My hometown of Atlanta, Georgia is notable as a business and transportation center, with four major sports teams, numerous convention centers and the world’s busiest airport. We have the capacity to host hundreds of thousands of visitors at once. Unfortunately, we also suffer from high rates of poverty and child poverty. Poverty isn’t the only cause of child prostitution, but it’s strongly related. The combination of thousands of visitors passing through and children growing up in desperate circumstances makes Atlanta a major national hub of child trafficking and exploitation—an unfortunate distinction few know about.
The prostitution of children largely stems from gender inequality. While much progress has been made, much remains to be done. In the U.S., girls remain disproportionately affected by poverty, violence and a lack of access to quality education.
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2009 Kids Count survey, 34 percent of children under the age of 18 in Atlanta are living in poverty, which is defined as a family of four living on less than $22,000 a year. And 21 percent of children are living in extreme poverty, 50 percent below the federal poverty level.
Statistics show that one in four girls do not complete high school. In my home state of Georgia, the dropout rate is 41 percent, meaning only 59 of every 100 girls will graduate from high school. Girls who drop out are also more likely to become pregnant, creating an additional economic challenge for the young mother and risking perpetuation of the cycle of poverty for the child.
Race is also a factor. In Atlanta, 90 percent of girls in sexual exploitation cases are African-American. The National Women’s Law Center dropout study reports that 40 percent of African-American girls do not finish high school every year, compared with 37 percent of Hispanic girls and 50 percent of Native-American girls. African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans are also disproportionately affected by poverty in their communities.
Despite the conditions of poverty and inequality in Atlanta and throughout the U.S., the public generally associates child sex trafficking with other countries—cities like Amsterdam and Bangkok come to mind, along with countries like Cambodia. The problem is also rampant in many refugee camps around the world. Citizens in small-town communities believe this is more of an inner-city problem, but in actuality, this type of abuse to children happens throughout the state of Georgia, making it a hub for the prostitution of children. Here are some shocking facts that should stir outrage and spur a response:
· At least 300 adolescent girls are prostituted each month in the state of Georgia alone
· More adolescent girls are victimized by prostitution each month than are killed in car accidents each year in Georgia
· Men are 65% more likely to respond to an internet ad selling sex if it indicates the girl is young
· The average age of girls being sexually exploited for commercial gain in Georgia is 14½, and most of them were first exploited at age 13. Girls as young as 9 have been rescued
· Nationally, between 200,000 and 300,000 children are at risk for commercial sexual exploitation each year
· Globally, approximately 1.2 million children are sexually exploited for commercial gain each year
Despite these astounding facts, children are still facing jail time for prostitution-related charges while their exploiters, pimps and johns, rarely face prosecution themselves. While my experience with this travesty is in Atlanta, keep in mind this crime is happening in front of our eyes and in our own backyards in cities big and small across America.
In the nine years since I became aware of Georgia’s child sex trafficking problem, I have learned why it is mainly hidden in plain view and have also come closer to finding a solution.
In the past, child sexual exploitation has been misunderstood by policymakers, law enforcement and the public, who have often taken a “blame-the-victim” approach that portrays children not as victims but as troublemakers who have deliberately chosen to live this lifestyle. It even went as far as allowing these children to be victimized twice—by pimps and johns who exploit them and then by the authorities who label them as prostitutes. Some of this may have to do with the fact that it is harder for us to assess our own roles and responsibilities when girls in our own communities are being victimized in such a horrible way.
The public is oftentimes unaware of the crime of child sexual exploitation because of its low visibility and high-level shame. The crime that had always been on the streets has now moved to the virtual street of the internet, further shrouding it and making it easy to believe that the problem doesn’t really exist. The Atlanta Women’s Foundation – a women-led community foundation – is part of a worldwide movement of women’s funds working on strengthening women’s access to economic security, freedom from violence and access to quality education and health care in communities around the world.
Women’s funds learned early on with the problem of domestic violence that increasing visibility is a crucial part of changing public awareness. Women’s funds like Ms. Foundation for Women were the first to define violence against women as a problem in society, one with economic and health effects. Previously it was seen as a private problem, something better left addressed by family members. By spotlighting it and demanding public focus, women’s funds fostered an environment where prevention thrived—where laws, agencies and funding were devoted to putting a stop to a destructive problem. Just as women’s funds identified domestic violence as a problem, we are now committed to exposing the devastating violence of child sex trafficking in America.
In a life of poverty and gender inequality, violence continues to exist because of the many complex and overlapping issues that are not being adequately addressed. And these root causes are directly related to the exploitation of children, “throw-away children.” Children caught in a cycle of violence – one that includes emotional, physical and sexual abuse – fall prey to pimps who lure them into the world of exploitation and prostitution.
Just like we have seen with domestic violence, these girls are often manipulated into believing their pimps is the only one who cares for them while being under the threat that if they leave, their exploiter will tell their families what they have been involved with or even threaten to kill them or their family members. Some of these girls come from impoverished, broken homes of no love and protection. The false words of this master manipulator make a child feel special for the first time in her whole life, and she becomes dependant on him for her sole survival.
In Atlanta, we are working to solve this problem by addressing supply and demand and collaborating with multiple agencies and organizations. My husband and I, along with the Juvenile Justice Fund and the Atlanta Women’s Foundation, brought together a diverse group of community leaders to create a campaign called A Future. Not A Past. (AFNAP).
AFNAP is working to address supply and demand for this horrible problem, focusing on providing services for these child victims and making it more costly and embarrassing for johns who seek to exploit them. Throughout this journey, preventing the duplication of effort has been a major priority, and we work with a diverse coalition of organizations that include local and national NGOs like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Center to End Child and Adolescent Sexual Exploitation (CEASE), journalists, law enforcement, lawmakers and a federal prosecutor.
Over the past eight years, Georgia has passed a state law making it a felony to pander children, with stiff sentences and fines. We’ve created the first home for exploited children going through the judicial system called Angela’s House. Here, these child victims can receive the physical, emotional and spiritual care they need as well as continuing education. The number of victims is so high that additional homes were needed to provide care, such as WellSpring and Living Waters, helping to identify this horrific problem. Additionally, through a collaboration of nonprofit organizations and government agencies, the Georgia Care Connection was launched by the Governor’s Office of Children and Families. It provides the following for at-risk youth:
· Acknowledges that commercially sexually exploited children are victims of a severe form of human trafficking and are in need of services
· Proactively tracks both actual and potential sexually exploited children in partnership with state and national databases for exploited children. This allows service providers to evaluate the child’s actions and find the best opportunity for intervention
· Leads a dialogue among a multi-disciplinary team of family, child and involved agencies and providers to develop a single, comprehensive care plan that ensures the child’s commercial sexual exploitation is addressed
· Locates the appropriate services and assists the child’s family in accessing federal, state and local funding for those services. Service providers monitor the child’s rehabilitative progress and case-related fiscal expenditures
· Provides care to families coming in off the street who are looking for guidance
· Assists law enforcement when they encounter these children on the streets, allowing children to be run through the appropriate channels of care
Besides Georgia, New York and California are notable for state laws they have created that treat children as victims and recognize the power of community to stop the root causes of the problem. The California law, which went into effect in 2009, states the importance of a multi-agency, collaborative approach. As summarized by a lead prosecutor who helped create the law, “it takes a village to prosecute traffickers and empower victims of child sexual exploitation. Neither goal can be achieved without the other—they have to go hand in hand.”
Both laws recognize the important role played by social service agencies and organizations on the ground that work to rehabilitate survivors and integrate them into society.
Despite these gains, I believe we will not make significant progress fighting child sexual exploitation until a national policy of prevention is adopted, one that takes the advances in Georgia, New York and California and also applies comprehensive programs and funding that target at-risk girls in communities where they live. I believe that a combination of the private sector, NGOs and government agencies is the perfect formula for success in this type of campaign. The prevention component is beyond the scope of law enforcement and criminal justice agencies and is why a collaborative approach is so important.
In my community, that collaborative approach is made up of programs like Angela’s House, AFNAP and the multi-faith coalition StreetGRACE. It also includes organizations, like Voices for Georgia’s Children, that address the underlying human rights of children and all communities in Georgia that are most at risk and most affected by poverty and other interconnected problems. In New York City, Girls Education and Mentoring Services, or GEMS, provides 2,200 survivors of sexual exploitation per year a place where they can rehabilitate, rebuild and re-establish their lives after the trauma of abuse and trafficking in New York City. For a sustainable solution, the creation of more facilities like these will help ensure these girls at high risk are not overlooked to the point that they fall back into control of their pimps, abusers and johns.
Violence, gender inequality, and a lack of awareness are all factors in the trafficking and exploitation of American children. Poverty also plays a critical role. We need strong work by antipoverty advocates to ensure that for our nation’s children, an absence of opportunity doesn’t lead to being exploited. This is a call to action. It is up to us to make the crucial changes to protect our girls from the tragedy of being sold for sex and to create a sustainable and secure future for all of our nation’s children.
Kayrita M. Anderson is the Chief Executive Officer of the Harold and Kayrita Anderson Family Foundation. Based in Atlanta, the Foundation aims to “meet society’s toughest problems with courage, determination and a belief that change is possible.”