In 1999, Fulton County Juvenile Court Judge Nina Hickson began to notice a steady stream of girls coming through her courtroom on charges related to prostitution. Dozens of children each month—age 14 on average, but some as young as 9 or 10—described being physically forced or psychologically manipulated into prostitution on Atlanta’s streets.
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The children were runaways lured into relationships with savvy pimps who showered them with affection and then turned violent. They were teenagers sent to a street corner to “find dates” or sold out of hotel rooms to settle family debts. They met men online in chat rooms. They were girls, and sometimes boys, from notorious inner-city neighborhoods, or from the city’s expansive ring of suburbs. Or they were kids from Alabama or Arkansas, or rural Georgia, transported to the city by men who saw them as a source of easy cash. And, as a 2008 report by Emory University’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center would later confirm, the exploitation cuts across all racial and economic lines.
As Judge Hickson put it, Atlanta’s children were literally being “rented by the hour.”
At the time, she had few options: She could sentence girls to juvenile detention or return them, under court supervision, to their guardians. Georgia had no treatment facilities equipped to deal with the special needs of these girls. There was no funding available to supplement the services of the foster care system and the juvenile courts. And while there were laws to punish them, there were effectively no laws to protect them. In 2000, buying or selling sex with a minor—“pimping and pandering,” in legal parlance—was a misdemeanor in Georgia.
The fine: $50.
As Hickson described in a bold op-ed published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in June 2000, the commercial sexual exploitation of children in Atlanta was “an epidemic of tragic proportions.” Her words unleashed a flood of agony, outrage, and action.
More than a decade later, Atlanta remains a major center for child prostitution, according to federal law enforcement reports. The city’s busy airport makes it an easy destination for men who want to buy sex with minors, as well as a national and international distribution hub for trafficked women and children. Advocates say that 400 girls are prostituted in Georgia each month—and the number is growing as the Internet makes the prostitution of minors easier and more lucrative.
But Atlanta is also gaining attention for the broad coalition that has emerged to fight the commercial sexual exploitation of children in the city.
In the weeks after Judge Hickson’s call to arms, a dynamic group of women, many of them steeped in the lessons of Atlanta’s civil rights era, began building a movement to stop the exploitation of Atlanta’s children. With the support of the Atlanta Women’s Foundation, they began by calling a meeting, inviting representatives of every women’s organization they could think of—from garden clubs to sororities to the Junior League and the League of Women Voters.
Together, they began to put together a legislative agenda and identify their allies. They committed to raising enough money to fund a treatment program that would provide an alternative to juvenile detention and help victims put their lives back together. And they launched a broad media campaign to raise awareness.
Today, the movement is well-established, widely respected, and extremely diverse. “This is not just ‘radical feminists,’” says Stephanie Davis, a founder of the Atlanta Women’s Foundation and part of the small group of women that launched the effort a decade ago. “We are a very diverse group, but we have the same agenda: to rescue kids and create policy that makes their rehabilitation possible and gives them the dignity they deserve.”
At the heart of this movement is a campaign whose name—“A Future. Not A Past.” (AFNAP)—captures the dream these women have for Atlanta’ children.
In the wake of Hickson’s 2000 op-ed, a key awareness-raising role was played by Jane Hansen’s series of Atlanta Journal-Constitution articles, “Selling Atlanta’s Children,” which debuted on the front page on a cold Sunday morning in January 2001. Under the series title was a blunt summary: “Runaway girls lured into the sex trade are being jailed for crimes while their adult pimps go free.”
A photograph showed the shackled ankles of a 10-year-old girl appearing before Judge Hickson on charges of running away and prostitution. The girl said she had been forced into prostitution by the boyfriend of a relative, Hansen reported. Like many young victims of commercial sexual exploitation, she had been failed by the systems that were supposed to protect her. Kicked out of group homes for acting out and rejected by mental health programs because of her history with prostitution, she had been in and out of jail for months.
The image and the story were unforgettable. “I read it at the breakfast table and cried,” recalls Kaffie McCullough, the campaign director of AFNAP and a long-time child advocate in Atlanta. Across town, philanthropists Harold and Kayrita Anderson read the same article; the next day, they began six years of financial support to Angela’s House, the treatment program developed by the Atlanta Women’s Foundation.
For most Americans, “child prostitution” is a problem that conjures up images of far-off corners of the developing world, brothels in Thailand, and international smuggling rings. While international trafficking of women and children has received an increasing amount of attention in recent years, the domestic sex trafficking of children has remained largely invisible.
The terms “human trafficking” and “sex trafficking” don’t necessarily imply crossing borders. In defining human trafficking, state and federal law and international conventions tend to focus on the use of force, coercion, and slavery-like conditions, rather than movement from one place to another. (An older meaning of “traffic” is “to act as a merchant of something,” focusing on buying and selling rather than movement through space.) The commercial sexual exploitation of children counts as trafficking in almost all legal definitions, even if force and deception are not apparent.
Although reliable numbers are hard to come by, researchers say that somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 American-born children are at risk of commercial sexual exploitation each year. The factors that make children more vulnerable to exploitation are loneliness, conflict at home, and a history of sexual abuse.
The 10-year-old girl in Hansen’s article put a human face on these numbers.
The AFNAP coalition’s first results came quickly. Hansen’s articles ran in January 2001. By March, the state legislature had passed a law making it a felony to pimp anyone under the age of 18. They also approved the seizure of assets used in the pimping of children. In May, the Atlanta Police Department formed a special unit to focus on child prostitution.
Over the next several years, the Atlanta Women’s Foundation and the Juvenile Justice Fund spearheaded a series of public-private partnerships, government task forces, and coalitions that brought together churches, civic groups, and social service agencies. They hired a research firm to help them describe and quantify the problem; collecting data was a major part of their strategy. Armed with information, they hired a consultant to help mobilize state legislators to take on the issue.
Their education efforts brought solid returns. They won funding for a statewide coordinated referral network for victims of sex trafficking, the first of its kind in the U.S. As of June, Georgia was scheduled to have 32 beds available in facilities that focus on the needs of girls who are victims of commercial sexual exploitation. That’s more than half of all the beds in the country—but still small compared to the hundreds of girls who are exploited in Georgia each month.
Information—and outrage—continued to spread. In 2005, “Hidden in Plain View,” a report commissioned by then-Mayor Shirley Franklin, made the first attempt at a comprehensive assessment of commercial sexual exploitation of children in Atlanta. The report used police data to identify “hot spots” where the outdoor prostitution of minors took place.
One of those spots was the corner of North Avenue and Peachtree Street—just beyond the front door of North Avenue Presbyterian Church, a vibrant congregation known for its social ministries and its growing international congregation. “We had never seen it,” says senior pastor Scott Weimer, shaking his head as he recalls his initial disbelief.
Weimer preached about what was happening; the response was immediate and overwhelming. At the back door of the sanctuary, women offered to open their homes to girls in need of shelter. Young people offered to do outreach on the streets in the middle of the night.
Weimer knew that addressing this problem required not just outrage and passion, but also strategy and expertise. Over the next year, he began meeting with other concerned clergy to talk about how they might respond. The eventual result was Street GRACE (Galvanize Resources Against Child Exploitation), a dynamic coalition of more than 30 Atlanta-area churches, including urban and suburban congregations, mainline and nondenominational, megachurches and small emergent communities.
One of Street GRACE’s major aims is to connect the human and financial resources of its member churches to local community organizations that operate in underserved communities, doing preventative work such as tutoring, mentoring, job training, and offering parenting classes.
“This problem is so messy and complex,” says Chip Sweney, the metro outreach pastor at Perimeter Church, a megachurch in a northern Atlanta suburb and one of Street GRACE’s founding members. “You can’t just go out and pull girls or boys off the street. That’s not the answer.”
“We are a servant organization,” says Street GRACE’s executive director, Cheryl DeLuca-Johnson. “We aren’t going to come into your neighborhood and ask how we can fix it. We are going to come in and ask how we can support you.”
Churches are working hard to challenge the perception that community outreach is a thin veil for proselytizing, said Weimer: “Evangelicals haven’t always played well with others, so we have had to earn credibility.” The focus on prevention has brought a wide range of social issues into focus for Street GRACE and its member churches. “In the beginning, it was mostly about sex trafficking. Now it’s about economic justice and quality education for all children,” says Weimer.
Although the coalition is largely white, leaders say they are working to bring a more racially and theologically diverse group of churches to the table. Even so, the breadth and vibrancy of Street GRACE has gotten the attention of politicians and advocates across the state. “I’ve never known a coalition of churches that have come together around an issue like this,” said McCullough.
Christian leaders' broad influence in Georgia politics was made clear this spring in a different and painful way—by the surprising failure of a bill that would have sent girls under the age of 16 directly into rehabilitative programs instead of leaving them subject to arrest as prostitutes.
The bill had broad support from advocates, and in February more than 500 people, many of them members of Street GRACE churches, had turned out to lobby in favor of it. But in a surprise twist, the bill ran into opposition from some of Georgia’s stalwart Christian conservatives—including the Georgia Eagle Forum, the Georgia Baptist Convention, and Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition—who said it was an effort to legalize prostitution in the state. In an election year, that opposition proved deadly.
Advocates say this reflects a misunderstanding of the bill. They plan to come back next year and press for the same legislation; this time, they expect to win.
Another challenge Atlanta’s anti-trafficking coalition faces is that, despite its successes in the past decade, researchers working with AFNAP say that the number of girls forced into prostitution in Georgia is growing at an alarming rate. According to the most recent count, 400 girls are sexually exploited for profit each month in Georgia’s sex trade—a number that has almost doubled since the organization began keeping track in August 2007.
One big culprit: the Internet. “Craigslist has normalized the buying and selling of our kids,” says McCullough.
In May 2009, under pressure from state attorneys general, Craigslist agreed to screen for potentially illegal postings, including sex-for-money offers. But more than a year later, law enforcement officials say prostitution is still there. In April, the FBI charged members of the Gambino crime family with selling the sexual services of girls, aged 15 to 19, on Craigslist. Industry experts estimate that in 2010, Craigslist “adult services” ads—one of the few categories of advertisers from whom the site charges a fee—will bring in more than $36 million, almost a third of the company’s total revenue.
Increasingly, the movement is attempting to address the issue of demand. According to a study released in May, researchers estimate that in Georgia alone, nearly 28,000 men pay to have sex with prostituted adolescents each year. And our culture does little to censure those men; as Alesia Adams, who heads the Salvation Army’s 15-state regional task force on trafficking, puts it, “We’ve taken prostitution and glamorized it. We’ve mainstreamed the term ‘pimp.’”
Focusing on the demand is essential, but it is going to be difficult, said Jennifer Swain, the director of AFNAP’s statewide campaign. “Who’s doing this? It’s someone’s husband, pastor, judge, politician.”
Despite the challenges, the vibrant Atlanta coalition is inspiring others. Earlier this year, the Women’s Funding Network, an international network of women’s philanthropic organizations, announced plans to expand the AFNAP campaign by providing training and support for groups across the nation who want to build on the model developed in Atlanta. They will focus initially on three states where significant anti-trafficking work is already happening—Michigan, Minnesota, and New York.
What has worked in Atlanta will not necessarily map precisely onto other areas’ needs. But the Women’s Funding Network believes that what’s happening in Atlanta has the power to inspire and motivate people in other places.
“This is a long-term campaign,” said Sweney of Street GRACE. “This isn’t going to be solved over a couple of years. This is going to take an intentional effort over a long period of time.”
Letitia Campbell, a Ph.D. candidate in Christian social ethics at Emory University, is a founding editor of Practical Matters (www.practicalmattersjournal.com). With gratitude to the United by Faith: Building a Better Future for Women and Girls, a conference hosted by the Women’s Funding Network where Sojourners encountered Atlanta's "A Future Not A Past" program.