As a newspaper reporter for more than 20 years in Atlanta, I'd observed this scene before. But this time, something was different.
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.
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.
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 the streets as the girls or women worked the "track," such as Metropolitan Parkway, or turned tricks at strip clubs, where underaged girls illegally danced. The pimps were more hidden.
Even if police were able to make an arrest, prosecutors said it was difficult to build a case against the men. They needed witnesses, but the general rule was that prostitutes didn't testify against their boss, the pimp, out of reluctance or fear.
The problem, Judge Hickson said at the time, was that police and prosecutors often failed to distinguish between prostitutes who were adults and those who were children.
The children who were coming into her courtroom weren't seen as victims by law enforcement, she said. "They're seen as consenting participants."
Partly in response to that perception, I told her I needed to find a girl 12 or younger who was allegedly being prostituted. I felt if I could paint a picture of a child who was being prostituted, as opposed to a teenager, the exploitative nature of this problem would become more real to our readers. I told her I would not use any names without her approval, as I understood the dangerous lives these young people were leading. Eventually, after she contacted other judges familiar with stories I'd done involving child victims, I think she decided it was worth the risk.
She called me one day and said, "What about a 10-year-old?" Soon after, I was in her courtroom when they brought in the little girl.
The judge explained that the last thing she wanted to do with this child was to keep her behind bars, which is where her 11-year-old sister had been waiting for three weeks. "But I've got to make sure she's safe," the judge said. There was just nowhere to put children like these because of a lack of children's programs in Georgia.
There were plenty of beds for bad children needing punishment, but practically none for young exploited victims needing help.
At the court hearing, Hickson was clearly frustrated. She accused child welfare officials of not doing enough to find some place to put the two sisters other than jail. The probation officer complained they had done nothing to get the girls' mother into drug treatment.
Hickson said she had never intended to keep them locked up more than a few days, and she was angry she had had to schedule this hearing to force the child welfare officials to act. They told the judge they worried about sending the girls home to their mother, whose life was controlled by drugs.
When the child told the judge she wanted to go home, Hickson said to her, "I don't want you locked up either. But I'm also concerned about your safety and whether you're going to stay with your mom. Are you going to stay at your mother's?"
"Yes, ma'am," the child said.
After the hearing, the judge took me back to her chambers where she allowed me to interview the little girl. Her eyes red from crying, the child said she was sorry for what she had done.
She said if she could, she would "change back the hand of time." She said a relative's boyfriend had led the sisters into prostitution. At first he "was buying us stuff." She said she realized something was wrong "because of what he wanted in return." He wanted money "by my prostituting."
"He forced me. He wouldn't let me go." She said he took her sister and her to a hotel on Fulton Industrial Boulevard in Atlanta.
As she sat hunched over with her hands partly hiding her face, she said softly that he threatened to kill her if she left. "He'd pull my hair, and he punched me." She was very frightened of him.
She said she would like to tell other girls her age, "Stay in school. Don't waste your life on something like this. Some people have caught HIV and AIDS."
She said she wanted to go back to school. Her elementary school had a mentoring program. And then this 10-year-old little girl -- with no hope and no one in her life who loved and cared for her -- said that more than anything, she wanted a mentor. "It would help me be better off in life," she said. "Much better than I am."
That day, Hickson ordered that both girls be returned home and without electronic monitors, as child welfare officials had requested. Three weeks later, the 10-year-old ran away again. Eventually police picked her up and returned her to the youth jail, where she remained while officials tried to figure out what to do with her.
"It's not the judge's fault," Alesia Adams said at the time. Adams was head of Victims of Prostitution, a newly formed program to help children like the 10-year-old. "It's not anybody's fault. There's just no place for these kids to go."
In the past 15 years, I've thought of that child, as well as the other girls I met and profiled for the newspaper series. I've wondered what happened to them. The 10-year-old would be 25 today. If she's alive.
Changing industry, changing laws
Since I wrote that series, a lot has changed. And a lot hasn't.
Soon after my stories ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, people such as Hickson, Stephanie Davis and Alesia Adams convinced the Georgia Legislature to change state law so that pimping minors was no longer a misdemeanor but a felony, with prison sentences of up to 20 years, depending on the child's age.
It was a start.
Prosecutors such as Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard called child prostitution possibly "one of the largest problems facing our young people today." He said more than a new law was needed, and he began more aggressively prosecuting men who were exploiting minors while calling on police to more aggressively identify and arrest them.
The Atlanta Women's Foundation set up "Angela's Fund" to raise money to help children exploited as prostitutes. Soon Angela's House was born as a residential safe house for a small number of children victimized by commercial sexual exploitation. While Angela's House no longer exists, eventually two other safe houses have taken its place, thanks in part to a growing number of individuals and organizations concerned about the problem, such as youthSpark, Street Grace and Wellspring Living.
Each year, these organizations promote a "Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Lobby Day" to continue calling attention to the problem.
In 2011, they succeeded in winning passage of House Bill 200: Georgia's Human Trafficking Law, which again increased penalties for trafficking, required training for the proper response by law enforcement and emphasized the need to treat those who were being commercially exploited as victims rather than criminals.
This year, Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia signed two new measures, both sponsored by Sen. Renee Unterman, a Republican from Buford. Senate Resolution 7 would permit an annual $5,000 fee paid by strip clubs to go toward housing, counseling and other services for victims of child prostitution, if voters approve. The resolution sets up a statewide referendum that will be on the ballot in November 2016.
Senate Bill 8, known as Rachel's Law and the Safe Harbor Law, lays out how the money would be collected and spent. It also ensures that sexually exploited youths are treated as victims, not criminals, specifically stating that children who have been sexually exploited may no longer be charged with prostitution.
Hickson, today an ethics officer for the city of Atlanta, was there for the bills' signing.
"The level of awareness certainly has increased," she said in a recent interview. She believes the perception of human trafficking has also changed and is no longer viewed exclusively as a problem among immigrants from other countries.
"I think people today understand it is a homegrown problem," she said. "You have people acknowledging that the problem exists in our metro area, and the children need to be treated as children with problems as opposed to problem children."
But, she said, it remains critical to keep the public glare on the problem.
From the streets to the Internet
And that's not easy, because if this societal problem was hidden before, it's gone underground today.
Internet and cell phones have changed everything, according to Hickson and law enforcement officers. While young girls can still be seen walking the "track" in some well-known areas of Fulton and DeKalb counties, in the core of the Atlanta metro area, they are as likely to be advertised on the Internet.
A number of girls and women have set up their own ads that are prominently displayed on a plethora of websites, one of the biggest being "Backpage.com," which filled the gap after Craigslist was sued and in 2010 shut down its money-making adult services section. Backpage's escort and body-rubs section brings in millions in revenue each month, according to a 2013 report
by an advertising consultant company, the AIM Group. Backpage "has succeeded Craigslist as the nation's leading publisher of online prostitution advertising," the report said.
(Earlier this summer, Visa, American Express and MasterCard all cut their ties with the website.
) Calls and emails to representatives of Backpage were not returned.
To understand how endemic the Internet is to the world of prostitution, consider the website "The Erotic Review," or TER. It has been around so long, there are johns who make it their business to go see escort after escort, then review them on TER. They call themselves "hobbyists," and they post explicit descriptions of the services others can expect from a girl, whether the girl has a bad attitude or whether she's posted a picture that makes her look better than she does in person. Attempts to reach TER have been unsuccessful.
Pimps who once exploited girls by making them walk the track can now troll the Internet for girls who are going it alone, sometimes luring them into escort services with an offer of higher salaries, payment to cover the cost of their ads and an apartment where they can rendezvous with their clients.
That means that for the 14-year-old girl from an impoverished area who is just getting started and doesn't understand what she's getting into, "a pimp will come along and say, 'Instead of you staying out there in the wind or the cold, I'll put you in a warm apartment and you'll make a lot,' " says a seasoned law enforcement officer and former vice and narcotics detective. "Anyone who runs an escort agency and gets a cut from your profit prostituting, they're pimping."
As prostitution has moved indoors and underground, the community is less likely to see it on the streets and complain to police. So there's less involvement by police, who are driven to respond by the community's complaints.
That's bad for the young victims, the officer says, as well as for the community because the sexual exploitation of underage youth remains a booming business. He worries that while demand remains strong, too many young girls -- and some boys -- are lured into prostitution out of view of the public and police and without understanding the consequences.
"The biggest impact is on the girls themselves," he says. "It has a psychological, moral impact on a girl, and she doesn't realize what she's sacrificing. A lot of these girls become drug addicts. This is happening all over Atlanta. After 10 years, if you survive the diseases, a potential criminal record, and the psychological toil, you suddenly realize you have no education or marketable skills.
"Once you lose your looks, you're back in the same place you started in. Any time you take a productive young person out of the mainstream of society and point her toward a criminal enterprise, which prostitution is, that's never good."
She said that while she is hopeful about the new laws, the growing awareness and the numbers of people and organizations fighting against child prostitution, she worries there's a "flavor of the month" aspect; that child prostitution is a "topic that's in style."
"If this is a shallow issue for people, it will dissipate when the next issue comes along," she said. Fifteen years ago, I wrote that Hickson "looks into the eyes of children who have been prostituted and she sees nothing. No hope. No dreams. No more childhood."
Like that 10-year-old girl.
Some years after that child had stood before Hickson, the former judge got word about what had happened to her and her older sister.
For a while, they were in the care of the Department of Family and Children Services because of their mother's ongoing drug addiction. But at some point, their mother got into a drug treatment program and eventually the girls went home.
"It was touch and go," Hickson said. "But last I heard, they were in school."
In the meantime, Hickson and a number of others remain committed to rescuing young girls and boys from the destruction of sexual exploitation. Top of their agenda now is to ensure that voters support the $5,000 annual fee on strip clubs in next year's referendum.
"We have to remain vigilant because the adult entertainment industry has deep pockets," Hickson said. "This is long-term work. There has to be a level of commitment."