By DENNIS SADOWSKI, CNS | Published August 2, 2012
Crystal Ward works hard helping people to think in new ways about the commercial sex industry and its victims.
Young girls being forced to sell themselves for sex are not prostitutes, she told a group of 30 church leaders from throughout metropolitan Atlanta; the girls are victims of sexual exploitation in illegal networks run by men either on the streets or online.
Ward, a former police officer specializing in sex crimes who now is lead trainer for New York-based Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, said that the girls being victimized have virtually no choice in the matter. Helping people realize that is her goal.
“Our main mission is to go around and just educate people that this is a problem. It’s not a hidden problem. It’s more of an ignored problem because people don’t see it as sexual exploitation,” Ward told Catholic News Service during a break in the three-day training program in mid-June.
Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, or GEMS, serves girls and young women who have been trafficked for commercial sexual exploitation. It conducts training nationwide on the commercial sexual exploitation of children, called CSEC. Ward said the training helps bring light to a dark subject.
This particular GEMS training was sponsored by Street GRACE, an alliance of Christian churches, community groups and volunteers working to end such sexual exploitation. It brought together leaders of church congregations and community agencies that already have outreach programs to trafficked children.
The program examined the demand for the sale of children for sex, precursors to sexual exploitation among children, the psychological and physical effects of sexual exploitation on victims, signs that a child may be a victim, medical and mental health care for exploited children and investigating CSEC in local communities.
Amy Walters, programs director at Street GRACE, told CNS the tragedy of child sex trafficking requires people of faith to step up in response.
“Our human nature a lot of the time will be to look at a trafficking situation and say how can that happen and we become heartbroken and we wonder ‘Where is God?’” she said. “But I think in the midst of a lot of these tragedies if we just sit back and do nothing, God in turn looks at us and says, ‘Where are my people?’
“We have an opportunity to be servants to those who need help and servants to children who are the homeless children, who are children at risk,” Walters added.
Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Atlanta is one Street GRACE’s partners. Working through the national Stand Up For Kids program at its downtown outreach center, parishioners started parenting classes for homeless teenagers trying to raise kids on their own.
Parishioner Brenda Lewis said the work is important because the teens benefit from having an adult in their lives.
“I know how important it is to get the kids now, to talk to them, to let them know what dangers are out there and hopefully point them in the right direction and away from being exploited by predators,” Lewis said.
“They’re just like everybody else. They’re no different. They’re still kids and they happened to be homeless. They have different issues, but at the bottom of everything they’re just kids,” she added.
Another parish, Transfiguration in Marietta, also has connected with Stand Up For Kids, which has programs in 38 cities. Several parishioners volunteer at the outreach center while others spend one night a week walking throughout the southern part of the city’s downtown looking for homeless teens to tell them about the center’s services.
Deacon Phil Miles, the parish’s finance director, is one of the street team members. He says the parish’s involvement in Stand Up For Kids began after church leaders heard about the dangers kids face being on the street alone from parishioners who had completed the social ministry program JustFaith.
“It’s what Jesus told us to do,” Deacon Miles said. “When I was in diaconate school, I had to ask my pastor what he wanted me to do after I was a deacon and he said ‘the corporal works of mercy.’ So we try to do the best we can.”
The commercial sexual exploitation of children also has gained the attention of the Atlanta Archdiocese, which partners with Street GRACE.
Kat Doyle, director of social justice ministries, told CNS that occasional workshops on the topic are conducted for parishes. The training opens with an explanation of Catholic teaching and the call to respond to a particular social need. Another session offers parishioners a “reality check” from individuals working with the victims of such exploitation to explain the difficulties exploited youngsters face.
“The problem is just scary,” Doyle said.