By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published October 20, 2016
ATLANTA—Josephine Cummings for more than 10 years worked in the dark corners of society where vulnerable teens were lured into abusive sexual situations and where adults profited from their pain.
There was the 13-year-old who ran away from home. She was picked up, driven out of state and then spent months being intimidated and sexually abused at a truck stop. Or the older teen, who saw the money that was changing hands and decided to act as a recruiter to draw younger ones into the sex trade.
Despite the horrors, Cummings, who worships at St. Anthony of Padua Church, Atlanta, said she is hopeful the community has turned a corner in the battle against child sex trafficking.
Only a few years ago, the victimized teens were the ones targeted for arrest. Now authorities are going after the abusive adults. The law views sexual trafficking as a serious crime with offenders facing at least 10 years behind bars.
“It’s always been a hidden problem. The conversations were taboo. Now we’re having open conversations,” Cummings said.
Voters on Nov. 8 will decide whether to support a state constitutional amendment to dedicate money to a proposed Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund. The money would come from a new fee paid by adult entertainment businesses and enhanced fines paid by people convicted of sex trafficking charges. An amendment is required to dedicate state funds to a particular purpose. On the ballot, it will be Constitutional Amendment 2.
It is expected to provide up to $2 million yearly to help young people avoid trafficking through early intervention programs and support services if they have been caught up in the life.
According to the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, more than 300 girls are commercially sexually exploited in the state each month and their average age of entry into prostitution is between 12 and 14 years old.
Opponents of the amendment assert that legal adult entertainment businesses are being unfairly penalized with higher taxes and question why other businesses used by traffickers would not pay increased fees.
“We must support these children”
However, youth advocates and allies are working to educate the community on the question leading up to the November election. Some two dozen people from at least four Atlanta parishes attended a Saturday, Oct. 15, presentation at St. Anthony’s Church by youthSpark on the sexual exploitation of children and the Safe Harbor amendment.
Jennifer Swain, youthSpark deputy director, said the services that would be funded by the amendment are vital.
“They just need someone to be there for them,” she said about the youth.
Sexual trafficking is the peak of a mountain of trouble, so early intervention by engaging vulnerable teens can help most of all, she said.
Rather than being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem, she advised people to focus on supporting young people nearby, from their own children and nephews and nieces to young neighbors and church members.
Swain said advocates are hopeful the amendment will pass as more people are educated about its purpose. Community groups have embraced the cause and know its importance, she said. The amendment is receiving support from a cross-section of groups, including the United Way of Greater Atlanta, the Junior League of Atlanta, the Center for Civil and Human Rights, Covenant House Georgia and Street Grace.
The Georgia Catholic Conference supports the ballot measure also.
“This constitutional amendment establishes a fund to help rehabilitate minors who have become victims of sex trafficking so that they can regain their self-respect and live a life consistent with their dignity as children of God,” said Frank Mulcahy, the conference executive director.
Support on the issue is vital now because if it is defeated, state lawmakers will likely not endorse the measure again, he said.
“In the Year of Mercy, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to assure funding for rehabilitation of children who have been preyed upon by unscrupulous traffickers who destroy children’s lives for monetary gain. We must support these children,” he said.
More information can be found at www.safeharboryes.com.