Hooray! Atlanta is in the running to be No. 1! Let's have a parade.
Uh, maybe not. Our city has earned a distinction, but it's hardly one we crave. According to the FBI, Atlanta is among 14 cities vying for child prostitution capital of America. We're up there with such hot destinations as Tampa, Miami and Washington, D.C.
It's hard to deal with such horror. I have five kids. Would I kill a pimp who exploited one of them? Absolutely, without hesitation or remorse, and with as much agony as I could inflict. That's Dad speaking, not the civil liberties absolutist.
How horrible does it get? Fulton County Deputy District Attorney Deborah Espy told me about a pimp enforcement practice called "trunk you."
"They throw the children in the trunk of a car, take them to another city and trade them to another pimp," Espy says. That's a possible death sentence. At the very least, the children know they may never see their families or homes again.
Even more disturbing for Espy was finding a photo of a girl no older than 5, posed for prostitution. "We still don't know who she was," Espy says.
FBI Special Agent Steve Emmett says there's a problem with Brazilian girls being brought to Atlanta to service Hispanic day laborers. But most of the exploited children are homegrown.
Nationally, "200,000 to 300,000 children are believed to be at-risk for sexual exploitation," according to "Hidden in Plain View," a study of Atlanta's problem. Other cities, such as Las Vegas, have estimated their number of child prostitutes in the 400-500 range.
"Hundreds?" muses Cathey Steinberg of Atlanta's Juvenile Justice Fund. "Oh, absolutely. I call it an epidemic."
About a dozen girls each month go through the Atlanta juvenile court system as victims of sexual exploitation. Typically, they're 10 to 14 years old, and the average age is getting younger. Contributing factors aren't a surprise: broken homes, physical and sexual abuse, runaways, poverty, housing instability and emotional problems. Few girls seek out prostitution, but the pimps know how to spot kids in distress.
What's Atlanta's big draw for pedo-pervs? One important factor is bustling Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. A 2003 federal law provides for up to 30-year sentences to people who jaunt to a foreign land, say Costa Rica or Thailand, for a kid tryst. A session with a teen or pre-teen inside the United States generally comes under state laws, however, which seldom match the threat of the federal penalties. Georgia in 2001 made pimping children a felony -- previously, it was $50 misdemeanor. That has put some pimps away but hasn't deterred the business, law enforcement officials say.
"Atlanta has developed a national reputation as a sexual tourist destination," says the "Hidden" report. "Internet sex guides and blogs offer comprehensive guides to escort services in Atlanta. Even Craig's List advertises Atlanta-specific sex services." Creative Loafing does the same.
Law enforcement officials say escort services' telephone numbers often connect to central phone banks, many of which are run by the mob. Those sort of operations wouldn't have qualms about placing ads featuring adults, then referring callers to purveyors of more esoteric services -- the pimps who have stables of children -- a retired FBI agent told me.
The motive? According to the FBI, sexual exploitation of kids is the third biggest moneymaker for organized crime.
So, the horny men whisk into Atlanta's airport, rush to a nearby hotel, flip some folding presidents to a "player," and do the dirty with a drugged kid. Then, it's home in time to have dinner with the wife and progeny, and maybe even catch Wednesday prayer meeting at church.
"The men prefer children because they often think there's less chance of disease," says Emmett. "That's not the case."
The "Hidden" study, commissioned by the Atlanta Women's Agenda, was published last September and made its debut at a forum hosted by Mayor Shirley Franklin. It merited 676 words in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and nothing in CL. (The AJC did run excellent stories by Jane Hansen on the problem in 2001.)
"A lot of people have wondered where the press has been lately," says writer Mickey Goodman, who authored the only substantive piece based on the "Hidden" report. That article appeared last summer in Atlanta magazine, and a version was distributed this month by Reuters news service.
"We've heard from Geraldo [Rivera]," Goodman sighs. Advocates aren't anxious for a visit from the sensationalist Fox News reporter because he would want to interview children. "They've already been exploited by every adult in their lives. We don't want them to be exploited again."
In fairness, Espy says Atlanta's prominence as a child prostitution center has been heightened because groups such as Women's Agenda are provoking discussion -- and because Franklin, the Atlanta police and the district attorney's office are taking action.
The media are still asleep. And, of course, groups such as the Chamber and Central Atlanta Progress are far more interested in larding cash on the billionaire owners of NASCAR than doing something to salvage the lives of children. For that matter, CL has a heavy volume of advertising from escort services. Part of my paycheck comes from the sleaze. We make a great effort to ensure we're not contributing to child prostitution. I'm still uneasy.
In a remote part of Fulton County, there's a big, attractive stucco residence. It's called Angela's House, and it's the only shelter in the Southeast for young girls who have been rescued from prostitution. I didn't talk to the girls there -- as noted, they don't need another form of exploitation.
But I did once see the tragedy. I lived in Miami during the 1980s, and a friend was a physician. One day, leaving downtown, I recognized his daughter on the street. I stopped to offer a ride, and realized something was very, very wrong.
The girl, 16 at the time, was selling $10 oral sex, and her pimp demanded $200 a day. Hooked on crack, she'd run away from home two weeks earlier. I called her dad, who came and found her. Last week, I asked the father about his daughter. Now in her 30s, she has never had a successful relationship with a man. She repeatedly scars her limbs and face with knives and razors. She has never finished school, or been able to hold a job. "We still have hope," the father says.
"Very few success stories exist," the "Hidden" report states. "Even after girls are out of exploitive situations, they are faced with a host of physical and emotional problems."
A sampling of stories from "Hidden": "Anna," 17, was going to be murdered by her mom's boyfriend, but another man suggested: "No, don't kill her. We can make a lot of money." When "Trina" and "Angela" were 12 and 11, a cousin "turned them out" to work as prostitutes on Fulton Industrial Boulevard. The sad tales go on and on.
"It takes about 48 hours for a runaway on the streets to get picked up by a pimp," Steinberg says. "By that time, the kids are hungry."
Pimps are sly guys. They'll claim to be modeling agents. Or, they'll use an attractive young woman who will come on to the girls as a "concerned sister." From there, it's beatings, drugs and an endless line of men.
"What you read about is just the tip," said the FBI's Emmett. "The iceberg is so much bigger."
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