Sex Trafficking in ATL: What You Don’t See Behind Closed Doors

  |  Topic: Girl Code, Juvenile Justice, News, Politics, VOX Investigates
By Eliza Griffin

Sex trafficking: the illegal business of recruiting, harboring, transporting, obtaining, or providing a person and especially a minor for the purpose of sex.

Atlanta — home to many things: the Falcons, Coca-Cola, CNN — and one of the biggest hubs of sex trafficking nationwide. This “modern-day slavery” is the second largest criminal enterprise in the world — second only to drug trade, according to the nonprofit Out of Darkness. Every month, 7,200 men purchase sex from a minor, accounting for more than 8,000 sex acts. Another study by Georgia Cares claims that more than 90 percent of Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking victims in Georgia were enrolled in school at the time of their exploitation.

In other countries, the number drops to age 3. While you might have been at home watching Disney Channel, girls the same age as you were taken from their homes and families to an unimaginable life on the streets.

It’s not just downtown where a lot of crime happens, either; sexual exploitation occurs in affluent neighborhoods across the state and the nation. According to The Schapiro Group, which conducted research on prostitution and sexual exploitation, 65 percent of men who purchase sex with female children in metro Atlanta live in suburban areas. It could be happening right next door, and you would have no idea.

Pimps often look for young teenagers to exploit, homeless girls and boys who walk the streets alone, usually approaching the teens within 48 hours of leaving home or being homeless. Of these homeless youth, 40 percent are LGBTQ, though they only make up 7 percent of the general population, according to the Polaris Project, a national nonprofit organization that fights sex trafficking. Homeless LGBTQ teens, after being thrown out by family members and friends, sometimes are also rejected by prejudiced shelters. Since they really don’t have anywhere to go, they are at an even higher risk of being trafficked.

“I think it’s very important to share that trafficking and exploitation happens in every culture, in every community,” said Jennifer Swain, executive director of the Atlanta nonprofit YouthSpark. “Runaways are at an increased risk of becoming victims, including foster care [kids], but it looks different [for everyone].”

Swain mentioned Stockholm Syndrome, a condition surprisingly common among sexually trafficked teens that includes feelings of trust and affection for a victim’s captor: “They really believe that [their pimp] is there to take care of them and to protect them.” These teenagers, therefore, also fear “the system,” according to Swain. “Some are afraid of service providers — we have kids who come in [to the YouthSpark center at Fulton County Juvenile Court] who are afraid to tell the truth because they don’t know if they are going to get help or not.” When a victim is fed so many lies from a person they trust, even if that person has trafficked them, he or she will be reluctant to open up. “A lot of victims don’t know they’re victims,” Swain said. “They look at the situation as something they have to do.”

While this may seem strange — how could a victim not know they are being trafficked? — it is a reality for many exploited teenagers. “They don’t know that they have a choice,” Swain said. “A young woman will be made to do all these different things —[dance] in a strip club — and she [doesn’t] realize she doesn’t have to do it.”

So, can you as a teen help fight sexual exploitation? Yes! There are many ways. Lindsey Reina, a 16-year-old junior at Marist High School and a friend of mine, started a nonprofit organization last year called Stop the Madness to fight human sex trafficking. “I saw Atlanta’s a huge hub for it,” she told me in an interview. “The fact that I only found out about it as a sophomore, at 15 years old … Something needs to be done to spread the word.” She worked with her mom’s old online company to create T-shirt designs and a logo for the merchandise she sells, the funds from which are donated directly to Wellspring Living, another local nonprofit that provides resources and housing for survivors of trafficking.

Sarah Richardson, the philanthropic advisor at Wellspring Living and partner to Stop the Madness, affirmed that all funds donated from Stop the Madness directly impact the girls at Wellspring. “We pride ourselves on every dollar going to our mission: 88% goes to program expenses,” said Richardson. “[The funds] go to whatever the greatest need is at the time.”

“Right now, [my main goal] is to sell the merchandise. I’ve already seen kids wear it to go out and people [ask] what’s the madness we need to stop, so it builds conversation. [I want to] keep raising money for Wellspring Living — they help [the survivors] learn, give them an education, all the necessary needs to get back on their feet. They have a house for older women and then for young girls. That’s my main goal — to help with them and then later grow and help more of those houses in Atlanta.”

 

A call to action against sex trafficking  

It can hard to understand what exactly sex trafficking is. People are more prone to believe misconceptions and make quick judgments because of their ignorance that’s no fault of their own. That’s why it’s so important, especially as young people who are the future lawmakers and activists of America, to know that trafficking is real and that it is slavery. These aren’t promiscuous women looking for sex: Many people experiencing sex trafficking are young runaways. In fact, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in six youth who ran away from home in 2014 “were likely victims of child sex trafficking.”  

Traffickers use violence, threats, deception and other manipulative tactics to trap victims, reports Covenant House, a shelter for homeless youth — especially vulnerable youth who are rejected by their families and experience homelessness.

The law has also failed these teens when they needed it most. Federal law used to state that pimping a minor was a misdemeanor, not a felony. Girls as young as 13 would be brought into juvenile court on prostitution charges, and the pimps that abused, harassed, and sold them would be let off much more easily. According to Swain, former Juvenile Court Judge Nina Hickson once told her, “These kids do not belong in shackles. They do not belong in jail. These young girls are being exploited — they are not prostitutes.”

Swain and Hickson joined together in the early 2000s to create a nonprofit (now called YouthSpark) to advocate for sexually trafficked minors and provides services for youth involved with Fulton County Juvenile Court. In 2005 the organization began to work how they could change laws: “We passed legislation,” Swain said. “We expanded the child abuse definition so that human trafficking and the commercial exploitation of children is now a reportable form of child abuse.” As a result, child abuse and pimping a minor could be classified as felonies and thus put the abusers behind bars.

“It helps to have someone who’s been where you are,” Swain said, in regards to creating empathy for teens. YouthSpark offers groups for youth referred by the courts and partners with representatives from the Human Rights Network on connecting with LGBTQ teens and with Georgia State University on The Homeless and Runaway Youth Study. Says Swain, “[The study] identifies many gaps for LGBT kids who didn’t have a place to go; they don’t have a home, a safehouse like some of the girls. We brought in team members that can work with LGBTQ youth and with boys.”

Georgia has taken a step in the right direction — a new bill passed on May 8th will “expand the definition of sexual abuse to include acts involving trafficking a person for sexual servitude; to provide for related matters; to provide for an effective date; [and] to repeal conflicting laws.” Hopefully, this will help tackle the huge problem in Atlanta and convict the pimps instead of the girls.

In addition, though sex trafficking is more common with females, boys can be trafficked, too. Swain said she “recognized gaps in services” for boys, since many safe houses are just for girls, and affirmed that YouthSpark works with both sexes and with transgender youth as well.

Moreover, although there are still many holes to be filled, teens who are sex trafficking survivors have organizations and help available. But how would they know that help is there? Spreading the message is far more important than you think. “Just acknowledging it’s such a big presence” helps extraordinarily, Lindsey affirmed. “Especially in Atlanta and all over the world too. It is a problem we as a generation should start fixing.”

Wellspring Living has multiple programs that serve a range of ages: a court-ordered program for teenage girls 12 to 17 years old that helps with life skills and education, as well as trauma therapy and rehabilitation; the other voluntary program for women ages 18 to 32 called the Women’s Academy offers a GED program and a career track for survivors who have an education but need additional supports.  

When asked what she thought teens could contribute to the cause, WellSpring’s Richardson answer was simple and not unlike Lindsey’s and Swain’s: “Awareness is huge.”

You’re never too young to make a difference. Simple things like following accounts on social media and researching organizations to educate yourself go a long way. Volunteering, if possible, also makes a tremendous impact locally. Many places take volunteers 18 or older, but some like YouthSpark have internships and special volunteer opportunities. Even just raising awareness on your campus and looking out for flags anywhere you can, especially at the airport. (See “Warning Signs.”)

So this is it. Your sign. Your call to action. Teens just like you are being kidnapped, harassed, forcibly addicted to drugs and sold — it could happen to anyone, anywhere, any time. To you, to your best friend, to your siblings, even in bright daylight: Walk with a friend instead of alone. Accept your friends — and, in the case of parents, your kids — for who they are. Stop bullying and instead give compliments. “[Teenagers’] voices are so much more powerful [than adults’],” Swain said. “You’re going to be the ones to end this. We just paved the way for you.” Our generation can stop this form of slavery through activism if we speak out and stand up. We can stop the madness.


Eliza, 17, is a junior at Marist High School who plays an active role in the student activist community.

Featured photo illustrations by Eliza Griffin. Graphics by Justin Niederkorn for VOX ATL.
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