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Tuesday, March 9, 2010 - 10:11am

Prostituted Children: Victims or Criminals?

The Senate Judiciary Committee temporarily tabled a bill Monday that addresses child prostitution. Committee leaders said they need to hear more testimony from juvenile court judges who adjudicate child prostitution cases.

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 criminal, or a victim? That's the question lawmakers are considering in SB 304.

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 said 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 explained. After what the staff member described looked like an exchange of money, the girl got into the car and rode off.

The intersection where North Avenue meets Peachtree Street is a busy, commercial center by day. But it's one of hundreds of street corners in Atlanta listed on a 2005 report as a spot for child sex trafficking.

The study was commissioned by then-mayor Shirley Franklin. With help from his congregation and other leaders in Atlanta's faith community, Weimer founded a group called StreetGRACE. It works to rehabilitate victims of commercial sexual exploitation.

But prostitution is a crime in Georgia. So, how should police and judges treat a child prostitute who's breaking the law, but is also a victim of sexual exploitation? They are looking to lawmakers for guidance.

Senator Renee Unterman (R-Buford) says a prostituted child is a victim first and foremost. "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. In the words of one advocate, "a three-year-old can be charged with prostitution in Georgia." 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 and healthcare.

"It does no good to recognize you have a problem and say we’re not going to do anything about it," said Unterman. "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. 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, in Shaefer's words, "the act of prostitution cannot be ignored."

She believes 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 -- and the vast majority are not -- she’s a child, and that choice is an indication that something is way wrong for that child," said McCullough.

That’s why advocates like McCullough want more rehabilitation than punishment. 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.