Article originally published on MeetJustice.org on March 12, 2011.
The statistics about commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) in Atlanta are overwhelming. At least 400 children are being trafficked in Georgia each month. 14 years old is the average age of a CSEC victim. And up to 300,000 children in the U.S alone are at risk of being exploited. It can seem like a daunting problem to take on. However, the Rescue system, a four-step approach to ending CSEC in Atlanta, provides space for everyone in the advocacy movement, from CEOs to crossing guards. CSEC is a business: one that has been named the 3rd largest moneymaker for organized crime. Because it’s a systematic industry, the most effective means to take it down is through a system of our own. The rescue system is comprised of four elements of action: Recognition, Response, Restoration, and Review. Each part is vital to the process of eradicating CSEC, but recognition is the catalyst for all of it.
CSEC thrives off of the community’s ignorance of its presence. But just who needs to be able to recognize CSEC and its negative impact on young girls and boys and the public in general? One hint: it’s not just law enforcement. The legislative, medical, educational, business, and social sectors all either directly or indirectly deal with either the victims or the consequences of commercial exploitation. Last but by no means least is “everyone else”: the students, the stay at home parents, the nine-to-fivers who are unwilling to let this hidden crime corrupt their community.
A common misconception about CSEC victims is that they are child prostitutes. Legally, a child (anyone under the age of 17) cannot consent to sex acts. However, under the law, these kids are still criminalized as prostitutes rather than rehabilitated as victims. Meanwhile, the panderers and johns who exploit them and perpetuate this industry are not prosecuted nearly as stringently, if at all.
It’s not just about getting justice for the victims. Studies have indicated that by treating an individual like a criminal, they eventually accept that label. Panderers manipulate many kids into believing that they’re not victims of a crime but instead co-conspirators and criminals themselves. If we fail to legally recognize these children as victims, we are sending them the same message. A system that treats its victims like criminals produces more criminals. It merely snips at the leaves of the weed rather then pulling it out by its roots. Legislation must be passed and enforced that clearly articulates these children as victims of a crime rather than criminals.
In the medical community, steps are being taken in the right direction. Medical personnel are now required to report not only signs of domestic abuse, but also of abuse from someone who is not a family member. Doctors, nurses, and other staff treat about 28% of trafficking victims, who are often badly beaten and abused. However, only 3% of medical professionals are trained to recognize the signs of trafficking. Further efforts to train the medical community to recognize the signs of CSE will allow these professionals to intervene on behalf of the patients.
Teachers, counselors, and administrators need to receive the same training that is all ready being spread in the medical community: how to recognize exploited or at-risk children and how to help. Multiple case studies have shown that at-risk and sexually abused children often struggle at school, both socially and academically. Many victims of CSEC struggle with learning disabilities and feel discouraged at school. They often act out feelings of frustration, anxiety, rage, fear, insecurity, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder and end up being suspended multiple times. Rather than weeding out the ‘bad apples’ from the good by suspending them, administrators should go to great lengths to keep them in school. Dealing with slow-learning or disruptive kids is certainly no easy task, but suspension only puts them at greater risk of being picked up by a recruiter for exploitative purposes. **
Another sector in need of more recognition training is the Social work sector. In 2001, a census by UNICEF showed that Atlanta ranked 5th out of 243 cities with children living under the poverty line. It ranked 1st in the percentage of children living in extreme poverty (below 50% of poverty level). Because CSEC victims and potential victims often act out or live in poverty, they are referred to social workers. These professionals have unique access to networks that can be of assistance to them. However, affected children are often plagued with a host of problems that shroud the truth about their victimization. Social workers must be educated to recognize the specific symptoms of CSEC and given the means to refer them to organizations that can help.
Businesses, though less likely to interact directly with victims, are not exempt from power to fight CSEC. They have an important role as advocates because they command attention from the public and have the ability to sponsor the fight against CSEC. TOMS, for example, uses part of its profits to buy needy children new shoes, and by doing so it raises awareness and public involvement regarding international poverty. Any business has the power to educate their consumers and partners about CSEC, whether it’s a multi-national conglomerate, an online store on Etsy.com or a coffee shop on the corner,
Finally, we must intervene on a personal level. CSEC is not contained within a certain geographic, racial, or socioeconomic space. Society must recognize that CSEC is in our neighborhood, classroom, hospital, office, bus route, and religious center. The Franklin Report has cited schools, malls, Underground Atlanta, MARTA bus stops, and even churches as the most common places that panderers recruit children in Atlanta. By informing others and ourselves about CSEC, we are driving it out of the shadowy corners of our city and into the light. We are engaging in the first process of the rescue system: recognition.