By DENNIS SADOWSKI, CNS | Published August 2, 2012
Sitting on the bench of the Fulton County Juvenile Court in 2000, then-Judge Nina Hickson saw 12- and 13-year-old girls with the “look of death” in their eyes.
Those eyes were empty, as if “whatever life was there was gone,” Hickson said.
Usually repeat offenders for underage drinking, fighting or truancy, the girls showed little emotion when appearing before the judge, accepting her instructions with barely a nod or a word.
“It was just heartbreaking that I would see these young girls who, it would seem, didn’t have any kind of life,” she said.
Hickson started asking court officials, prosecutors and law enforcement authorities why the girls were in the court in the first place. What she learned, she said, was shocking.
In many cases, the girls were victims of sexual exploitation, recruited by predators running sex trafficking networks as a business. Hickson learned that Georgia law for prosecuting the predators was weak.
“It didn’t seem right that (the girls) were being brought into the system and the adults exploiting them, nothing was happening to them,” she told Catholic News Service.
The revelations led to an awakening in Atlanta that has led to wide-scale collaboration among child advocates, prosecutors, law enforcement officers, court officials, churches and faith-based organizations to expose the shadowy world of exploitation and find new ways to assist victims rebuilding their lives.
Children today are taught about the danger signs; stricter penalties against predators and buyers have been enacted into law; police now call social workers when a CSEC victim is taken into custody rather than incarcerate them for prostitution.
Still, all those steps are not enough. The epidemic that so concerns Hickson, now Atlanta’s ethics officer, is growing. Predators have remained a step or two ahead of efforts to coral CSEC, especially with the advent of Internet advertising that allows them to sell underage victims without ever having to put them on the street.
The Internet is the virtual street of the 21st century, Hickson said.
Illustrating the concern, data compiled by the Governor’s Task Force on Children and Families in Georgia showed that between 200 and 500 underage girls a month were sexually exploited in the state between August 2007 and August 2011.
On the demand side, some 7,200 men knowingly or unknowingly buy sex from adolescent girls in Georgia monthly, according to youthSpark, an Atlanta-based initiative that assists at-risk teens.
Nationwide, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reported that between January 2008 and June 2010, a total of 2,515 suspected trafficking cases were investigated with 40 percent involving sexual exploitation of children and 48 percent involving allegations of adult prostitution.
The New York-based Girls Educational and Mentoring Services estimates that at least 300,000 children are at risk of sexual exploitation. Crystal Ward, the program’s lead trainer, said the figure is likely much higher.
She and other child advocates say the average age of a child entering the world of commercial sexual exploitation is 12 to 14 years old.
In 2005, the FBI listed Atlanta as one of the top 14 U.S. cities for sex trafficking—children and adults included. No up-to-date list exists.
FBI spokesman Stephen Emmett said Atlanta’s high incidence of sex trafficking can be attributed to the city’s status as a popular destination for conventions and sporting events and a major transportation hub. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is the world’s busiest and the interstate highway system makes it easy for predators to smuggle kids into and out of town.
Such statistics are staggering to longtime child advocates such as Dale Alton, executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Georgia, and Kaffie McCullough, deputy director of youthSpark.
Alton said schools and parents must undertake efforts to warn all children about what to be aware of when they are approached by a seemingly “friendly” individual who is bent on adding another teenager to his illegal network. She said predators are savvy and can spot a potential victim easily.
“It really hit home for me when I heard a former pimp express that he could tell who was vulnerable by going into a mall and looking at the girls and giving them a comment. The ones who were able to look him in the face and say, ‘I’m fine, how are you?’ he knew were pretty strong kids. But children who were not able to look at him or looked down, they know how to peg into the weaknesses of children,” she said.
McCullough said improvements are needed in addressing the demand by men for sex with women and underage girls. A first step, she said, is to start telling young boys that buying sex from anyone is wrong.
“We have to be doing some strong work around the cultural acceptance of men buying sex,” McCullough told CNS. “We have to start looking at how we raise our young boys, that somehow when they become men that it’s okay to buy sex. Young or old, there’s something strange about buying another human being for your own personal pleasure.”
McCullough also called for stronger enforcement effort against buyers.
“If we don’t start arresting buyers, we pretty much are always going to have pimps and we’re always going to have victims. They’re just going to have different faces,” she said.