By: Staff Reports | Gwinnett Citizen

For the love of a child
By Carole Townsend

LAWRENCEVILLE - Partisan bickering didn’t stop it. Denial didn’t stop it. The process has been slow but deliberate, and a long time coming, but thanks to the efforts of Senator Renee Unterman (45th District, Gwinnett County), sexually exploited children now have a reason to hope. 

During the 2015 legislative session, Senate Bill 8, sponsored by Unterman, was passed. The bill, entitled Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children, put some muscle behind laws already in place, and added new ones, that are designed to  rescue, harbor and provide services to children who are being trafficked for sexual purposes.  Senate Resolution 7 provides the funding mechanism for the Safe Harbor Commission.

In an April 2 press release issued by the Senate Press Office, Unterman responded to the actions of her peers. “I am so proud of the House and Senate for taking a stand and saying that our state will not condone making a profit off of corruption and the innocence of children. We will help rebuild the lives of sex trafficking victims through rehabilitation, not punishment, and we will fight tirelessly to protect those who cannot protect themselves. A ‘safe harbor’ provision will enable this to occur.”

Unterman is passionate about educating lawmakers and moving them to take action against those who traffic in the buying and selling of the most vulnerable human beings. The mere thought of an adult eyeing a child with sexual intentions shocks most of us. It is repugnant to most of us. For that reason alone, enacting legislation aimed at protecting children would seem to be a smooth task, easily explained and quickly approved.

It would seem to be a smooth process, but the reality has been quite the opposite. “The biggest roadblock I encountered was denial. This is a very sensitive topic. People didn’t want to believe that here in the U.S. – right here in Georgia – children are being sold into sexual slavery.” In fact when the senator first heard of the problem, she had a hard time absorbing that fact and all of its implications.

“A few years ago, Scott Weimer came to my office and asked to see me. I wouldn’t see him, because he didn’t have an appointment. He said that he wasn’t leaving until I met with him, no matter how long it took. He sat and waited all day, until I had seen all of the people who did have appointments, and then we talked.” During that first meeting Weimer, who is the senior pastor at North Avenue Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, told Unterman that children were being bought and sold right there on Peachtree Street, in plain view in front of the church.

“After that meeting, I knew something had to be done,” Unterman said. She started doing research and asking questions, and she learned that then Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin and area judges had already been seeing signs of the problem “on the front end,” with children younger and younger passing through the juvenile courts and system.

Unterman thought about the problem, and the sheer scope of it made it clear that she would not be able to tackle the problem alone. “The government can’t fix this. The faith community, by itself, can’t fix it,” she said. “But they both have to be part of the solution.” The savvy, 25-year political veteran had come face to face with a problem so vile and so vast that she knew it would have to be addressed on several fronts. In 2008, she decided to find the biggest church in Gwinnett County and ask for their help. Her research turned up 12Stone Church. “I made a cold call to them, having no idea what kind of reaction I’d get,” Unterman said. But her phone call got her an appointment with Norwood Davis, 12Stone Church’s Chief Financial Officer. Davis had already met with Weimer about the issue months earlier, joining a prayer effort about the problem of sexual trafficking of children. 

Davis didn’t react to Unterman with denial or revulsion. He promised 12Stone’s support in the senator’s effort to combat the social cancer that is already rampant in Georgia and growing at an alarming rate. Unterman laughed as she recalled leaving that first meeting. “When I left and was walking back to my car, I’ll be honest, I had no confidence that 12Stone would help me. I’ll never forget opening my car door and looking up. ‘Please God,’ I said. ‘Let these people be the ones who help me.’” Seven years later, Unterman will be the first to say that her prayer was answered.

Why haven’t we heard about this problem long before now?

It is not difficult for an American citizen to believe that child sex trafficking happens in other countries. Churches gladly send missionaries and funds to Cambodia, for instance, to battle the insidious practice. But a few years ago, telling a pastor or rabbi, or a senator or other legislator, that children are being bought and sold right here in Georgia was akin to telling them that the sky was falling. “People didn’t want to believe it. They couldn’t believe it,” Unterman said. How could something so evil and sick take such strong root right here under our noses, both in the cities and in the suburbs? It’s difficult to fathom.

“It’s a direct reflection of our society,” Davis said. “What’s created this appetite in the United States is the media and the pornography industry. Porn is so pervasive and easy to see, and it’s free.  It’s readily available to everyone - even children - and as a result, children are becoming desensitized to it. Years ago, “young” prostitutes were 20 or 21 years old. Today, they are starting at age 10 or 11. Twelve year old girls look 21. Young girls are dressed and made up to look older, and that is attractive to many men. This generation does not have a healthy view of sexuality. Younger is ‘better.’”

Where are these children? Where do they come from?

Children who are being prostituted do not wear FOR SALE signs around their necks. They move among us, albeit under the radar. Some of them even attend school during the day. They are lured, then trapped, into sexual slavery in a number of ways.

Where do they come from? Predators, especially those who troll the Internet looking for vulnerable children, can answer this question better than anyone. A predator uses social media and chat rooms to befriend a child, always looking for a need that child might have. It could be food, shelter, money or even a sympathetic ear that the child is seeking out. A predator quickly identifies that need, then goes about filling it.

“They use the gang mentality,” Unterman said. “Gangs promise their members a family and all that comes with it – acceptance, understanding, loyalty. They promise belonging, protection, shelter, all of the things that a real family provides, ideally. Once the child’s trust is gained, the nightmare begins. The “friendly” predator shows himself for what he truly is, a businessman with no compassion, ethics or morals. Once he has gained the child’s trust and ultimately, dependence, he literally owns that child and will force her to do as he says.

“There’s something called ‘sextortion’ too,” Davis added. “It’s not uncommon for children to send sexually explicit photos of themselves to a ‘friend’ they have met on the Internet. Once the predator has those photos, the child is blackmailed with the threat of sharing those photos all over the Internet if she (and even he, sometimes) doesn’t submit to sexual exploitation.”

Sadly, many children are sold for sex by their own family members. “There was a case in which a little girl’s family traded her for a used car,” Unterman said. The danger, it seems, is all around us.

While the Internet has helped the child sex industry explode with its reach into the bedrooms and living rooms of practically every home in the country, it has also enabled law enforcement to set up some very effective sting operations, according to the senator. Just as a child cannot know (but assumes) that the online predator is who he says he is,  the predator cannot know that the child that he met in a chat room and is priming for sexual exploitation isn’t actually a detective or an FBI agent. The knife cuts both ways.

Runaways flock to metropolitan areas like Atlanta. Vulnerable and alone, they are easy prey for unscrupulous predators waiting with open arms. The FBI has identified Atlanta as a major hub for child sex trafficking, and that phenomenon is no accident. Not only is the city of Atlanta an easy place to “disappear,” it is also a popular convention city. Research has proven a direct correlation between conventions and the sex industry (strip clubs, prostitution and, by default, the prostitution of children). But the problem is not limited to large metropolitan areas.

“Cities like Columbus and Macon are seeing the problem, too,” Unterman said, adding that the profile of the typical “consumer” of  child sex-for-hire is a middle-aged, high-income man. Therefore, the disease quickly metastasized to the suburbs, and that includes Gwinnett County.

What has been done to stop the sexual exploitation of children?

As Unterman understood at the outset of this now 8-year journey, no one person or group can stop child sex trafficking. The government, however, has a responsibility and the power to address it from a legislative standpoint. Several laws have been passed over the past 7 to 8 years that have taken first small, then bigger steps. The most recent legislation that was passed extends the statute of limitations with respect to civil action against an offender. New laws also include a “safe harbor provision” and an affirmative defense for children less than 18 years of age.

An affirmative defense simply means that the exploited child will not be treated as a criminal; rather, she will be treated as a victim. Instead of processing her through the juvenile courts and providing enforcing penalties, the “system” will now provide treatment for the child. According to Unterman, that treatment costs about $80,000 and includes medical as well as mental and emotional care. For that reason and others, a Safe Harbor Fund and Safe Harbor Commission have been established by recent legislation.

It is now a felony for any person to participate in the sale or trafficking of a child for the purpose of either labor or sexual exploitation, whether the child was solicited online or in person by a predator. The penalties for committing that felony include both hefty fines and extensive prison time. Not so long ago, the penalty for selling a child for sex was $50, and there was no prison sentence imposed.

Thanks to the efforts of Unterman and others, certain businesses, including adult entertainment venues, are required to post a visible notice with the toll-free number for the National Human Trafficking Hotline (1-888-373-7888). The calls go to a clearinghouse in the Washington, DC, area and are then routed back to Georgia for action.

The senator hit another roadblock when she wanted to hold strip clubs and other such businesses accountable for their contribution to the problem of child sex trafficking, and prostitution in general. Opponents cried “foul” when Unterman spotlighted those businesses as being culpable in the overall problem, saying that their constitutional rights were being violated by being singled out.

“FBI research proves that there is a direct relationship between a strip club and prostitution within a one-mile radius of the business,” Unterman said. “And that prostitution includes children.”

“Those businesses do not contribute to the good of the community,” said Unterman.  “They’re takers; they give nothing back. Have you ever seen a little league baseball team sponsored by a strip club?”

The legislation that is in place now in Georgia is a far cry from the loose and meaningless provisions on the books just a few years ago. As the problem of human trafficking has mushroomed, the laws have had to catch up. But Unterman is far from finished. She is happy that the changes she’s been so passionately pursuing since that first meeting with Weimer have been first legitimized by her peers, then  addressed with proactive legislation in the House and the Senate. Her proposals “went through the senate very well,” she said, but the House was a “harder sell.” After a rare 10-hour hearing, the new legislation was passed with only 3 dissenting votes cast.

Legitimate non-profit organizations have also cropped up, both statewide and nationally. Just a few years ago, there was just one such organization in Georgia, and it was woefully unequipped to handle the avalanche of needs that result from child sexual exploitation. 

When Unterman’s quest began several years ago, there were only 4 churches in the state who were on board with both acknowledging the problem and with doing something about it. Today, there are 90 churches working together to educate and mobilize their members, while reaching out to the children who need help and the organizations that answer that need.

The problem of human trafficking – particularly the trafficking of children – is indeed loathsome. But it is also real, and instead of turning away in denial, the community and its leaders are responding with passion, and with compassion.  The solution, as Unterman suspected years ago, has required the help of many: lawmakers and pastors, educators and law enforcement officers, public safety workers and church members of all denominations and backgrounds.

“What can I do to help?”

Anyone who is a parent is vulnerable to the heartbreak of losing their child to the nightmare of exploitation. Every child is at risk. The problem knows no social, racial or economic boundaries; if a child is exposed to other people, either online or in person, that child is a potential victim of abuse. Our natural response, once that fact is made clear, is to want to do something about it.

Both Unterman and Davis encourage concerned citizens to go to the website www.streetgrace.org, and check out the many volunteer opportunities.  Street Grace is an inter-faith non-profit organization founded by 12Stone Church and dedicated to the eradication of Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (DMST). “If you don’t see something listed there that interests you or uses your skills, email them and ask how you can help,” said Davis (an email address is listed on the website, also).  There are many legitimate NGOs (non-profit organizations) dedicated to either eradicating the practice of buying and selling children for sex, or to helping those children who have been abused by the practice. 

Always a caution: do your homework before throwing your support behind an organization with which you’re not familiar. Again, sadly, there are those who will take advantage of even this situation to make money or otherwise scam people with the best of intentions.

When asked what’s next for her with respect to her crusade against child sex trafficking and critical legislation, Sen. Unterman smiled and answered, “We’ll see. We’re not done yet.”