It was about more than being in the right place at the right time when the Covenant House Georgia (CHGA) outreach team intercepted an attempt to traffick a young woman in Atlanta. Interrupting the action and getting the 18-year-old to safety involved an alert, skilled, and experienced team of outreach staff, volunteers, and one very determined case manager.
The incident began when one of the volunteers, a member of the CHGA youth council and resident in our transitional living program, noticed the young woman (we’ll call her Cindi to protect her identity) when the outreach van he and the other volunteers were riding in approached a tent city located under a highway overpass.
“The youth ambassador said Cindi looked out of place, like she didn’t belong there,” recalls Todd Wilcher, CHGA’s director of youth outreach and engagement.
Todd said the volunteers knew exactly what to do. “They’ve been working as a team and supporting our outreach efforts for a long time, some for as long as 15 years. They go out every week, and we have so much confidence in them.”
The volunteers pulled the van up to the tent city, and the youth ambassador called out to Cindi: “We’re with Covenant House. Can we talk to you about our services?” But as she approached the volunteers, the man Todd identifies as the trafficker showed up and tried to pull her into a tent.
“One of our volunteers, Breon, had to run interference,” Todd says. “The predator used some colorful words. He threatened to come to Covenant House and take her back. Our volunteers told him he’d be arrested if he tried.” The threat was not an idle one, as the man both knew where our sanctuary is located and also had taken Cindi’s identification, credit cards, and cash, and threatened her family.
While Breon distracted the trafficker, the volunteers managed to get Cindi into the outreach van. The youth ambassador told her not to worry, that CHGA would give her shelter and security. On the way to the shelter, the volunteers called Todd, who alerted the staff to prepare a place for Cindi.
“Once the young lady arrived at Covenant House, the staff gave her all the necessities, like food and sleep,” says Lamitria Blake, youth outreach and engagement coordinator.
Lamitria also had received a call from the volunteers on their way. “They asked me to check whether the young lady had ever been a resident with us before,” she says. That’s when Lamitria discovered that Cindi’s mother had reported her missing. In the hours after Cindi’s arrival, the young woman began to share her story.
Cindi and her brother had been adopted out of foster care and raised by a loving mother, who is also a medical doctor. When Cindi experienced significant behavioral issues, her mom was able to get her on medication, which helped to some degree. But the issues persisted, so her mom located a residential clinic in another state that she thought would help Cindi.
What the mother didn’t realize was that the clinic, based on religious beliefs, opposed the use of medication, and while Cindi was a resident there, they took her off of hers. Instead of improving, Cindi’s behavioral issues became more pronounced, and the clinic staff decided to send her home. They put her on a bus, alone and with no medication.
In Atlanta, Cindi stepped off the bus to smoke a cigarette. When she shared with our staff that she was then approached by a woman offering help, who then brought her to the tent city, the CHGA team knew exactly what was going on.
“It’s a common ploy,” Lamitria explains. “[Traffickers] send a female first, in order to make a young woman feel more comfortable. They send the woman first to lure her with offers of help and safety.”
“Sometimes they also use drugs. Then the man comes and there’s rape. That’s to make them know they have no control over their bodies,” says case manager Jackie Nickens.
“They take your body, so you feel like you have nothing left that’s yours,” Lamitria adds.
Lamitria, Jackie, and Todd are convinced that if their outreach volunteers had not arrived when they did that the next step for Cindi might have been just such a scenario. But even after intercepting the trafficker and bringing Cindi to Covenant House, there was still the matter of reuniting Cindi with her mother. That’s when case manager Jackie, who defines her job as “problem-solver,” got involved.
“When the mom found out her daughter was safe and with us, she immediately bought her an airline ticket so she could get back to her home state. But the girl had no I.D. and wouldn’t be able to board a plane,” Jackie relates.
The first thing she did was to talk to Cindi to make sure the young woman was feeling safe and comfortable. Then she got on the phone with the police, hoping to arrange an escort to the airport. When that didn’t pan out, Jackie tried TSA customer service. She explained the situation and, she says, “I didn’t let them say no!”
The TSA agent was more than willing to help. “She said she’d grown up in a family with 20 foster siblings, all of whom her parents adopted,” Jackie recalls. “She said, ‘I’m going to help you do this!’” Jackie collected documents from Cindi’s mom and got them to the TSA agent, and when Cindi got to the airport, the agent was there, waiting to escort her onto the plane.
Jackie was there, too. “Cindi hugged me so tight,” she says. “She was shaking and so afraid that what had happened to her could happen again. We got her just in time.”
About one in five young people who come to Covenant House in the U.S. or Canada have survived human trafficking. Skilled and courageous frontline staff like Jackie, Todd, and Lamitria, along with our trained outreach volunteers and youth, are making all the difference in their lives.