Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Somaly Mam Foundation commits fraud, lies about fake sex trafficking victims

Sex Slave Story Revealed to be Fabricated.

Somaly Mam using fake victims to commit fraud
By  and  - October 12, 2013

Meas Ratha was a teenager when she appeared on French television telling a tragic tale of how she was sold to a brothel in Phnom Penh and imprisoned as a young sex slave. Now, almost 16 years since her story was first broadcast on the France 2 channel, Ms. Ratha and members of her family have revealed that her story of abuse was carefully fabricated and rehearsed, on the instruction of Cambodia’s then-emerging anti-sex trafficking celebrity activist Somaly Mam.
In June 1998, Somaly Mam stood on the stage of Spain’s Campoamor Theater shoulder to shoulder with six of the world’s most celebrated women as she received the prestigious Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation. Six months prior to winning the award, and sharing that podium with, among others, Emma Bonino, a former European Commissioner for humanitarian aid, and Olayinka Koso-Thomas, a Nigerian-born doctor who had campaigned for decades against the circumcision of women, Ms. Mam had been virtually unknown.
Six months earlier, in January 1998, Ms. Mam was propelled from relative obscurity into the international media spotlight largely owing to the harrowing on-camera testimony of the young Meas Ratha and other alleged victims of Cambodia’s child sex industry.
Meas Ratha stands outside her home near Phnom Penh last month. (Simon Marks/The Cambodia Daily)
Meas Ratha stands outside her home near Phnom Penh last month. (Simon Marks/The Cambodia Daily)
Ms. Mam’s work as president of her own Phnom Penh-based NGO, Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situation Precaire (Afesip), was being featured on French television as part of the popular weekly show “Envoyé Spécial.”
The documentary opens with the camera focused on Ms. Ratha, who was then a chubby teenager of about 14-years-old from Takeo province. Ms. Mam is seated at the young girl’s side as she tells a dismal tale of sexual slavery in an unnamed brothel somewhere in Phnom Penh.
“My name is Meas Ratha and I am 14 years old. I was born in the province of Takeo and I have seven brothers and sisters. My family is very poor. My father has disappeared. One year ago my mother fell seriously ill. I was completely distraught. I was very young and I didn’t know what to do,” the young Ms. Ratha says to the camera. She then cries and receives a comforting squeeze of support from Ms. Mam.
“They locked me up in a room and at that time I knew I had been deceived,” she continues.
The documentary goes on to explain how the young girl had been promised a job as a waitress in Phnom Penh, but wound up a captive in a brothel. Later, she is filmed playing musical chairs, skipping rope, singing alongside other girls being cared for inside the Afesip center and helping Ms. Mam treat an AIDS patient called Tom Dy.
Sixteen years since the documentary was televised, Ms. Ratha—now 32 years old and married—said her testimony for the France 2 channel was fabricated and scripted for her by Ms. Mam as a means of drumming up support for the organization.
“The video that you see, everything that I put in is not my story,” Ms. Ratha said in an interview last month. Ms. Ratha, who was simultaneously anxious and determined to let people know the truth, said that she did not want to cause trouble for Ms. Mam’s NGO, which had provided an education for her, but that she could no longer continue a lie that had followed her for half her life.
“Somaly said that…if I want to help another woman I have to do [the interview] very well,” Ms. Ratha said.
“You know, my reputation has been lost because of this video,” said Ms. Ratha, who speaks competent English, adding that she had struggled to live with being typecast as a former sex slave since agreeing to tell the fabricated story.
“Everybody saw me and say ‘I a prostitute. Her mother sold her.’ They say like this. Everybody looks down on me.”
Now, Ms. Ratha lives a simple life with her two-year-old daughter and husband, who is a pharmacist and sells medicine out of their home.
Asked if she wanted the public in France to know the truth about her life, Ms. Ratha was unhesitating.
“I want them to know too. But if they know, Afesip will be in trouble. I don’t want Afesip to be in trouble, so that it can help other girls,” she added.
Today, Ms. Mam is at the center of the global campaign against the trafficking of children and women into the sex trade. As president of her hugely successful foundation in New York, she rubs shoulders with Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and actress Susan Sarandon, both of whom are members of the Somaly Mam Foundation’s board. In 2009, Ms. Mam was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people. Her foundation raises millions each year, and Ms. Mam is a jet-setting ambassador for her cause.
She owes much of her fame to the harrowing and brutal stories of girls just like Ms. Ratha, who have relayed to audiences across the world painful stories of sexual slavery in order to raise money and awareness of the Somaly Mam Foundation.
But the fabrication of Ms. Ratha’s sex slave story is only the latest incident of false information to emerge from Ms. Mam and her organizations.
Last year, Ms. Mam finally admitted, following public scrutiny, that she had made false claims in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly in New York, in which she said that eight girls she rescued from the sex industry had been killed by the Cambodian army after they raided her organization’s shelter. Police officials and Ms. Mam’s ex-husband also last year strongly denied long-standing and highly publicized claims by Ms. Mam that her daughter was kidnapped by human traffickers in 2006 when she was 14 years old. The traffickers, she claimed, had videotaped her daughter being gang-raped in retaliation for her work with victims of the sex trade. Police said they were baffled by the claims, while Ms. Mam’s former partner said the story was a publicity stunt to raise funds for her organization.
A separate Cambodia Daily investigation conducted last year also uncovered that one of the Somaly Mam Foundation’s most highly-publicized sex trafficking victims, Long Pros, had fabricated her harrowing story of gruesome mutilation at the hands of a brothel owner. In numerous interviews and in a prime-time television documentary, Ms. Pros said she was imprisoned as a young teenager at a brothel in Phnom Penh where she was held as a sex slave and had her eye gouged out with a knife for refusing to have sex with customers. However, medical records and interviews with Ms. Pros’ parents and her eye surgeon showed she had her eye removed in hospital because of a tumor that developed in her childhood. Ms. Pros’ parents said she was sent directly from their home to Ms. Mam’s organization in Phnom Penh simply to get an education and she had never spent any time in a brothel.
The Somaly Mam Foundation’s press office in New York declined a request to interview Ms. Mam for this latest article. Ms. Mam also declined to be interviewed in relation to false comments to the U.N. General Assembly, the alleged fabrication of the kidnap of her daughter, and the alleged fabrication regarding Ms. Pros’ eye.
“We don’t know why, nor will we speculate on why Meas Ratha has allegedly made the claims that you report,” Afesip’s communication team said in an email.
“What are clearly facts is that in the 15 years since the filming of that documentary, the Somaly Mam Foundation (SMF) and AFESIP have led successful programs to help thousands of young women and girls escape from sex slavery and rebuild a life of dignity,” the organization said.
“Those women who choose to publicly share their personal stories about sex trafficking are courageous and strong, and we are saddened when forces work to silence their voices and seek to distract from building awareness of this critical global problem,” it continued.
Afesip declined to provide any information regarding the brothel from which Ms. Ratha was allegedly rescued, or where her case was filed with police. Afesip also did not provide such information related to the alleged mutilation of Ms. Pros or the alleged kidnap or Ms. Mam’s daughter.
The Somaly Mam Foundation also helps with the Voices for Change program, which is run by Sydney-based non-profit Project Futures—a charity that raises awareness about human trafficking and sexual exploitation in Australia and Southeast Asia.
The organization launched an investigation into Voices for Change after The Cambodia Daily’s investigation of Ms. Pros, who is a member of the program. When asked about the status of the review, the press office said that it was still in progress.
At Ms. Ratha’s family home in Takeo province, her father, Kong Tith, a bony man in his sixties who has kept his family afloat by doing everything from logging to building houses, said a relative had proposed that he send two of his daughters to Afesip back in 1997 because he was poor and unable to properly care for all of his seven children.
“[Ratha] went to the NGO run by Somaly. My cousin saw that I was poor, so he took two of my children to Somaly’s organization. They were not mistreated” by the NGO, he said. But, Mr. Tith said, when he learned of his daughter’s participation in the documentary, he traveled to Phnom Penh to confront Ms. Mam.
“I was the one who followed the case by going to the NGO and asking them about it,” he said in an interview last month.
“This was just an opportunist taking advantage of my child,” Mr. Tith said of the false claims his daughter made in the documentary, adding that he did not take his complaint further than Afesip because the organization had helped to educate his two daughters and provided them with shelter.
Ms. Ratha still remembers the fuss her father kicked-up because of the false story she told in the documentary.
“My father brought my relatives and police to the NGO and they really freaked Afesip out,” Ms. Ratha said. “In the end they talked and understood the issue, so the problem was solved.”
“I told him, ‘father don’t you worry [about the documentary], it is the NGO’s rule.’”
Flicking through photo albums of her son’s recent wedding, Ms. Ratha’s mother, Meas Sokhom, said she was shocked to learn of her daughter’s appearance on television back in 1998. Ms. Sokhom described her daughter’s childhood as difficult due to the family’s poverty. But not one exposed to the horrors of the sex industry or slavery in a brothel.
Ratha, she said, was a happy child, and out of all her sons and daughters, she showed the most natural intelligence. It was that natural smartness that they had hoped Afesip would cultivate, which was the reason they let her go to the organization in the first place, she said.
“We cannot say such a thing [sex slavery] happened to my daughter. We are her parents and we lived here the whole time,” she said. “If these things did not happen, why did they document her life like this?” she asked.
“I asked her about it [the documentary], but she did not say anything. She just stayed quiet.”
A 30-minute drive from Ms. Ratha’s childhood village, her sister, Meas Sokha, lives in a modern two-story home with a pond in the back yard for breeding fish. Ms. Sokha has two children and spends her days as a housewife. The village where she lives is a postcard perfect portrait of rural Cambodia surrounded by fluorescent green rice fields and tree-covered hills on the horizon. But she remembers harder times, when her family would sometimes have to go without food in the evening.
Ms. Sokha was the other child in the family to go to Afesip with Ms. Ratha in 1997. The two sisters slept, ate and worked together for approximately six months at Afesip in the hope of gaining an education and finding a job. At no point during their journey from their rural home in Takeo to the NGO’s center in Phnom Penh was her sister sold to a brothel, she said.
“We were desperately poor but I was not abused. She [Ratha] wasn’t either. We are from here and were sent there [to Afesip] because we were poor and did not study much,” Ms. Sokha said. “[Ratha] is now educated, so she can work at anything.”
Ms. Sokha said that she remembered how staff at Afesip had taken an interest in her sister, as she was a confident speaker.
“They only filmed her because she was smarter than me. She was better at talking than me. I was no good at that,” she said. “The point is we are good girls, but they say that we are not good and that we were sold” to brothels, she said.
“She was not raped or sold. She was not abused but we were very poor.”
Doubt over Ms. Ratha’s story emerged shortly after the France 2 show was broadcast. French national and long-time resident of Cambodia Marie Christine Uguen cared for Ratha when she was a teenager in the late 1990s. Ms. Uguen said she had been deeply shocked at seeing Ms. Ratha appear on television telling a version of her life she had never heard before, despite living with her for months. She saw the documentary on France 2 while she was visiting Battambang province on a work trip.
“I turn on the television to see an ‘Envoyé Spécial’ on Afesip. And there I see Ratha on television speaking, squirming and crying and Somaly who takes her hand,” Ms. Uguen said.
“I did not understand at all where this story had come from. I sat Ratha down in front of me and asked her what is this story about? What have I just seen on the television?
“…Then Ratha tells me, ‘Aunty, basically, I know you are not going to agree, but Somaly asked me to go to a home in Tuol Kok with several other girls and I was the one who acted the best, so she asked me and it was me who she chose,’” Ms. Uguen said.
“I said to her ‘What’s that, you did a rehearsal?’ And she told me ‘Yes we did a rehearsal in a home in Tuol Kok and at the end it was me who was selected…’”
Pierre Legros, Ms. Mam’s former husband and one of Afesip’s original founders, denied knowing anything about Ms. Ratha’s coached story for the French TV crew. He said that his job at Afesip in 1997 was not to manage the victims but to help raise funds for the organization and set up offices in other countries in the region.
Mr. Legros said that Afesip at the time cared for both victims of sex trafficking and other girls who were taken in because they were considered to be at high risk of falling into prostitution.
“Could Somaly have taken her in as a preventive case and afterwards say she has been trafficked? Yes, that is possible,” Mr. Legros said.
“Ask Somaly. She had direct contact with Khmer people (victims and family.) I was only managing the structure,” he said in a subsequent email.
Back at her home on the outskirts of Phnom Penh earlier this month, Ms. Ratha prepared to finally watch the documentary she had appeared in 16 years ago but had never actually seen. Watching a DVD recording of the documentary on a laptop computer at her home, Ms. Ratha was visibly moved at seeing the young girls from Afesip and her past.
On the screen appeared Srey Veng, “13 years old, raped, beaten and sold to different clients for two years,” the voice-over in French says. Next on screen was 12-year-old Sokha, “the youngest, sold and raped at the beginning by her step father,” the commentary continues.
Ms. Ratha looked perplexed. Sokha, known then as A’tour, was not supposed to have been in the documentary, an amazed Ms. Ratha said.
According to Ms. Ratha, Ms. Mam had told her that the story she was to recount for the filmmakers was true, but was the life-story of another young girl, Sokha, who had been too traumatized to speak about her past.
Ms. Ratha said that she agreed with Ms. Mam to tell Sokha’s story because then it was not really like lying. That Sokha was also featured in the same documentary telling a totally different story of rape and brothels was a huge shock to Ms. Ratha.
“I don’t understand why she is in the video,” Ms. Ratha said. “Somaly lied to me…. She said this story is [Sokha’s] story,” Ms. Ratha said.
“At that time, I was not happy since what I was saying was not my true story. But I cried because I felt sorry for [Sokha],” she said. “I don’t understand.”
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Once Coached for TV, Now Asked to Keep Quiet about Sex Trafficking Hoax

By  and  - November 4, 2013
The woman who claims she was coached by global anti-sex trafficking advocate Somaly Mam to fabricate a story of sexual slavery for French television in 1998 says she has been approached by a Somaly Mam Foundation (SMF) staff member, who has begged her to stop talking to the media.
Meas Ratha, 32, revealed last month that as a young teenager she was selected by Ms. Mam to appear on the France 2 television channel in 1998 after undergoing rehearsals with a group of other young girls to falsely recount how she was sold to a brothel owner in Phnom Penh.
Days after her revelation was published on October 12, Meas Ratha said she received her first visit from the SMF staffer.
“There was a girl…came to me begging with tears to stop speaking to the media. Of course whatever I told you was true—that I was filmed to lie to the world and that I was a victim even though I was not,” Ms. Ratha said in a telephone interview on October 24.
“But now I can no longer speak,” she said.
Ms. Ratha identified the visitor as Sina Vann, a longtime employee of the SMF in Cambodia and program manager for the organization’s Voices for Change (VFC) program. The VFC program is run by SMF and aims at giving a voice to victims of sex trafficking in order to raise awareness about the issue.
The second visit by Ms. Vann was on October 23, said Ms. Ra­tha, adding that the SMF staff member had stressed that speaking out about her past could greatly damage the reputation of Ms. Mam’s organization.
“She was not here to intimidate me. But she begged me and cried in front of me and said that it would be a disaster for the organization if I keep talking to the media. She also asked me not to talk to other journalists if they approached me,” Ms. Ratha said.
“If I keep talking it will bring trouble to everyone: myself, the organization and you [journalists]. I used to stay inside the [SMF] organization so I want to help it,” she said, adding that she would heed the call and no longer speak about the fabricated story from 1998.
Ms. Ratha, who is now a streetside food vendor to garment factory workers on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, said she was admitted to Afesip in 1997 because her family of nine was struggling to survive.
Her parents and sister—who also stayed with Ms. Ratha inside an Afesip training center—backed-up Ms. Ratha’s claim that she was never enslaved as a prostitute inside a brothel in Phnom Penh.
Ms. Vann could not be contacted for comment.
Afesip CEO Sao Chhoeurth said on October 24 that he was not aware of any visit having been made to Ms. Ratha.
Hayle Welgus, policy and liaison manager for SMF in Cam­bodia, said Ms. Vann had not been sent by the organization in an official capacity.
“SMF hasn’t sent Sina [Vann] in an official capacity so I need to speak to her to see if she visited on a personal level,” Ms. Welgus said on October 24.
Contacted on Friday, Ms. Wel­gus declined to comment and re­ferred questions to the communications department at SMF.
Asked about Ms. Vann’s alleged visit to Ms. Ratha, the SMF communication’s department declined to comment.
“The statement that was sent to you previously is all that we have to share on this matter,” the communications department at SMF said in an email.
The SMF communications department was referring to a statement in which Afesip said in October that it would not speculate on why Ms. Ratha had denied the story she had told France 2.
Afesip has also declined to say from which brothel Ms. Ratha had been allegedly rescued or to which department of the police her case of alleged enslavement and rescue had been filed.
Though Ms. Ratha insists the visit from the SMF’s Ms. Vann was only beseeching, she admits that she is now unwilling to speak out about the truth behind her story due to any repercussions that could stem from harming Afesip’s reputation in Cambodia.
After The Cambodia Daily reported its findings in October 2012 into the story of Long Pros, one of SMF’s most publicized members of the Voices for Change program, the young woman’s father, Long Hon, said he was paid a visit from Afesip staff who had also asked him to cease speaking to the media.
Ms. Pros had long told a horrific story of having an eye gouged out at the hands of a brothel owner. However, medical rec­ords show that Ms. Pros’ eye was re­moved by an eye surgeon in hospital—the victim of a large benign tumor that covered one of her eyes for many years during childhood.
Ms. Pros was only sent to Afesip after undergoing her operation at the Takeo Eye Hospital, her parents said, a claim that was also confirmed by medical rec­ords and images obtained showing Ms. Pros’ medically-removed eye.
While members of the SMF staff now appear reluctant for Ms. Ratha and the family of Ms. Pros to continue speaking to reporters, a huge amount of Ms. Mam’s success and global fame stems from the highly public testimony and many media interviews conducted by the young women inside her organization who tell harrowing tales of sex trafficking.
The high-media profile of the SMF, and support from board members such as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Hollywood actress Susan Sarandon, has helped the foundation’s revenues and expenditures rocket in recent years.
In 2011, the latest year for which figures are available, spending by the SMF increased to $3.53 million. The SMF’s annual fund­raising gala in New York on Oc­tober 23 was a star-studded event where tickets for some tables went for $100,000.
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Anti-Sex Trafficking Aid Worker Claims Fabricated Fake Victim Stories Are Common. Somaly Mam, Long Pros

By  - November 7, 2013
Weighing in on revelations that fabricated sexual slavery stories were used to promote the work of Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situation Precaire (Afesip) in Cambodia, which was founded by global anti-trafficking activist Somaly Mam, a longtime aid worker said that staff at the organization were aware that some victims were not in the desperate situations they claimed to be.
Pierre Fallavier, who said he advised Afesip between 1999 and 2007, wrote in a series of recent emails that from the beginning of his relationship with the organization, concerns were raised by staff that information on victims that was being disseminated by Afesip was “exaggerated.”
Mr. Fallavier, who holds a Phd from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has worked for NGOs and multiple U.N. agencies in Africa and Asia, also claimed that, like Afesip, many aid groups create “composite” stories of the lives of people being helped by their organizations as a means to raise funds.
“I started working as an adviser to Afesip in 1999, and stopped in 2007. From the start, people around me—all Khmers—were saying the stories Somaly told about herself and some of the girls were exaggerated. At that time I did not want to listen, because I could see the good Afesip was doing. The level of violence against women then was higher than anywhere else in Southeast Asia,” Mr. Fallavier wrote in an email.
“A few courageous individuals then set up organizations to rescue such women. Among them, Afesip decided it would also lead a ‘political’ struggle to get the rights of women and children recognized…. [S]o at that time, what counted were results. Everyone knew that some victims lied and were not in the desperate situations they claimed to be, but they were still in so much need of help that it did not seem to matter,” he wrote.
“And then, at the same time, donors were getting an interest, and were sending their people with crews of journalists to take pictures and extracts selling stories. I used to tell Somaly to send them away, that all they wanted were exotic stories of violence and sex, with the picture of a beautiful hero saving children so they could sell their papers. But they came with the funders, or with promises their articles and re­ports would help advocate for the rights of women. And they were the first ones to manipulate the images and the stories.”
Mr. Fallavier said that the recent spotlight on the Somaly Mam Foundation, following revelations that at least two alleged victims of the sex trade helped by her organization had fabricated stories, should be extended to include many other humanitarian groups.
“[I] find it unfair to point solely at Afesip for fabricating stories about its typical beneficiaries. This has been and still is the approach that all major international NGOs use, in Cambodia and elsewhere,” he wrote.
“They take bits and parts of the life stories of different beneficiaries and make up a ‘typical’ sob story that they use to raise funds with.”
Mr. Fallavier, who worked for Handicap International (H.I.), said that he left the organization because of such a practice in 2000 because he believed it to be “unethical.”
“But the point is that all NGOs do so, that they are unapologetic, and that it is well known to anyone working in that sector,” he continued.
“Just take one of the stories from Cambodia that Oxfam, World Vision, Care, etc. use in their advertising campaigns ‘at home,’ and try to trace them. You will see how the majority of these stories are ‘composite’ of different realities,” Mr. Fallavier claimed.
“They justify it very bluntly: This is marketing they need to raise money, and it is only with extreme stories that they will get people to give the cash they need to undertake their work. In fact, in many cases, back home, private marketing companies are in charge of the advertising, and they sell NGO work in the same way they would with any other service.”
Responding to Mr. Fallavier’s claims, the communications department at the Somaly Mam Foundation said it would not comment as Mr. Fallavier had never held an official position with Afesip.
“[W]e can’t speculate about allegations made by someone who had no formal affiliation with the organization,” the communications department said in a statement.
“Mr. Fallavier has been a good friend of Somaly Mam and supportive to Afesip Cambodia on a personal and unofficial capacity. He has never held any official positions or roles at Afesip Cambodia. We do not know when his relationship with Afesip and Somaly Mam began, yet it is an amicable and supportive one that still continues today,” the statement continues.
Pierre Legros, who helped found Afesip in 1996 and is the ex-husband of Ms. Mam, confirmed Mr. Fallavier had advised Afesip.
At one time, Afesip’s funding from the European Union (E.U.) was sent through H.I. and Mr. Fallavier had acted as an intermediary between the two organizations, Mr. Legros said.
“In 1999 we received money from the European Commission. This money we could not receive directly as we had to pass through an NGO that had an agreement with the E.U. So we received money passed to us by an intermediary NGO. It was Handicap International that was chosen to be the intermediary with Afesip,” Mr. Legros said.
“Pierre Fallavier was hired by Handicap International to serve as someone who was responsible for the programs run by Afesip using Handicap International mon­ey. He was the adviser to Afesip in making the link be­tween Handicap In­ter­national and Afesip.”
Mr. Fallavier’s emails followed a recent story revealing that a 14-year-old girl being rehabilitated by Afesip had been coached in 1998 to tell a fabricated story of sexual slavery in a documentary for French television. Other stories promoted by Afesip of sex slavery, trafficking and even killing have also proven to be false.
In his emails on the subject of victim fabrication in the aid industry, Mr. Fallavier reserved some of his harshest criticism for Handicap International France (HIF).
According to Mr. Fallavier, in 1999, when he was working in Cam­bodia with HIF, the organization launched a campaign to send hundreds of thousands of letters to raise funds from individuals in Europe using stories of child victims of land mines. The campaign, run out of HIF’s headquarters in France, gained im­mense traction because of its focus on child landmine victims. However, child victims of landmines represented only a tiny pro­portion of the work HIF was actually carrying out in Cambodia—most of its work was in roads, irrigation and access to water.
Though he does not claim that the landmine stories were fabricated, Mr. Fallavier said they greatly exaggerated the extent of the problem.
“I learned that if work with children victims of landmines represented less than ten percent of HI operations worldwide, the fundraising campaign that showed HI largely as supporting these children brought in 90 percent of the private funds it used to complement institutional funding in all its operations,” Mr. Fallavier said.
“So, somehow HIF was collecting the majority of its funds on a belief they built among the public that the money would be used to support these children,” though Mr. Fallavier admits that a disclaimer was written in tiny print at the bottom of H.I.’s call for funds.
Arnaud Richard, head of the Federal Information team for H.I., said last week that the organization “does not fabricate stories” when publicizing its work in some of the world’s poorest countries.
“The stories are personal stories which give the general public an insight into both the wider situation and the lives of many of our beneficiaries. This enables us to raise the awareness of the public and private donors in countries where HI is represented by national associations (UK, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Canada and USA). We would also point out that beneficiaries are in­formed of HI’s actions and are asked to give their permission to use their image,” he said.
“Several people who have worked for our organization for many years remember that Mr. Fallavier once worked for Handicap International. However, he left the organization more than 13 years ago, and we do not currently have any further information on his reasons for leaving Handicap International,” he said.
Mr. Richard said that H.I. promotes its work abroad through a team of four people dedicated to gathering testimonies and information from its operations and programs.
These four people, dubbed the “Federal Information team,” regularly travel to the field to meet with beneficiaries. The stories can then be used as part of the organization’s attempts to raise funds.
Asked about Mr. Fallavier’s claims that H.I.’s fundraising techniques were misleading the public, Mr. Richard said the organization engages in focused campaigns in order to draw the attention of donors to its activities.
“These campaigns were indeed run during the period you have mentioned in order to raise funds,” Mr. Richard said referring to H.I.’s campaign carried out during 1999 and 2000.
“However, to be totally clear, at no point during these fundraising campaigns did the organization state that the money collected would be specifically used for our actions in Cambodia. We are always careful to point out that donations are used to help people with disabilities and to improve their living conditions. For example, we might highlight the cost of fitting a disabled person with an orthopedic device or providing them technical aids in order to give donors an idea of the potential impact of their donation.
“In order to avoid misunderstandings on this point, however, the documents sent out to donors specifically state that the testimonies are offered as examples only. The reply slip also clearly states that, by making a donation, the donor ‘authorizes Handicap International to allocate its aid to the most useful and urgent activity.’”
Mr. Richard also took issue with Mr. Fallavier’s interpretation of H.I.’s work.
“We strongly refute the idea that these stories were invented or that we misled donors regarding the use of their donations. Although we are sure that Mr. Fallavier—who appears to have made a good impression on those who worked with him at Han­dicap International—is acting in good faith, his interpretation of an activity of which he has very little knowledge—fund­raising—is totally false,” he said.
Other organizations in Cambo­dia working with women and children also denied Mr. Fallavier’s claim that they engage in exaggerating stories, and that any stories on victimhood are presented accurately using real, consenting people or composites of real life situations.
Talmage Payne, CEO of Hagar International, said the practice of using victim testimonies in order to sell an NGO’s work abroad raises serious questions due to the pervasiveness of using images in fundraising that fully identify the face and names of sexual abuse or trafficked minors.
“This violates a number of best practice protocols about protecting clients and many national laws—even if the story is true,” Mr. Payne said.
He added that the Somaly Mam Foundation’s use of a 14-year-old alleged victim of sex slavery could even be in violation of Cambodia’s Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation, which states that “Newspapers and all other mass media shall be prohibited from publishing or broadcasting or disseminating any information which can lead to public knowledge of identities of victims in the offences stipulated in this law.”
“The well known and well regarded [NGO] brands are very careful about this with strict protection standards. It’s a problem on the fringes. It’s not a norm or mainstream,” Mr. Payne said.
Mr. Payne said that in his organization’s publications a researcher may create a composite case study of many stories in order to “create victimology of certain types of abuse and recovery,” all of which is disclosed in any writing on the matter. He added that all stories are based on the subject’s consent and that identifying images are never used in cases of trafficking or sexual abuse.
Andrew Moore, country director for Save the Children, also said fabricating victims’ stories is not practiced by his organization.
“Save the Children does not fabricate stories for fundraising purposes,” he said. “We adhere to high standards of child protection and child safeguarding in gathering stories from the field, and all our staff are trained on child safeguarding.
“Our publicity work is done in-house, with thorough approval protocols that ensure that only factual reports that safeguard the interests of children are released.”
In a recent article, Sebastien Marot, executive director of Friends International, an NGO that helps disadvantaged children living in urban areas in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Indonesia, Honduras, Mexico, Egypt and Burma, said the situation regarding the fabrication of victims’ stories had arisen as “a direct consequence of the interconnected actions of the child protection organizations, the media, the donors and the general public; all wanting the best for these children, but instead turning them into victims.”
“[A] large number of organizations get sucked into using children to raise funds: making them talk about the abuse they survived in front of a camera, having their picture in a pitiful situation published for everyone to see, allowing non-professional visitors into their centers [like orphanage tourism],” Mr. Marot wrote.
“In worst cases, the truth is distorted or the stories invented to attract more compassion and money,” Mr. Marot said in the article published on his organization’s website.
“The impact on the lives of these children is terrible: if they come from an abusive situation, such a process retraumatizes them and in any case it stigmatizes them forever.”
Mr. Marot said the media was complicit, and searched out and published emotionally-charged stories in order to attract readers. Moreover, donors tend to react to these stories.
“As regulators of the money it is easy, if specific guidelines are not in place, to fund projects on a purely emotional basis. For example we have witnessed a rapid increase of orphanages in Cambodia (funded by local and foreign private donors), despite the fact that most of these children are not orphans and it is against current Cambodian Government policies,” he wrote.
“Like the general public, donors react to highly emotionally charged stories that in some cases are built to please them or are told at the expense of the same children they want to protect. Many donors do not have the capacity or desire to check these stories, so we end up in situations of ‘embellished’ story lines.
“A main consequence of this is that in some instances organizations end up selling the wrong problem to the donors: since donors will fund based on emotions and not on the more mundane facts, this can lead to the creation of programs built on entirely wrong assumptions which do not provide the right solutions to the beneficiaries. They may give the ‘right’ message/image back to the donors but end up further hurting the children with the money that was in­tended to protect them,” he continued.
Aarti Kapoor, who was a legal adviser to Afesip between 2003 and 2006 and still works to combat sexual abuse against children, said child protection has become highly sensationalized.
“The image of human trafficking has become highly sensationalized, often to get media attention and raise funds through emotive reactions. The reality of trafficking is often more complex,” Ms. Kapoor said.
“The tragedy is that sensationalized perceptions of trafficking end up hindering our ability to identify and respond to the majority of cases on the ground.”
Article Link:

Sex-trafficking, fraud and money at the Somaly Mam Foundation

October 2013
Cambodia Daily just ran two controversial features on Somaly Mam, a well-known trafficking survivor and head of the anti-trafficking non-profit, the Somaly Mam Foundation that funds shelters in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Somaly Mam, Cambodia's most well-known anti-trafficking activist, partly due to Nicholas Kristof whose "live tweeting" a brothel raid with Somaly Mam was roundly criticised by other NGOs in Cambodia, is accused of false stories of abuse, murder and kidnapping of young women, and the organization of hugely over-paying top staff including Somaly Mam herself.
Sex Slave Story Revealed to be Fabricated interviews one of the women who as a teenager spoke about her ordeal as a survivor of trafficking to raise funds for SMF, a story she now says wasn't hers but a script she was chosen to repeat because she was bright and well-spoken, in exchange for free education at a shelter. Another survivor's story, Long Pros, is also in question with an alleged childhood injury instead of a brothel owner's eye gouging. Also mentioned is the UN speech where Somaly Mam claimed young women in a brothel were shot by the Cambodian police during a rescue attempt, later recanted, and her earlier claims that her daughter was kidnapped and gang-raped in response to Somaly Mam's work, a claim denied by her ex-husband (who now runs an anti-trafficking NGO himself in Cambodia) and the daughter. Why use false or exaggerated stories?  As the accompanying feature The Rise of the Somaly Mam Foundation reports, because it pays very very well. Somaly Mam's salary has steadily increased along with other executive staff to nearly 14% of the 2011 expenditures, nearly as much as the 16% that went to the main shelter in Cambodia. That puts SMF in company with other charities with highly-paid executive staff and less going to the actual programs - Somaly Mam Foundation in 2011 managed to hit just 23% in programs grants, the other 77% else going to fundraising, administration and staff. Ron Robinson who topped Charity Navigator's list for overpaid charity executives, took 3.4% of Young America's Foundation, less than half the share that the CEO position at SMF, held by Bill Livermore and then Rigmor Schneider, US$253,429 for 7% of the total budget. The SMF's annual financial report for the same period reports a very different picture from their 990IRS form for 2011 (Charity Navigator requires registration), claiming 66% of their expenses went to "grants and other programs". Bangkok-based journalist Andrew Drummond's tabloidish take and Khmer440, an expat forum with bleak humor, discuss the new reports and rumors. Criticism of the SMF and Afesip has simmered for a long time, from sex workers and sex work organizations, other aid workers and others in Cambodia.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

SEX TRAFFICKING FRAUD Raymond Bechard sued by Attorney General Richard Blumenthal


HUMAN TRAFFICKING CHARITIES SUED FOR FRAUD, STEALING GOVERNMENT MONEY, DONATIONS, GRANTS

Sex Trafficking Charity organization faces lawsuit

AG: Ahava Kids misused thousands of dollars

  • Story by: Tina Detelj
  • News 8 (WTNH)
Hartford, CT, USA (WTNH) - The operator of a Connecticut, shoreline charity is in big trouble with the state. The operator of the Old Saybrook-based " Ahava Kids" is accused of misusing thousands of dollars in charitable contributions.
A lawsuit was filed in Hartford Superior Court. It says that nearly half of the quarter million dollars in contributions collected by the charity in the past five years have been squandered.
It was a worker on the Ahava Kids website who apparently blew the whistle on the operator of the charity.
Raymond Bechard claimed to help victims of human trafficking and distribute AIDS medications to orphaned children in third world countries.
"This individual, essentially, wasted, squandered, misused and misappropriated this money," said Attorney General Richard Blumenthal.
At one time, Ahava Kids operated from a small office in a building in Old Saybrook and, according to the lawsuit, they spent donated money in department stores, grocery stores, sporting goods stores, gasoline and ATM cash withdrawals.
In addition, it is alleged that Bechard operated four businesses out of his home on Bay View Road and channeled $67,000 through the phony firms called "Disciple Makers Workshop," "Son Celebration," "Gift Catalog Online," and "Compel Communications."
"As much as $100,000 was taken from the cause of aiding orphan children with AIDS and victims of human trafficking," Attorney General Blumenthal said.
In a statment, a lawyer for Bechard said, "Any alleged financial disclosures, which are alleged to be inaccurate, have been rectified. We believe that the investigation and civil suit against Ahava Kids is misguided. It is unfortunate that the State of Connecticut is now focusing its resources to malign a small organization that has done so much good."
The Attorney General also claims that this so called 'safe house' that Bechard told News Channel 8 the charity was operating has been seldom, if ever, used.
Bechard's attorney said the safe house has been used three times. Attorney General Blumenthal is seeking repayment and penalties. The lawsuit was filed in coordination with the State Department of Consumer Protection.
Updated: Thursday, 01 Oct 2009, 11:18 PM EDT
Published : Thursday, 01 Oct 2009, 7:46 PM EDT

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Atlanta, Georgia Exaggerated Sex Trafficking of Women to get government funding grants


Atlanta Georgia Hugely Exaggerated Sex Trafficking of Women to get government funding.

The U.S. City of Atlanta, Georgia, and Attorney General Sam Olens hugely inflated the number of Korean and other Asian women trafficked into the city's sex trade so as to extract federal government funds, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on Monday.
An internal police memo in 2005 claimed "some 1,000" Asian women and girls between 13 to 25, many of them Korean were being "forced to prostitute themselves" in the city.
Atlanta police in 2005 asked the U.S. Department of Justice for money to form a taskforce to eradicate human trafficking, which was a much-publicized subject during the Bush administration. The Justice Department allotted a budget of US$600,000 based on a report from the Atlanta police which identified 216 women supposedly trafficked to the city for sex between 2005 and 2006.
But an audit in July 2008 found only four, the paper reported.
englishnews@chosun.com / Jan. 02, 2013 12:28 KST


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The situation was dire, police warned. The City of Atlanta was under siege by human traffickers.
Some 1,000 Asian women and girls ages 13 to 25 were being “forced to prostitute themselves” in the city, a 2005 internal police email said. Many of the victims, police said, were Korean.
To free them, police forged ahead with a $600,000 task force.
Had agency leaders questioned the estimate, they would have found it defied common sense. If it were true, one in eight of the city’s Asians would have been sex slaves.
Perhaps, then, it’s little wonder that the program had such poor results that it drew scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Justice. An initial report said Atlanta police had found more than 200 victims, but auditors could only confirm four.
The APD project is an example of how government officials have charged into the fight against human trafficking without a clear sense of who is being exploited and how, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found.
While the term “human trafficking” conjures images of foreigners smuggled into the U.S. to work at brothels and sweatshops, its definition shifts, sparking complaints that public dollars are being spent the wrong way.
Mexicans have been brought to Gwinnett County and forced into prostitution. Was this the area’s biggest problem? Was a case of Nigerian maids held in Suwanee a sign of a larger trend?
What about gay male teen runaways pushed to have sex for money? Or homegrown girls sold by local pimps?
Despite more than a decade of federal and local initiatives and millions of dollars spent, policymakers don’t have information that can answer these questions. What does exist suggests that government officials either don’t understand the problem, or are failing victims.
“You have to raise big questions on whether policies are appropriate in the first place,” said Ronald Weitzer, a George Washington University professor and expert on human trafficking. “More resources spent on sex trafficking means they’re lost elsewhere.”
Money and results
Atlanta launched its search for Korean prostitutes as hundreds of millions of dollars began to pour into anti-trafficking efforts nationwide. The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 gave special assistance to foreign victims in the U.S. and paved the way for a 2004 Department of Justice initiative to fund local human trafficking task forces.
The goal: To increase rescues of foreign victims by 15 percent each year.
City officials argued they desperately needed the money. “Human trafficking is now beginning to get a foothold in Atlanta and must be stopped before it becomes entrenched,” police told Justice Department officials.
The Atlanta Police Department won a $450,000 three-year grant, and the city chipped in an additional $150,000. Two investigators and a sergeant joined forces with a Korean translator.
At first blush, the task force seemed to be a success.
The Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance reported that Atlanta police identified 216 potential victims from January 2005 through December 2006.
But this count was later revealed to be grossly inaccurate. Auditors for the Justice Department’s Office of the Inspector General could find documentation for only four victims, a July 2008 report said.
The Bureau of Justice Assistance made a mistake that added 93 victims to the count. Atlanta had actually reported 123 victims. The city could not explain the 119 that auditors couldn’t track. Police said the figures were reported by a city employee who retired before the Justice Department inquiry.
The team disbanded in 2007.
In a recent written statement to the AJC, Atlanta police conceded that the unit was “ineffective in identifying victims of human trafficking, and had not produced the expected results.”
“The Atlanta Police Department came to the belief that while the issue of human trafficking is a true concern, the scope of the problem inside the city limits had declined from what was once thought during the inception of the grant,” the statement said.
Such problems weren’t unique to Atlanta. Auditors found victim over-counts by task forces across the nation, although none was as bad as Atlanta’s.
The City of Los Angeles, for instance, identified 49 victims and the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, D.C., found 51. Auditors confirmed none of them.
Auditors also found that nearly $32 million in federal funds for victim assistance groups aided far fewer people than expected.
The conclusion: Not enough victims were being helped.
“[H]uman trafficking grant programs have built significant capacities to serve trafficking victims, but have not identified and served significant numbers of victims,” the Office of the Inspector General reported.
Seeking evidence
Horrific abuses do take place, but evidence that foreign trafficking victims are pouring into the country is scarce.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement busted an international trafficking ring that operated in Atlanta’s suburbs from spring 2006 through June 2008.
The operators tricked 10 girls and young women, mostly from rural villages in Mexico, to come with them to America. Then they forced them to become prostitutes in Norcross.
Ringleader Amador Cortes-Meza initiated them into the trade by making them have sex with upwards of 20 men on the first night. Four of the victims were juveniles. One was only 14, investigators said.
One victim pleaded to return to her family. Cortes-Meza dunked her head in a bucket of water until she thought she would drown. Another tried to escape. He beat her with a broomstick so badly she was permanently disfigured.
Cortes-Meza was convicted in 2010 and sentenced to 40 years.
A years-long FBI investigation uncovered labor trafficking victims held in Gwinnett County. Bidemi Bello took two impoverished young women – one 17, the other 20 - from their Nigerian homes to live with her in Suwanee.
Their new home had four bedrooms, but Bello made them sleep on a couch or the floor. Bello owned a lawnmower, but made them cut the grass with their hands. They cooked meals but were only allowed to eat spoiled leftovers. When the food made one of them sick, Bello forced her to eat her own vomit.
Bello beat them when they disobeyed her. One ran away with the help of friends. The other found refuge in a Marietta church.
Bello was sentenced in 2011 to 11 years and eight months in federal prison on forced labor, trafficking and other charges.
While these prosecutions make headlines, such cases have been rare.
“We are told by the State Department that every year 15,000 people are trafficked into the U.S. But then, where are they?” said Elzbieta Gozdziak, research director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University.
If the problem were pervasive, more victims might have applied for special visas created by the 2000 anti-trafficking law. But between fiscal year 2002 and June 2010, the U.S. issued fewer than 1,900 of the visas, which allow victims to stay in the U.S., the Congressional Research Service found in a December 2010 report.
“Why are the numbers so small? Is it because the scope of the problem is not as big as they say? Or is it small because we don’t know how to find them?” Gozdziak asked.
Those numbers are proof that the fight against human trafficking has gone wrong, U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a November 2011 report on a bid to reauthorize the trafficking law. While he supported it, he sought more accountability.
“Either the government is doing an unconscionably poor job of finding victims or there are not that many total victims in the first place,” Grassley wrote.
And if the number of foreigners is inflated, the government may be spending money on the wrong programs. In an unpublished 2011 report obtained by the AJC, U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, said Congress needs to ensure domestic victims aren’t being overlooked.
“Over the last decade, Congress has failed to conduct the oversight necessary to ensure the programs and agencies tasked with fighting these terrible crimes are operating in an efficient and effective manner,” the report said.
The victims
Information problems stunt state-level programs, too. Programs in Georgia focus on underage girls sold for sex, leaving boys nowhere to turn.
The Georgia Care Connection Office, the state’s anti-child prostitution program, served no male clients in its first two years. Researchers who surfed Craigslist for the state’s count of minors who were sex trafficking victims did not search for boys.
Had researchers looked, they might have seen the Craigslist ads by a Douglasville man pimping a slender teenage boy for $160.
Steven Donald Lemery lured troubled gay teen runaways to his home and forced them to peddle sex online. Some of their sex ads would receive hundreds of responses.
They lived with Lemery’s wife, his boyfriend, his wife’s fiancé, and a rotating cast of characters that included broke drag queens, drug addicts and friends of friends.
The case came to light only when a 16-year-old showed up at an Alabama rape crisis center in 2011. He had with what looked like cigarette burns on his arms and chest and said he got them when he refused to have sex with two men Lemery booked as his clients.
Lemery was convicted in August for trafficking the teen from Alabama and another teen from South Carolina, as well as molesting a Georgia boy. His housemate Christopher Andrew Lynch pleaded guilty in the trafficking of a local transgendered boy.
Prosecutors sought services to help the victims recover, but all the programs were designed for girls, said Rachel Ackley, an assistant state attorney in Douglas County, where the teens were kept.
Kaffie McCullough, a longtime trafficking opponent, said that this may be advocates’ fault. “We thought, maybe wrongly, that there were more female victims instead of male victims,” McCullough said.
Whether Georgia is overlooking scores of boys sold for sex is anyone’s guess.
A 2011 Bureau of Justice Statistics report counted victims in cases opened by the nation’s 42 federally-funded anti-trafficking task forces from 2008 to 2010.
Of the sex trafficking victims, fewer than six percent were male.
But 24 of the 42 task forces gave such low-quality information that the bureau could not include their victim numbers. None of these units are located in Georgia. Furthermore, these counts reflect only the cases that investigators know about.
Trafficking is a hidden crime. Gay runaways duck police to avoid being sent home. Girls confuse investigators by calling pimps their “boyfriends.” Foreign victims stay in the shadows because they fear deportation.
“There really isn’t any concrete information,” said Meredith Dank, an Urban Institute researcher who studies domestic and foreign trafficking.
Local police agencies plan to collect data on human trafficking starting in 2013 as part of the Justice Department’s nationwide crime statistics program.
Yet a better understanding remains years into the future, said Amy Farrell, a Northeastern University professor who oversees the program to count federal task force cases.
“It’s going to be a decade for us to have good data, if we ever have good data,” Farrell said.

Trafficking victims fall through cracks of programs built on guesses, distortions

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
An Atlanta police officer took the teen to the station because she looked so young. She was trembling when he found her. She wasn’t wearing much.
The girl told investigators she was from Arkansas and her journey to the streets of Atlanta began when she climbed into the car of a relative’s boyfriend. Mariece Sims and another man drove her to a Texas hotel room and raped her, she said.
They left for Mississippi, where Sims told her to make money by having sex with men at a truck stop, court records said. In Atlanta, he told her to do it again. He hit the girl when she did not make enough or tried to escape.
In the nine years since this girl walked the streets, the public has been told over and over again that hundreds of girls in metro Atlanta meet her same fate every night. It’s why this area is notorious as one of the nation’s worst human trafficking hubs.
That reputation ignited a decade of efforts against what is described as modern-day slavery. Now it is cause célèbre. Nonprofits, religious groups and celebrities have joined the crusade, and politicians are pouring millions of tax dollars into the fight.
But an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that the initiatives are based on facts and figures that, while preached as gospel and enshrined in legislation, are guesses or distortions. Even the widespread belief that Atlanta is one of the nation’s child exploitation capitals stands on shaky ground. In this information vacuum, government officials have created programs that promise to find and help victims, but too often don’t.
The AJC found:
• Agencies have failed to keep accurate information that could tell them whether taxpayer-funded initiatives have been effective. Participants in a $1 million program did not record basic information such as why a victim was in the system.
• State-backed attempts to track trafficking trends were not designed to be scientific, and national estimates are widely discredited.
• There is little proof that initiatives bring a significant percentage of traffickers to justice. Special sweeps by local and federal task forces have turned up few exploiters. Clients of a state program to combat the commercial sexual exploitation of children cooperated in only four convictions in its first two years.
• The program’s clients struggle under its care. One-third of girls it took in during its first two years returned to prostitution, some coaxed back by their pimps. More than half of those placed in safe homes in fiscal year 2011 ran away.
Despite the flaws, trafficking opponents have made some significant strides, and each rescued child is a victory.
“Atlanta and Georgia really are in the forefront of the U.S.,” said Kaffie McCullough, deputy director of youthSpark, a Fulton County juvenile justice nonprofit that fights child sex trafficking.
The legal system now takes the crime seriously. The Legislature passed tough laws, and Georgia established a statewide system to help girls who are victims of commercial sexual exploitation, noted former Fulton juvenile court judge Nina Hickson, who is credited with starting Atlanta’s movement.
“I’m not totally saying these have all been successes. There have been disappointments. But a lot of good work is being done by a lot of good people,” said Hickson.
They face long odds, Hickson and others said. Programs close within years because funding dries up. Inexperienced decision makers ignore the advice of front-line workers. Victims dodge police by calling their pimps their “boyfriends” and are beaten when they try to leave.
Yet independent experts and federal authorities say that problems here and in other communities run deeper. Poor accountability and bad data hobble the effort.
David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire’s Crimes Against Children Research Center, cautions against using any of the estimates to make policy.
“The data are very poor, and are not really to be relied upon for any conclusion,” he said.
‘Facts’ really estimates
Atlanta’s anti-trafficking movement coalesced around the image of a 10-year-old girl, her ankles in shackles. It was November 2000, and the runaway was in juvenile court accused of prostitution. She was being kept in detention because there was nowhere else for her to go.
A series of stories in the AJC described how she and other girls sat in jail while their adult pimps went free. The problem was dire, and child advocates asked the Justice Department for money.
Nationally “an estimated 300,000 victimized children” were “living on the streets,” the Juvenile Justice Fund, now known as youthSpark, said in an application for federal funds.
Over the years, trafficking activists have repeated this and other grim statistics to decision-makers and before ballrooms full of potential donors and volunteers.
In 2005, the FBI added Atlanta to its list of 14 field offices with the highest incidence of child prostitution or trafficking. An FBI official testifying in Washington, D.C. cited law enforcement intelligence as well as information from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children.
A study commissioned by a local anti-trafficking campaign came up with another bleak figure. Research firm The Schapiro Group reported that 251 underage girls were being trafficked in Georgia in August 2007. Researchers cautioned, though, that the actual count could be closer to 400.
The Governor’s Office for Children and Families agreed to take over funding for the research. From 2009 through this spring, it paid The Schapiro Group nearly $245,000 to produce a regular count, which varied between 200 and 500. The results appeared on the agency’s website.
Now these alarming numbers appear in pamphlets, recent state legislation, and even on an anti-trafficking-themed tote bag passed out at a recent forum.
“240 Girls Were Trafficked in Georgia Yesterday,” the bag warns.
But a detailed look at the numbers shows that the most widely-used facts and figures are crude estimates, unsubstantiated, or inaccurate.
An FBI spokesman declined to explain why Atlanta is a top trafficking city.
Atlanta’s size and location may well mean the metro area plays a big role in the trade, experts said. But while the FBI official said information from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children helped the FBI develop its list, a center spokeswoman said it does not issue rankings.
In the absence of hard numbers, news articles and advocacy groups have claimed the title of the nation’s human trafficking capital for Wichita, Kan., Toledo, Ohio, and Baton Rouge, La.
Some widely-used “facts” about the scope of trafficking misinterpret actual estimates.
For instance, the claim that 300,000 minors are victims of commercial, sexual exploitation in the U.S. misquotes a 2001 estimate by University of Pennsylvania researchers.
Their report said that on the high side, these children are at risk – not actual victims. This includes runaways, children living in public housing and female gang members. Critics warn the estimate may double-count kids who are part of multiple risk groups.
The study’s authors emphasized they did not conduct a head count, and a better estimate would require more research.
Other estimates of U.S. child victims range from fewer than 2,000 to more than 2 million. The gap is so wide the numbers mean next to nothing.
“Somewhere between there is the truth, but we don’t know where,” said Mary A. Finn, a professor at Georgia State University and lead author of a report evaluating a major Atlanta anti-trafficking effort.
Figures on the trade’s profitability and victims’ average age have similar problems, yet officials continue to use them.
“They gain a life of their own,” said Ronald Weitzer, a George Washington University professor and expert on sex trafficking. “They’re repeated, recited and reproduced by the media and commentators and pretty soon become conventional wisdom, although the claims are way beyond what is warranted.”
As for the Governor’s Office for Children and Families findings on child exploitation, scholars say they are fundamentally flawed. Basic rules of research require that findings be verifiable and replicable.
These results aren’t. The Schapiro Group released some, but not all, of its methodology to the AJC, saying it was proprietary.
The firm estimated the number of victims by surfing ads on the website Craigslist, driving through high-prostitution neighborhoods, calling escort services and sitting in hotel lobbies counting what its observers think are underage call girls.
It multiplies that count by 0.38. Firm President Beth Schapiro said that’s because her company’s research showed that, conservatively, observers accurately guess a female in a sexually suggestive photo is underage about 38 percent of the time.
These reports are a waste of taxpayer money, Weitzer said. The methodology is a guessing game.
“If I showed that report to anyone here in my department, they would laugh,” he said.
Numbers have power
Yet these numbers have incredible power. The Schapiro Group’s count transformed child sex trafficking into a statewide crusade.
In 2001, Georgia legislators changed state law to make the pimping of a child a felony instead of a misdemeanor. Most headway took place on the local level.
Angela’s House, one of the nation’s residential treatment homes for trafficked girls, opened in 2002. The six-bed safe house launched with $1 million in private and state funds.
Two years later, the Juvenile Justice Fund won a $1 million grant to raise awareness and to overhaul responses by service agencies and law enforcement.
In 2005, Atlanta’s then-mayor Shirley Franklin issued a thick research report outlining the problem. She followed up with the launch of the “Dear John” campaign to target johns and boost enforcement.
But the release of the Schapiro Group’s 2007 data changed everything, said state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, a supporter of tougher laws against child prostitution.
“That’s when I could go to the floor of the Senate and say, ‘Did you know that 400 children are being prostituted on the streets of Atlanta?’” Unterman said.
In 2008, the Legislature created a commission to study the commercial sex trafficking of children. Legislation passed in 2009 added child prostitution to the forms of abuse teachers and others must report to authorities. That same year, the Governor’s Office for Children and Families opened the Georgia Care Connection Office to coordinate victim treatment and other services.
It was “the nation’s first statewide response to address the needs of child sex trafficking victims,” a 2010 news release said.
Legislators toughened laws once more in 2011 and placed the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in charge of child sex trafficking investigations.
On Dec. 6, Unterman and about a dozen lawmakers from other states took the cause to the White House. President Obama’s policy advisers wanted to know what they could do to help.
Reality is messy
The well-publicized advances belied a messy reality. Mobilizing money and resources proved far easier than creating programs that find and help the exploited.
Six nationwide anti-human trafficking sweeps dubbed “Operation Cross Country” recovered nine child victims in and around Metro Atlanta in six years, according to news accounts and FBI press releases.
Angela’s House closed when it came under new management. Funding and referrals dried up, and the new provider felt the beds weren’t needed because other safe houses had opened.
At a Dec. 21 legislative committee meeting on human trafficking, Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter complained that after years of efforts, policymakers know far less about the problem than they should. While The Schapiro Group’s figures indicate the crime is widespread, Porter said, his office rarely sees cases.
“We really haven’t embarked on a process of finding out what we’re dealing with,” Porter said.
It’s unclear how many victims were helped by the $1 million awarded in 2004 to the Juvenile Justice Fund.
The program began because “serious overlaps and gaps” were causing children to fall through the cracks, advocates told the U.S. Department of Justice in a grant application.
One goal was to fill information gaps that keep victims from getting needed care and protection, the grant proposal said. Participating agencies would meet regularly and install a case tracking database for victims of child sex trafficking and other abuse.
Many fissures, however, remained, according to a $450,000 federally-funded evaluation by Georgia State University researchers. Key agencies such as the Division of Family and Children Services failed to enter basic data into the system.
Of 50 victims recorded in the child abuse database, only one entry said whether the pimp was arrested. Of the 54 clients of Angela’s House, 29 were not in the database.
The agencies said they had other priorities. Human trafficking was rare compared to child beatings, sex abuse and neglect cases, said Finn, the evaluation report’s lead author.
“We found it was not even in the front fore lobe of their consciousness. They had to struggle to remember the last time a kid they saw brought this up,” Finn said.
Whether the program improved victim care remained a mystery. There wasn’t enough information, the report said.
Deborah Richardson, now executive vice president of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, was executive director of the Juvenile Justice Fund. She said gathering information was not its central goal.
“That was never the intent of the project,” she said. “It really was about system change.”
The change wasn’t enough for victims.
Their parents and guardians reported that police and courts were helpful. So was the counseling. But it did not stop the children from dropping out of school or running away.
The teens wondered whether their futures were any brighter.
“In general, there was no clear sense of whether or not youth felt that they had ‘gotten better’ or that they were somehow at the end of a process,” the evaluation report said.
Help often lacking
Years later, it’s still not clear victims are getting better or that the government response has improved.
The Georgia Care Connection Office’s goal is to help underage girls who are commercially sexually exploited, but its own data show a majority of its referrals were not victims at all.
The office reported that it received 400 referrals during its first three years of operation. About 190 were victims. That is fewer than six per month.
About 40 children were only “at risk” of becoming prostitutes. Yet they still joined the caseload of the seven-person office. The rest were referred to other agencies or did not complete screening.
The help it did give to victims often fell short, according to a 2011 evaluation the office commissioned.
During the office’s first two years, about 35 percent of its 136 clients, all female, returned to prostitution while they were receiving state help.
Thirty-eight were arrested, some more than once. Twelve became pregnant.
Pimps were rarely brought to justice. Written statements from eight victims led to charges. Only four exploiters were convicted, the report found.
Katie Jo Ballard, executive director of the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, cancelled an interview to discuss the program’s performance. She stopped responding to repeated requests by email, telephone and in person to comment.
The evaluation report did contain success stories. One client ran away from a safe house, returned to her exploiter, became pregnant and got arrested. But with help of the office, it said, she returned to treatment, continued her education and reunited with her parents.
“Without the focused approach of GCCO, the hard-earned progress noted in this report would not exist,” the report said.
Experts who help women leave prostitution recognize that small victories are rare.
At the GCCO, even the most dedicated clients stumbled as they tried to leave their old lives, said Katrina Owens, a trafficking survivor who worked for two years as a peer support worker.
The program directed survivors to mental health services, but exploiters remained free. They called the girls relentlessly or knocked on their doors, Owens said.
Some teens could not get needed help because their parents could not afford it. Others lacked transportation to attend programs that they could afford.
Girls balked at applying to college because their criminal histories could make them ineligible for federal financial aid. They failed to find work, and the cost of books was so high they were tempted to pay for them through stripping or prostitution, Owens said.
She left the program after two years. Though civic groups lined up to ask her to speak at luncheons and fund-raisers as statewide interest in sex trafficking climbed, she was becoming a token survivor, not someone with growing expertise.
“I feel the … movement here has become somewhat of a fad,” Owens said. “That’s the truth. Once the dust settles, I’m curious to know who will still be standing up for the cause.”
Meet the reporter
Willoughby Mariano started at the AJC in 2010 as a reporter for the PolitiFact Georgia team. Previously, she worked for the Orlando Sentinel in Florida, where she covered criminal justice and wrote a blog that chronicled the lives of those affected by years of record-breaking murder rates. She is co-winner of a National Headliner Award in investigative journalism for her coverage of laborers at Orlando theme parks and hotels who worked under conditions that amounted to indentured servitude. She was born in Brooklyn, raised outside of Chicago, and lives in East Atlanta with her husband and cats.
How We Got the Story
AJC reporter Willoughby Mariano looked into evidence that Atlanta is a top human trafficking hub and discovered that it and other oft-repeated claims about the crime were unsubstantiated or incorrect. Documents revealed through freedom of information act requests and other reporting showed that anti-trafficking programs in Atlanta and across the nation struggle to find and help victims. She reviewed thousands of pages of internal government files, scholarly research, federal research reports, and court records for this story, and conducted dozens of interviews with lawmakers, academics, advocates, program organizers, members of law enforcement, and others.

Overspending, poor oversight vexed Atlanta trafficking program

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The Atlanta police program to rescue Korean prostitutes from traffickers raised concerns at the U.S. Department of Justice in more ways than one.
Not only were auditors unable to verify the number of victims police had reported, the task force also had begun to run out of its $600,000 in grant money by January 2007, more than a year before the three-year program was to end.
Federal authorities were surprised that police could spend so much money so quickly.
“Is it really true that the investigators make more than $100,000 per year??” a federal administrator asked in a March 2007 email.
It was, because of overtime, a police budget manager replied. Investigators made more than the sergeant supervising the unit.
The feds had other concerns. Atlanta Police Department reported it spent more than $92,000 in salaries and benefits for a victim services consultant.
“Do you have any idea at all what work this person has done (we don’t)?” that email asked.
Police blamed the spending problems on a budgeting snafu.
“The short answer is the original budget grossly underestimated personnel costs,” a June 2007 APD memo said.
Still, there was enough money to stock the unit’s supply closet.
APD purchased three desktop computers at $2,000 each, three laptop computers at $3,000 each, a $900 digital camera and a $900 camcorder, among other things, according to an internal inventory audit.
Grant money also filled three spaces in APD’s parking lot. In 2006, the human trafficking unit bought two new Ford Explorers — one in gold and another in silver — and a red, unmarked Crown Victoria with tinted windows. They were designated for undercover work.
Atlanta police realized the program was off track when a new commander took over in 2006, according to a recent written statement by APD to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It “lacked adequate supervisory structure and appropriate internal oversight,” the statement said.
The task force disbanded in 2007, but police continue to investigate local pimps. They say they are still committed to the fight.
“Human trafficking within the city borders is intolerable, and the Department will continue to work with our federal law enforcement partners to pursue and prosecute these acts,” the statement said.

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