By REBECCA RAKOCZY, Special To The Bulletin | Published September 13, 2012
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, they’re selling children.”’
That was Mary Boyert’s first response when she heard about the commercial sexual exploitation of children in metro Atlanta. The Respect Life Ministry director for the archdiocese says she quickly saw the connection between victims forced into sex and abortions. She wanted to learn about what the church was doing for the victims.
When Lisa Whitney heard how pervasive the sex trafficking of minors was in the Atlanta suburbs, she was floored. “It feels like a tidal wave. I really thought the problem was far away,” the St. Brigid parishioner said.
Her friend, Becky Bain, also from St. Brigid’s, wanted to learn more about what she could do personally, after reading several Catholic News Service articles about human trafficking in The Georgia Bulletin.
“When I hear the numbers, I feel so impotent. I thought what could I do? I wanted to find how out how we can stop the trafficking,” Bain said.
The three women came to St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Smyrna for a seminar on human trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) in Georgia.
They were among more than 70 people who attended the event, one in a series of programs exploring local social justice topics and sponsored by the archdiocese’s Justice and Peace Ministries, directed by Kat Doyle.
The program brought together representatives from the interdenominational program Street GRACE; youthSpark, a program of the state Juvenile Justice System; the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and state Sen. Renee Unterman, who has successfully sponsored legislation which protects child victims of sex trafficking and severely punishes offenders. Judges are getting the message. On the day before the meeting, a Douglasville child sex trafficker was sentenced to 80 years in jail for entrapping and prostituting young boys.
According to the most recent report of the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, approximately 300 to 500 girls between the ages of 12 and 14 are commercially and sexually exploited throughout Georgia every month. That figure doesn’t include young boys, who are also part of the sex trafficking industry.
More than 42 percent of those crimes occur north of I-285, in the suburbs. More than 7,200 men knowingly or unknowingly exploit an adolescent female every month.
Boyert spoke at the event to underscore the Catholic response to the child sex trafficking crisis in Atlanta and to endorse the efforts of Street GRACE, an alliance of more than 80 Christian churches, community partners and volunteers that supports and collaborates with individuals and organizations dedicated to eradicating the commercial sexual exploitation of children. Boyert emphasized that Street GRACE is not going to present issues against church teaching.
“When I first learned about CSEC, my first response was the same as when I learned about abortion,” said Boyert. “Most of life issues have to do with abortion, and there is a connection here. … These young ladies are forced into sex, and it won’t be long before they’re forced into abortion.”
Boyert encouraged all parish respect life committees to understand “that this is something that affects all of us. Learn about this issue and share this with groups. We are all together on this. This is a human issue that involves our children; it is not political,” she said.
Deacon Phil Miles, who works as a volunteer for the program “Stand Up for Kids,” has seen firsthand both the children who are victims of sex trafficking and those who are vulnerable to predatory adults. The deacon from Transfiguration Church, Marietta, spoke at the gathering.
Stand Up for Kids is “a nonprofit group that tries to get to at-risk kids,” Deacon Miles said. The group distributes packets of toiletries, snacks and a clean T-shirt to young people they find on the street or under the bridges in downtown Atlanta.
“Usually, these are runaways, and they have maybe three days of provisions with them before they start to beg, steal or resort to prostitution,” he said. “A lot of them have come from abusive situations.”
In addition to the toiletry packets, Deacon Miles and other members of the group also give out cards with information about shelters and a hotline. They have learned over the years to be wary of pimps lurking nearby.
“If a pimp is standing nearby, if they see us give that child a card, they often will beat the child afterwards,” he said.
Jackie Charron of Street GRACE explained to those gathered at the seminar that human trafficking doesn’t necessarily mean that a child comes from another country or crosses state lines.
“They are being treated as a commodity,” she said. “A child is being used for sexual activity in exchange for anything of value, whether that’s shelter, food and clothing. It is not necessary for money to be exchanged for a child to be exploited.”
While the “visible” parts of CSEC are on the streets, the invisible crime often occurs on the Internet, where children are bought and sold through ads.
“This was a problem before, but the Internet is having a huge impact,” Charron said.
“We’re talking about a sex (trafficking) industry as a big business with a huge supply and demand. Our most recent figures on profits are $32 billion and that’s on the low side. In comparison, the profits of McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, and Goggle all together don’t total up to the profit in human trafficking,” she said.
She added that unlike drug trafficking where dealers have to wait for the next drug shipment, “you can sell the same person over and over.”
During a panel discussion with GBI agent Steve Blackwell, Sen. Unterman spoke about initially having to convince fellow legislators and judges that there was a problem with how the law handled child sex trafficking.
“We had to convince them that the children were victims and didn’t ‘want’ to be prostitutes,” she said.
Blackwell, a member of the GBI human trafficking task force, said the whole goal is to put the people who buy and sell these children in jail.
“Many of these men know it’s illegal to ask for a young child,” he said. Still, they ask.
Blackwell told the group that investigators are often dependent on tips.
“You are our eyes and ears,” he said. “If you see something suspicious, say something, call and report it.”
Many of the crimes start on the Internet, where unsupervised children chat with predators and engage in virtual sex games, among other acts.
Charron emphasized that to attack the problem, it’s necessary to address supply and demand and make sure the predators are punished appropriately. But the root causes also must be addressed. That means educating families that CSEC exists and talking about it in schools and church meetings, to bus drivers and others who directly interact with children.
“These are vulnerable children. Many are homeless; they are frequently runaways; they’re abandoned and sexually abused. But they are also from single- and two-parent families, and they’re from both impoverished and gated neighborhoods,” Charron said. “They’re from Vidalia to metro Atlanta, and in some way, they are not having their needs met, and it’s easy for an exploiter to take advantage of them.”