15 years ago, Jane Hansen reported extensively on child prostitution in Atlanta
Now, trafficked children are more likely to be viewed as victims, not criminals
Technology has transformed the illegal sex industry
The image sticks in my mind: A female defendant is escorted into the courtroom with shackles around her ankles, making it difficult to walk. Dressed in a jail-issued jumpsuit and flip-flops, she takes a seat at the appointed table up front, until the judge is gaveled in and we all rise.
As a newspaper reporter for more than 20 years in Atlanta, I’d observed this scene before. But this time, something was different.
Selling Atlanta's Children
This defendant was chewing on her finger, had her hair pulled back in a tiny pigtail, and spoke in a high-pitched voice. She was 10.
She had been in and out of an Atlanta jail for months, as had her sister, because she was an alleged prostitute, a chronic runaway and no one knew what to do with her. When her probation officer asked whether the defendant could address the court, the judge nodded yes, and the little girl rose from the defense table. Her head bowed, she quietly told the judge she wanted to go home. Then, as she rubbed her eyes with balled up fists, she began to cry.
Nearly 15 years ago, I wrote a series of stories called “Selling Atlanta’s Children” about child prostitution for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and I started it with that courtroom scene. That little girl was a metaphor for everything I had learned through my reporting. By meeting and interviewing her, her 11-year-old sister and other girls, I realized: There’s something wrong with this picture.
In 2000, I got a call in the newsroom from Stephanie Davis, a woman I’d never met, who identified herself as director of the Atlanta Women’s Foundation.
She told me there was a problem with childhood prostitution in Atlanta, that she knew I’d written about children’s issues before, and that she wanted me to meet with some people who could describe in detail what was happening. I was working on another series of stories, but I agreed to the meeting.
A week or so later, I met with a group of women that included a Fulton County Juvenile Court probation officer and some child advocates. They told me that a growing number of young girls – early to late teens – were coming into juvenile court charged with shoplifting or, more commonly, running away – an offense that applies only to minors.
Upon questioning by the judge, they learned that the girls were surviving on the streets as prostitutes under the tutelage of men who housed, fed and clothed them and, in exchange, sold them to other men for sex. I asked for numbers, but they couldn’t provide them. I asked for access to the girls. They said that because of confidentiality, that could not happen. I told them I wouldn’t use their names, but I wouldn’t do the story without meeting some of the girls involved. I also said I needed some way of determining how big a problem this was.
Back then, when people spoke of sex trafficking, I assumed they were referring to an international trade – the phenomenon of young women from China or Thailand or some other country being brought to the United States, then forced to pay back their transportation fees through sexual slavery. But these women I’d just met were telling me it was a homegrown problem. I wanted them to prove it.
When I searched for articles about child prostitution as a homegrown industry in other cities, I found only one story about an American-based prostitution ring that had exploited local minors somewhere in the Midwest.
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One of the first people I met was Fulton County Juvenile Judge Nina Hickson. Through her, I began to see what was wrong with this picture – what was wrong that day I sat in her courtroom and watched that little girl with the pigtail cry.
In Georgia in 2000, while children were being arrested, put in jail, and chained like the worst of criminals, the men selling them and having sex with them were rarely arrested.
Back then, there were no reliable statistics on the number of prostituted children. While the number of 300,000 nationwide was bandied about, I researched the genesis of that number and learned it was wildly speculative and had no basis in fact.
The best I could do was pull the numbers of adults who had gone to prison for prostitution in Georgia versus the number who had gone to prison for pimping. From 1972 to 1999, I found that 401 adults – almost all women – had been incarcerated for prostitution. Not one person had gone to prison for the crime of pimping. That told me something.
I remember the explanation given to me at the time by Mike Light, then the Department of Corrections spokesman and a former parole officer. “I think there was an unwitting bias that the woman was the perpetrator,” he said. “She was the one out having sex. …The pimp was just collecting the money.”
Because the numbers were so unreliable, my newspaper agreed to do a national survey of juvenile judges. We enlisted the help of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, who urged enough judges to respond that we were able to get a reliable sample.
A hidden problem
Child prostitution is a hidden problem that was – and still is – difficult to count.
Unlike adult women, these children – such as that 10-year-old girl – rarely came into the criminal justice system charged with prostitution. Rather they came in under a host of other charges, such as running away. Juvenile judges were often the first to identify them as sexually exploited minors who were working as prostitutes. And according to our survey, their numbers were growing.
Almost one in three of the juvenile judges surveyed said they had seen an increase in the past five years in the number of child prostitutes coming into their courtrooms. Rural judges participating in the survey reported the sharpest increase, with the typical rural judge seeing an average of three youths a month involved in prostitution.
Our survey suggested, however, that even judges viewed the problem differently, depending on their gender. Among female juvenile justices, 85% estimated they saw one or more child prostitutes a month, compared with 68% of male judges.
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The female judges were also more likely than male judges to complain that police weren’t aggressive enough in going after pimps and customers. Many judges participating in our survey said they believed the laws should be changed, mandating harsher penalties for pimps and “johns.”
One judge said the adults got away with exploiting children because “people don’t believe children, particularly if they’re a naughty, bad, unpleasant child.” A majority of the judges said their communities lacked services for child prostitutes in need of being “deprogrammed,” with 10 times as many judges saying they should be treated as victims rather than criminals.
Atlanta police said at the time it was a lot harder to arrest pimps than prostitutes.
As undercover officers, they could pluck the prostitutes off