convinces a minor to send an inappropriate picture of themselves. Once the victim sends it, the predator threatens to release it unless they send more pictures, continuing a vicious cycle of the minor sending nude pictures.
Keep in mind, once a picture is sent electronically, there is NO way to retrieve it. Young adults involved in sex trafficking may show physical or behavioral warning signs.
“You may see a change in behavior, and I think oftentimes, you’ll see a change in appearance, so all the sudden they have new fancy clothes and their nails are done or a fancy new phone. If they all of the sudden seem like they’re really sleepy at school and they’re tardy, maybe a lot of absences, that may be another sign that maybe there’s something else going on,” Wade said.
All of the experts WTOC spoke with, including Pamela Perkins, a case manager at Park Place Outreach say it’s important to speak with any minor you suspect may be in trouble.
“They’re going to be kind of reluctant to just come straight forward and talk about what they’ve been through and who they’re involved with. Definitely take your time and listen to them. Show that you can be trustworthy towards them to get them to open up and they may start disclosing certain things,” Perkins said.
The GBI says the creation and sharing of child porn, sex trafficking, and the online enticement of minors is a 24/7 problem in Georgia and much like the continuous hum inside the walls at the GBI, it can become white noise, but agents say they have to focus on it because the problem is growing fast daily.
“The number of tips that we’re receiving is increasing, the severity of the child porn that were seeing is increasing. Child sex trafficking is increasing. The online enticement of children is increasing. Its very, very easy to do in the digital age,” Garner said.
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