SPECIAL REPORT: From Darkness to Hope

SPECIAL REPORT: From Darkness to Hope

COLUMBUS, GA (WTVM) - Human sex trafficking is the fastest growing organized crime business in the world. Authorities work 500 such cases in Georgia every month. It's also a plague in Alabama and our own backyard, as Columbus police tell us.

A former "call girl" opens up to us about being one of millions of sex trafficking victims, but we're also focusing on real solutions and how hundreds of women are being rescued in this special report "From Darkness to Hope."

"This is slavery. This is modern slavery. And we have to help them get out of it," said Dr. Joseph Zanga, former Columbus Regional Chief of Pediatrics.

"They're made to do certain acts, horrific sexual acts with men all day long...30-40-50 times a day," said Lt. Joyce Dent-Fitzpatrick, from the Columbus Police Special Victims Unit.

In Atlanta, a hotbed for the crime, Courtney Dow walks the streets alongside sex trafficking victim. As a leader with the Out of Darkness ministry, she's focused on not only rescuing grown women but shockingly young victims. The average age of prostitution in the U.S. is 11-14 years old.

"So it's really middle school-age children who are at risk of being exploited in the commercial sex industry," Dow told us.

"The end of this year, the average age will probably be 10-11," Lt. Dent-Fitzpatrick predicted. "They're not just getting runaways, they're getting children getting off the school buses, children walking home from an event or game."

As the leader of the Columbus Police Special Victims Unit, she says oftentimes the kids are kidnapped, then taken to Georgia's capital, to be used for sex dozens of times a day.

Talking about the startling statistics, Dow added, "7,200 men buy sex from children a month in Metro Atlanta."

Saving children held in bondage and others trapped as prostitutes is the goal of the Christian ministry Out of Darkness. They de-thorn roses for weekly "princess nights" - as they call them - an outreach to women on the streets of Atlanta.

They say these are sex trafficking victims that often feel shame and not love, but this ministry in Atlanta hands out roses - almost 1,000 last year alone - telling them they are beautiful and are loved.

Every Friday, volunteers come to the Atlanta Dream Center, preparing for face-to-face interactions with prostitutes, and potentially pimps – adding "we've never had an issue of violence."

News Leader 9 was there as they got into vans to go to corners where the women work, in the dark of night, with a rose in hand and a handwritten card with messages like "There is Hope."

Out of Darkness has rescued at least 300 women in Atlanta in 2016 so far. In those vans, they pray for their safety and for the women they will encounter.

"People who are so familiar with darkness, they know dark, they can recognize light...and so when they see us come on outreach, when they encounter the Lord, they know what it is," Dow said.

And if they want out, sex trafficking victims call the "Out of Darkness" hotline, then can be picked up in vans like this, for long-term restoration - like this Columbus woman needed.

"None of the promises panned out and it was just a deep, dark place for me to be," former call girl Sandra Overly said.

Military veteran Sandra Overly remembers living in Washington D.C., desperate for money.

"I was trying to raise my daughter by myself. I couldn't even afford to feed her, I was having trouble making the rent," Overly said.

She tells us, she was dating a secret service agent, who encouraged her to enter the world of sex trafficking for fast cash. She became a "call girl" at 27 years old, having sex with strangers off-and-on for months.

"I really felt like there's no hope, I'm stuck here, there's nothing else I can do," Overly said. "My mom caught wind of what was going on, and she came up and got me."

"We actually have rescue teams that if a girl states I want out right now, this minute, if it's 3 in the morning on a Sunday night, there will be people who get out of bed and go and pick them up and bring them to a safe house," Dow said. 

Those who choose to be prostitutes are also victims, not choosing to be held in sexual bondage, according to Lt. Dent-Fitzpatrick. She speaks to groups about sex trafficking and helps track down traffickers in the Fountain City, saying there's plenty of target places and days here too.

"When the traffickers learn there's going to be a major event in town, they bring their goods or their wares here for selling," said Lt. Dent-Fitzpatrick. 

Though she supports the military, Dow says places in and around Fort Benning can be a target for human traffickers.

"There is what we call a geographic correlation with the commercial sexual exploitation and U.S. military bases around the world," she told News Leader 9.

Making people aware it's a significant problem in Columbus is a goal for retired pediatrician Joseph Zanga.

"Let everybody know it (sex trafficking) exists, it exists here in Columbus," Dr. Zanga added.

As the co-chair of the local Rotary Club's human sex trafficking committee, Dr. Zanga warns parents that certain social media is prone to predators and young victims.

"They are enticed to meet someone at the mall, meet someone at the park and they get trapped, kidnapped," Dr. Zanga said.

Avoiding the trap takes seeing the red flags. Police says the first one is truancy, or a child missing school. There are also things to watch for in your neighborhood.

"Influx of people going in and out, every day all the time, and you see girls being there and they can't come out of the yard," Lt. Dent-Fitzpatrick said. "These people have bar codes on their bodies, who they belong to."

"Because of what I went through, maybe I can help somebody else," said Overly, who is taking action.

This former call girl started a ministry called "Covered" to raise awareness about sex trafficking where we live, with big plans for the future, saying she's in the process of bringing "rescue, outreach and safe house and a hotline here to Columbus."

The youth group from Solid Rock Church in Midland just finished raising $25,000 this year to help the Out of Darkness ministry purchase a much-needed new van for "Princess Nights" and rescuing sex trafficking victims.

For parents worried about their children, Columbus police advise you to: be brutally honest about not sending inappropriate pictures to anyone; keep your computer in a neutral area, monitor their internet activity and smart phones; and don't allow your kids to a house where you don't know what's going on.

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