City council members Rebecca Chase Williams and Joe Gebbia, Police Chief Gary Yandura, Mayor J. Max Davis and Councilman Bates Mattison sign the “Not Buying It” pledge while state Sen. Renee Unterman (fourth from right) and state Attorney General Sam Olens (second from right) look on.

Brookhaven just became Georgia’s first city to join a task force combating child sex trafficking. At a Nov. 10 press conference and ceremony, city officials signed a “Not Buying It” pledge and joined the Georgia Task Force on the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children.

City Councilman Joe Gebbia, who helped bring the initiative to Brookhaven, said the city is eager to lead by example.

“It was a great opportunity to bring an educational program to our citizens, to our businesses, to our schools, to the HOAs,” he said. “We had no problem on council; we had 100 percent agreement. The mayor got on board and we made the commitment to be the first city to certify and be the example of what other cities need to be doing, not just sign a piece of paper. The importance of what we did is what happens from this point forward.”

Gebbia said the idea came about because he knows a Brookhaven resident named Greg Chevalier personally, so they sat down to see what could be accomplished in the city. Chevalier is a member of Street Grace, an organization that aims to end sexual trafficking of children, and also serves on the task force.

As part of the task force, city staff, police officers and Chamber of Commerce officials will be trained to recognize signs of child sex trafficking.

“Not only do we need the policing side of it, but we also need the education,” said Sandra Putnam, an inspector with the GBI. “Since 2011 we have made over 90 arrests,” she added, “and have rescued over 70 children, not just GBI but in conjunction with the task force.”

She said the GBI is training local police units on how to recognize child sex trafficking victims rather than treat them as suspects.

“The ‘Not Buying It’ program is an excellent example of what needs to happen in Georgia and in our Georgia communities,” she said. “The GBI has taken a stance on training local law enforcement and other state law enforcement on how to identify these victims.”

In 2008, Brookhaven Police Chief Gary Yandura, then police chief in College Park, was appointed to the General Assembly’s joint study commission on the commercial sexual exploitation of minors.

“One of the main issues that we deal with every day is people don’t believe this is going on,” he said. “Right here in Brookhaven we’ve already had three cases of child exploitation,” Yandura later added.

Along with the city of Brookhaven, the task force includes State Attorney General Sam Olens and state Sen. Renee Unterman, who were both present at the ceremony, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Street Grace.

“I’m glad we are the first city to sign this pledge, but I don’t take comfort in that because there really is . . . sex trafficking in Brookhaven,” said Mayor J. Max Davis, later adding, “We are very resolute and firm in our belief that this will not be tolerated.”

Ann Marie Quill

Ann Marie Quill is Associate Editor at Reporter Newspapers.

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