Atlanta Still a Hub for Child Prostitution
By Steve Visser
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Cherry learned as a young girl that her body could function similarly to an ATM. She had no idea there would be more of a cost than payout.
“Cherry,” 22, ran away from home — and into prostitution — at 13, but eventually left that life. Her family did not abandon her, which is an advantage many teen prostitutes don’t have.
She ran away from her DeKalb County home at 13, looking for excitement and love. She felt unappreciated and lonely at home. Her dad was away for weeks on construction jobs and her mom was too busy or tired to appreciate Cherry’s fondness for the violin. She made it all an excuse to rebel and look on the street for men — “manly men,” as she called them — who valued her.
She met a 20-something man at Five Points and moved in with him. “He seemed very nice,” said Cherry, now 22. “Later, he said, ‘I know a guy who is willing to pay for sex. Would you be interested?’ I said, ‘How much?’ I didn’t really want to do it, but I got gussied up and that’s how I started.”
This was her life for four years, earning up to $1,000 per night. She left the first guy, for whom she peddled sex on Metropolitan Parkway, after he allegedly beat another hooker to death for disloyalty. She found another pimp near Decatur and yet another in Capitol View. She loved some of these men, and thought they loved her. She respected them. She feared others. “We call them daddies,” she said. “I got addicted to the money.”
Federal law enforcement considers Atlanta a hub for child prostitution even after more than a decade of efforts to stamp it out. Advocates contend at least 400 minors prostitute themselves in Georgia, mostly in metro Atlanta, with many turning to this lifestyle at 14 or younger. Pimps circumvent legal tactics by making the girls too loyal or too afraid to testify. Officials debate whether these girls are victims of sexual exploitation or perpetrators.
Some of the girls, now women, agreed to speak to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution if only their first names or nicknames were used in this story to protect their identities.
Targeting child prostitution is an Atlanta police priority, said Sgt. Ernest Britton, head of the child exploitation unit. Social workers have heard this before. In 2001, there was public and political outrage after the AJC reported pimps were using girls as young as 11 to sell sex with minimal legal intervention because the offense was a misdemeanor.
Laws were changed, task forces created and meetings held. Yet enthusiasm for combating this problem has waned. Not much has changed outside of technological advances moving many of the child prostitutes online and off the street.
“The big money is in kids; you can use them over and over again,” said Alesia Adams, Salvation Army territorial coordinator against human and sexual trafficking. “Who is easier to manipulate than a child?”
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard has prosecuted more pimps of children than anyone else in Georgia, indicting 15 since 2003, but acknowledges that overall efforts have fallen short. Only 35 pimps have served time in Georgia prisons for child prostitution since 2001, according to state records. Federal authorities have brought seven cases since 2001.
“It is a big problem,” Howard said in an interview earlier this year. “You can’t have a great city when you have a blight of child prostitution.”
Most girls, such as Cherry, which is a nickname, are lured into the trade, often coming from broken homes and foster care.
Savannah was 16 when she moved to Atlanta from Pittsburgh and started slipping out at night to party with two new friends at an English Avenue neighborhood bar. She met Alice, 15, at their high school. Alice introduced her to Bunny, 22. One night, after indulging in alcohol, marijuana and cocaine, they introduced her to a man, who invited her to join everyone on Metropolitan Parkway, with prostitution implied.
Bunny and Alice brought work clothes: skirts, tight shirts and heels. Savannah, in jeans and sneakers, pretended to stroll, telling the pimp that no customers stopped. She did that a second time.
At a motel, she told Bunny and Alice that the idea of selling her body made her uncomfortable. She soon learned the price of resistance. The pimp entered the room and wanted to know what the problem was. She replied she didn’t feel safe.
“He said, ‘Well maybe I’ll try you and you’ll feel safe,’” said Savannah, 24. “That is when he pushed me on the bed and raped me.”
Pimps often use rape as a weapon, telling girls they’re now damaged and nobody wants them, said Nikki Marr, a former DeKalb County juvenile judge.
At the urging of juvenile court judges and social workers, Howard in 2001 adopted a creative strategy for prosecuting these particular pimps, using charges of child sexual molestation.
Next, the state Legislature made pimping minors a felony punishable by 20 years, federal authorities created a task force to target child pimps and human traffickers as organized criminals, and Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin introduced an initiative to tackle the problem.
Advocates were encouraged that solutions had been found to combat a problem ignored for decades. It was only a momentary reprieve. Marr, who chaired a DeKalb County task force on child prostitution, has watched that enthusiasm dim over the past decade: Thirty people representing law enforcement, schools, state social workers and nonprofit groups attended the first task force meeting; only three showed up for a recent gathering.
“Back then we were young and enthusiastic and were going to whip this problem, beat it into shape and run it out of town,” Marr said. “But when people come to the table, they want action. They are not patient and they want someone to come up with a solution.”
The punitive penalties and political spotlight barely slowed the child trade.
Girls such as Cherry often didn’t see themselves as victims and portrayed themselves as 18 when talking to clients, cops or the courts, and ended up in county jails under false names and ages. Pimps put fewer girls on the streets and chose to market them more on Internet sites such as Craigslist.
Camari Burroughs, currently serving 20 years for pimping a girl who was 16 and nicknamed “Baby,” ran his escort service over the Internet from his home in Lithia Springs. Two of his prostitutes met Baby when they were in Fulton County jail together and encouraged her to leave her pimp for Burroughs’ operation, according to court records.
“They are extremely difficult cases to put together,” Britton, the Atlanta police sergeant, said. “A lot of our victims aren’t your standard victim. They don’t trust law enforcement and they don’t trust any form of authority. The pimps will try to make them look older and give them stories. The clients aren’t necessarily looking for someone who is underage; they are looking for someone who is young.”
Britton’s unit has identified about 40 pimps and receives roughly two reports per week on different minors suspected of prostitution.
Making monitoring difficult, pimps move girls from neighborhood to neighborhood and state to state. Girls are taken to big sporting events such as the NBA All-Star Game and work out of hotel rooms or they’re advertised on the Internet as a new commodity in town who won’t be staying long.
Patrina, at 16, met a pimp at Underground Atlanta who took her and a group of women to Miami, and she made a few thousand dollars stripping at parties the man hosted in motels. Soon she was part of a group of prostitutes living and working in a house near Lovejoy High School, court records showed.
Last week, federal authorities prosecuted four men in Atlanta for their involvement in sex trafficking that involved Mexican women and girls brought to the city, handing out sentences ranging from two to 16 years in prison.
Atlanta has strip clubs that allow full nudity and massage parlors and spas that are fronts for prostitution, and seem to operate with impunity. Craigs-list adult service postings display hundreds of call-girl listings on any given day — a number dwarfing that in most cities.
A city unable or unwilling to deal with prostitution inevitably draws more teens into it, the Salvation Army’s Adams said.
Many girls view pimps as boyfriends or protectors and refuse to cooperate against them. “In my career, I’ve only had five girls who have been willing to turn them in,” said Linda Watson, a probation officer.
Pimps view these girls as their personal property. Tiffany was 14 and a runaway when she met Kenton Travaris Ballard, 30. Ballard charmed her initially, but later severely beat her after taking Tiffany to live with his sister in west Atlanta. Tiffany was sold on the street from August 2005 to September 2006, and told by Ballard she could leave him if she made $1,000 per night, Amanda McClure, Ballard’s sister, told investigators. When that didn’t happen, Tiffany tried to escape and Ballard found her hiding in an apartment, pistol-whipped her and put her back into service.
Cherry said she watched her first pimp beat a girl so badly she wasn’t moving when they left her on the street within sight of the Salvation Army on Metropolitan Parkway. The pimp told her that he killed the girl because she had run off and worked as an independent.
“She was a renegade and she made that fateful mistake of coming back,” Cherry said during an interview at her parents’ house in Riverdale. “I remember him beating her like she was a football, kicking her repeatedly in the face. Did I try and help her? No. I wanted to spare myself a beating.”
Child advocates encourage legislators and police to view children in prostitution as victims who need therapy rather than as criminals who should be arrested and locked up.
Kaffie McCullough, who heads A Future Not a Past, a nonprofit group that comes to the aid of young prostitutes, educates police departments about the state’s 2007 human- trafficking law. A prostitution conviction in Georgia, which is a misdemeanor offense, is punishable by a year of incarceration and/or a $1,000 fine; a child prostitute typically receives probation.
Two years ago Atlanta Police formed a unit to focus on the sexual exploitation of children, which treats the girls as victims, and last year the governor’s office formed an Office for Sexually Exploited Children to coordinate state efforts to combat child prostitution. So far more than 63 girls have been referred to it from the state, said Dale Alton, who heads up this effort.
Angela’s House was created in 1999 to provide a safe house and counseling for girls 11-17 who have been sexually exploited. The court refers them to the program to help them deal with psychological issues and wean them from the lifestyle, but it has limited beds and generally serves 18 clients annually. More than 125 girls have gone through the program, according to Angela’s House.
Legislative support remains lukewarm. State Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, introduced a bill in the Legislature to treat prostitutes under 16 as victims rather than criminals and send them to therapy, with the hope they would be more cooperative in the prosecution of their pimps. The bill failed to get out of the Senate.
“They are not always soft and cuddly victims and a lot of the public holds the view that they are out there by choice,” McCullough said.
Scars from child prostitution are hard to overcome. Girls suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome from rape or beatings. Others adopt the lifestyle.
“Most of the young ladies I have got into a therapeutic group home has taken a court order and, when they get there, they run; they run back to the lifestyle,” Watson said. “They are one of the most difficult groups of children to work with and the success rate is not going to be very high unless you have a long-term program for change.”
To better identify the problem, the Juvenile Justice Fund in Fulton County two years ago commissioned a study on child prostitutes. Alex Trouteaud, who heads this effort, put researchers in observation posts in major hotels and had them patrol known prostitution corridors, scan online ads and call 500 escort services per month. They came up with an estimated 350 to 400 girls under 18 who work as prostitutes in the state.
Available numbers still don’t readily expose the child-prostitution problem. Of 858 people arrested last year by the Atlanta Police vice unit on prostitution charges, only five were minors. Trouteaud’s study suffers from the typical difficulties that hamper underworld research: the danger of gathering the data, the difficulty of observation and the dishonesty of the subjects. Yet everyone has acknowledged this is a situation that needs redress.
“There just isn’t a real good methodology out there, but [Trouteaud’s] numbers sort of bear out that it is a significant problem in the state,” said Kirsten Widner, a lawyer with the Barton Child Law and Policy Clinic at Emory University. “They are only counting girls, and they are only counting main venues of exploitation, so I think that 400 is a dramatic undercount.”
Cherry’s life changed for the better when she was arrested at 17 for propositioning an undercover police officer. After her previous arrests, court officials offered help, and even sent her to California to enter “Children of the Night,” an intensive counseling program that claims a 60 percent success rate at getting teens out of prostitution. Cherry fell into the 40 percent.
Yet she was tired of the life, and in a lot of ways she was lucky and not typical. She had parents who loved her and didn’t give up on her. Her mother asked Fulton County jail to keep her in isolation so she couldn’t call her pimp to bail her out. Cherry, whose teen years had become a blur, decided working at a fast-food restaurant would be a welcome change.
“Kids survive if you don’t give up on them and she really had a strong support system,” said Watson, formerly Cherry’s probation officer.
Most street girls don’t have that family support. Cherry told of a girl, 12, who invited Cherry to work for her pimp years ago. The girl lived in Grady Homes with her mother, who suffered from depression.
“I saw her recently at Five Points,” Cherry said. “She had just turned 20. She is homeless, sleeping in the park.”