Until this year, I believed that I had seen or heard about most of the horrible injustices that befall our children. But recently, I received a rude awakening to the shocking reality of just how pervasive and real the sexual trafficking and exploitation of young children is right here in Georgia.
Every year, as a part of LoveLoud at First Baptist of Woodstock, my Sunday school class supports Living Water for Girls, a wonderful organization that is a safe house for young girls who have been rescued from the sex trafficking trade.
The executive director, Lisa Williams, is a phenomenal Christian woman that has devoted her life to rescuing and restoring children from being sold as a sexual commodity. As our class was working on a project at Living Water for Girls this year, Lisa received a truly disturbing phone call asking her to take in a child that had just been rescued from sex trafficking in another part of Georgia.
As I heard this story, my heart just sank as the child in question was only 7 years old, the age of my youngest child. At such a tender age, this innocent child had become a sexual and commercial object and had been forced into engaging in sexual activities with adults. This eye-opening call further reinforced a harsh reality for me: Child sex trafficking and sexual exploitation of young children is a real problem, not just in other places, but right here where we live.
According to data collected by the Georgia Governor’s Office for Children and Families, 100 girls under the age of 18 are raped for profit on a typical day in Georgia.
There are over 495 girls exploited in metro Atlanta per month. Surprisingly, 45 percent of child sexual exploitation begins online. And to make matters worse, the average age of a child first used in prostitution is 11 to 14, with some as young as 9.
Incredibly, Atlanta ranks in the top three cities in the United States for sexual trafficking of minors and we live in one of the top regions in the world for child sexual exploitation. Further, according to the Georgia Demand Study performed by the Schapiro Group in 2000, the largest concentration of men seeking to pay for sex with teenage females in Georgia is in the north metro Atlanta area. As a prosecutor, these statistics are troubling. But as a parent, this reality is horrifying.
The Blue Ridge Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office has prosecuted numerous individuals for sexual exploitation and victimization of children. In my experience, predators typically target vulnerable children, particularly those experiencing trouble at home, and make promises to these children of giving them a better life all with the true intentions of using them to gain money.
It is common for defendants to first seek out their victims on the Internet and then later appear at their homes either announced or unannounced. And according to a 2010 article in the Journal of Adolescent Health, 65 percent of online sex offenders used their victim’s social networking site to gain home and school information about their victim.
These statistics, however, beg the question of how many perpetrators remain at large and have simply not yet been caught. For this reason, as parents, neighbors and professionals who work with children, we simply cannot afford to remain uninformed about this crime and its impact on Cherokee County and Georgia.
Knowing these horrendous facts, what can you do to help protect your children? First and foremost, be engaged. Know what your children are doing on the Internet — including through the use of home computers, tablets, and smartphones.
Learn for yourself what sites are out there and popular with children.Technology that provides us access to the Internet is both a blessing and a curse. There are real dangers awaiting children on social media and in chat rooms.
It’s important to watch your children, monitor their screen time and to talk to them about the dangers of communicating with strangers who can hide behind the anonymity of modern technology.
It seems that there are new social networking options popping up daily. Trust that while you may be unfamiliar with these sites, your children are likely well-aware of them and well-versed in using them.
It’s more important than ever to communicate with your children. Share the dangers of sexual exploitation with your children and encourage them to talk to you about issues and concerns they are having. Know where your children are at all times. Know their friends and the adults in their friends’ lives.
And finally, trust your gut. If something doesn’t seem right, ask questions.
As we enter into this holiday season giving thanks for our children, we should recognize that while there is no way to shelter our children from all of the dangers of this world, our best defense against exposure to predators, especially those lurking on the Internet, is by staying informed and remaining a part of our kids’ daily activities.
We must do all we can to protect our children and their innocence because the stakes are too high for us to fail.
Shannon Wallace is the district attorney of the Blue Ridge Judicial Circuit. She graduated cum laude from the University of Georgia School of Law in 2002. She and her husband, Kyle, and their two children live in the Towne Lake community.