The latest weapon in sex trafficking: a rose

ATLANTA -- How much is a person worth? According to the FBI, sex trafficking is the most profitable illicit business in Atlanta, more than double the profits from drug trafficking.

With the stakes so high, one group is taking a stand that every woman and man in this city is priceless. The Out of Darkness program is trying to rescue victims of sex trafficking, one at a time.

While you're sleeping, these are the conversations happening on our streets:

"Y'all come anytime?"
"Yes, anytime."
"Come and rescue me sometime, I'll ride with you."

"Domestic violence?"
"Yeah, it's OK. Anybody, if you need a place to go."
"Even if the person doesn't have their ID on them?"
"Yes."

Every Friday night, volunteers with Out of Darkness drive the streets. They offer roses to the women for sale in our city. It's free of charge. It's a way out.

"I need to take care of my business and get myself together," one woman told them.

"Don't feel like you need to get everything together, because none of us have it all together," a volunteer responded.

The rose comes with a hotline number -- (404) 941-6024 -- and a promise: if they call, someone will pick them up any time, day or night.

The program has rescued more than 500 women from forced prostitution in the past nine years. While some of them go back, 60% of the women move on to a meaningful life outside of sex trafficking. That's double the national average for programs that do the same thing around the country.

"So many of these women are used to being rejected for one reason or another. So if they're pregnant, they have mental health issues, none of that matters. We take everybody who has been through exploitation," Director Jeff Shaw told 11Alive's Kaitlyn Ross. "What really broke my heart is that if I was driving home today and I got a flat tire, I could call about 20 different people who would come to help me. But the reality for these ladies in exploitation is that in their darkest times, there is nobody to call."

He says their success comes from taking the women as they are and understanding the scope of the problem in Atlanta.

"A lot of people think about Cambodia when they think about sex trafficking. But really, Atlanta is a hub when it comes to sex trafficking and sexual exploitation," Shaw said.

The FBI reports the average age of girls forced into prostitution in the U.S. is between 11 and 14 years old.

"So when the rest of us are in middle school worrying about our grades and our first crush, there are girls being raped 10 to 30 times per night in this city," Shaw said.

The group sees the same women most Friday nights. Some are too scared to talk to them at first. Others save a pile of cards to the hotline, week after week, building up the courage to escape. The volunteers, most from the Atlanta Dream Center that founded the program, are trained to talk to the women, and the pray for them. But they never force them to leave.

"It is hard to walk away, because I want to beg them to come," volunteer Tiffany Rogers said. She helps lead one of the groups and has talked to hundreds of women on the streets. Through the pain and the heartache, she sees hope.

"When we started talking to her, she started tearing up. And that just shows me that she's open and vulnerable," Rogers said about one girl she approached on the night we rode along.

Whether the women leave with her in the van, or never accept a rose, she just wants them to know that they're loved.

"If a day comes, and you need something, you need some help, call that number," she said.

To find out more about Out of Darkness, check out their website.


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