Atlanta honors ‘warrior’ in battle against human trafficking, child exploitationDeborah Richardson (red jacket) acknowledged Harry Barnett, her life partner, grand daughter and nieces as the Atlanta City Council recognized Richardson's work to fight sex trafficking and help vulnerable survivors in the city and beyond. Credit: Atlanta
By David Pendered
Atlanta has paid respects to a “warrior” in the battle against human trafficking, and the recognition of Deborah Richardson reminds of her view that the issue is not prostitution, but humans being bought and sold.
For more than 20 years, Richardson has been a leader of the ground troops fighting the exploitation of victims of the sex trafficking industry.
It remains an almost invisible crime, except in cases such as the FBI sting operation in July – when six juveniles were rescued in Atlanta. These six were among 103 juveniles rescued in 33 U.S. cities. The FBI’s Operation Independence Day netted arrests of 67 suspected traffickers and 60 new federal investigations, according to a statement.
Richardson has helped shift the focus of prosecutions from punishing prostitutes to punishing the pimps who exploit them and the johns who pay for service. She continues her work as executive director of the International Human Trafficking Institute, at Atlanta’s National Center for Civil and Human Rights.
In her various positions, Richardson’s light often has been concealed by a basket, as Atlanta City Councilmember Marci Collier Overstreet observed during the ceremony Monday at the start of the city council meeting.
Overstreet characterized Richardson as a, “true woman’s and children’s warrior.” Overstreet presented Richardson with a recognition that cited Richardson’s, “effort to stop sex trafficking and compassion and support for helping vulnerable survivors in Atlanta and beyond.”
“This is the right thing to do, and a couple of decades late,” Overstreet said of the recognition. “Thank goodness we do get a chance today to give you just a few flowers.”
In her remarks, Richardson recalled being stricken by a single court case. A girl who had been apprehended by authorities late at night in a vehicle had been charged with crimes including prostitution and curfew violation. The john was not detained.
“The 42-year-old man in the back of the van was let go, because pimping and pandering a child in the state of Georgia was a misdemeanor,” Richardson said.
Richardson said she later told a colleague: “I am furious, and I promise you the women of Atlanta are going to do something about this.”
Richardson said Stephanie Davis was the first person she called to enlist aid. Davis is another veteran of the anti-trafficking movement, at one point serving in then Mayor Shirley Franklin’s administration as the mayor’s policy advisor on women’s issues and lead on what became the acclaimed “Dear John” campaign.
Davis was in the audience Monday to celebrate Richardson’s recognition. On Tuesday Davis observed:
- “Deborah has always been my leader, the woman I’ve looked to as an example of indefatigable persistence. She is undaunted in the face of an issue that everyone has said is intractable. By standing up for girls, she has stood up for everyone who has ever been victimized.”
Angela House grew from this effort and opened in 2001. The house in south Fulton County provides a safe space for those recovering from coersion into the sex trade and other so-called victimless crimes. Words including “child whores” and “pimps” were bandied about by opponents, as if the victims were the criminals.
Some nearby residents didn’t want the facility. Their arguments did not prevail against one of the advocates – Patrice Perkins-Hooker, a lawyer who since 2016 has overseen all of Fulton County’s civil legal issues in her role as county attorney.
At one point, tensions reached the point that Perkins-Hooker had to be escorted out by a deputy sheriff of a meeting with residents, whose anger had reached a boiling point, according to Richardson. Advocates didn’t stop.
“We persevered until we opened that house,” Richardson said.
Richardson described growing up among neighbors who later came to be identified as leaders of the civil rights movement – the parents of Martin Luther King, Jr., Donald Lee Hollowell, the Abernathy family. And she closed with a remembrance of the words that have lifted her spirits:
- “If not you, who? If not now, when?”