Child Sex Trafficking in Atlanta: The city’s response

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
Edmund Burke

Atlanta is awakening from a long slumber of ignorance to the reality that its children are bought, traded, and sold on busy streets every day. While a long way off from being fully understood by the public, the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) no longer enjoys the cover of secrecy that it did twenty years ago. However, recognizing the crime, while crucially important, is only a part of the rescue system solution: the next step is response.

The Rescue System is the systematic effort to stop CSEC through recognition, response, restoration, and review. [ To read the first blog about recognition, click here. ] The second step, Response, embodies the restlessness and passion of those who are fighting CSEC. But how do we respond to a crime like CSEC? We place its victims in refuge, and we pursue the criminals that act as its driving force. This is no simple task. Its burden extends to law enforcement and victims services, but it begins on the local level.

There are a number of things any individual can do to participate in the movement to stop CSEC. [ Click here to check out a list. ] If your neighbor needed to visit a doctor but their driveway was covered in ice and snow (a foreign idea in Atlanta until recently), you’d respond to the problem by picking up a shovel. If you see that a neighbor’s child is being exploited, you can respond to the problem by picking up a telephone. Georgia Care Connection offers one of several referral hotlines for victims of CSEC. These hotlines set the chain of service into action by placing the victim into a safe house where they can receive medical and psychological attention.

Many girls resist treatment from such safe houses or fear being detained by police. In December 2009, an idea by former Atlanta Fire Rescue Chief Kelvin Cochran was implemented by Mayor Franklin. This program, called “Safe S.P.O.T.S”, allows any victim of domestic, sexual, or child abuse or exploitation asylum for at least 48 hours. Firefighters are trained to lock the doors in case they’ve been followed, give them medical attention and call the police or victim services if the victim consents.

Atlanta is home to the first safe house for CSEC refugees in the Southeast, and the state is now home to a small number of similar shelters. These homes give kids refuge from their abuser(s) where they can work through the psychological and physical trauma that is often the consequence of being sexually abused and exploited. Additionally, after they are able to regain hope, they typically feel more comfortable speaking out against their pimps.

Pursuing these criminals is the second half of the response to CSEC. Like the victim referral lines, crime tip lines are available to call to report the criminals. These tip lines are anonymous and assist law enforcement in apprehending pimps and johns. According to a statement given to the Atlanta Journal Constitution by Sgt. Ernest Britton, “Targeting child prostitution is an Atlanta police priority.”

The federal government does not take sexual exploitation lightly, either. Under the PROTECT act, maximum incarceration for commercial sex trafficking is thirty years in the U.S. In Australia the maximum incarceration is twelve years, in Germany it’s ten, and in Japan it’s only three or a fine of roughly $8,300 USD. Because Georgia faces an alarmingly high rate of CSEC, state legislation has begun to adopt the federal model against sexual exploitation.

In 2001, Georgia changed the charge for pimping a minor from a misdemeanor to a felony punishable by up to twenty years in prison. In 2006, a statute was introduced to charge johns, or solicitors, with statutory rape or child molestation for victims under the age of 16. The Atlanta Police Department responded further by forming the child exploitation unit to focus on CSEC crimes in 2008. Prosecuting the johns is an obvious necessity: in order to halt production, the demand must be eliminated.

The Response aspect of the Rescue system has its hurdles to clear. Despite Federal legislation identifying children as victims rather than criminals, these kids are arrested far more often than pimps and johns. Data from seven of Georgia’s juvenile courts show that at least 32 children were charged with prostitution in 2006 alone. In the meantime, state records indicate that in the past ten years, only 35 pimps have served time for exploiting minors. Law enforcement must work alongside of victims’ service to ensure that the victims are placed into safe houses where they belong, not jail cells.

Prosecuting pimps can be a slippery process because they often use children to recruit other children so that they can’t be arrested for it. They also often manipulate or intimidate their victims into silence. However, as children are increasingly rehabilitated instead of criminalized, law enforcement and victim’s services have the power to break this pattern.

Responding to victims’ needs is also a challenge in Georgia. While there is limited residential space available for female victims of CSEC, there is virtually nowhere to go in the entire southeast for male victims. Service is also fragmented and under-resourced. There are as many as 400 girls trafficked every month in Georgia, and the space and funds are not there for all of them. According to the Georgia Care Connection Office, approximately half of CSEC victims do not have funding for their placement. The cost of one month of residence at a safe house can be up to $5600 per victim.

To solve this problem, Georgia Care Connection Office has established the Safety Gap Fund to raise money in order to bridge the gaps in funding for victim housing. In 2009 the Governor’s office formed an Office for Sexually Exploited Children and named GCCO as the central point of contact for victims in an effort to minimize service fragmentation.

In the past fifteen years, we’ve come a long way in recognizing the state of CSEC in the community. However, recognition is not enough. There must be a response. It’s only after we recognize and respond to a crisis that we can begin to restore its victims…

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