ATLANTA — The Senate Judiciary Committee Monday temporarily tabled a bill that addresses child prostitution. Each month in Georgia, experts estimate as many as 400 children are sold for sex. It happens on the street, through escort services, in hotels, and over the Internet. The U.S. Department of Justice lists Atlanta among 14 American cities where this is a problem. But is a child prostitute a victim, or a criminal? That’s the question lawmakers are considering in SB 304.
Experts estimate as many as 400 children are sold for sex in Georgia each month. (photo courtesy Capitan Giona)
The trafficking of children for sex in Georgia is a crime most people do not see. Reverend Scott Weimer of North Avenue Presbyterian Church in midtown Atlanta say he was stricken with grief when one of his staff members witnessed what he believes was child prostitution. “A black sedan pulled up in front of the church, there was a young woman who was clearly underage who had been waiting on the corner,” Weimer explains. After what be believes was an exchange money, the girl got into the car and drove off.
The intersection is one of hundreds in Atlanta listed on a report as a spot for child sex trafficking. Weimer founded a group called StreetGRACE. It works to rehabilitate victims of commercial sexual exploitation. But prostitution is a crime in Georgia. So, should police and judges treat a child prostitute as a criminal, or a victim?
Sen. Renee Unterman (R-Buford) says a prostituted child is a victim. “If a minister on Peachtree Street can go and talk about this, then I should have the courage to step onto the senate floor and talk about this also.” Current law allows children – no matter how young — to be charged with prostitution. Sen. Unterman wants child prostitutes to be classified as “unruly” under the juvenile code. Instead of going to jail, they would be treated as child abuse victims and eligible for social services such as counseling. Sen. Unterman says “it does no good to recognize you have a problem and say we’re not going to do anything about it. So now we have created a system of care, therapeutic services that can take care of young girls and young boys that are 12, 13, 14. I have actually seen a 10-year-old girl. Now tell me that’s not wrong.”
Former Republican state senator Nancy Shaefer is leading a Christian-based opposition to Sen. Unterman’s proposal. Shaefer and other opponents agree child prostitutes are victims who need help, but Shaefer says “the Act of Prostitution cannot be ignored.” She says children need to learn consequences. “In a speech I made fairly recently, I talked about a young girl that was head of a prostitution ring in the southeast I won’t say where in the southeast. And she was the madame! And she had all these young girls, 14 and younger, in her prostitution ring. Now there’s no way that we can turn our head and ignore that.” Shaefer worries that “decriminalizing” child prostitution sends the message that it’s OK to prostitute oneself and it’s OK to break the law.
But Kaffie McCullough of the advocacy group A Future. Not A Past says the desire to punish is misguided. “Even if she’s out there by choice as some are saying, and the vast majority are not. Even if the small percentage she’s out there by choice, she’s a child, and that choice is an indication that something is way wrong for that child, says McCullough.”
That’s why advocates like McCullough want more rehabilitation than punishment. And she argues that when it comes to sending a message, authorities should focus on building more cases against the people pimping the children, and the johns who are buying their sex. Not doing anything, advocates say, means the toll of victims from Georgia’s commercial child sex trade would grow by 50 percent in two years.