A runaway teen in Georgia who makes her way to Atlanta has a day, maybe two, before someone tries to turn her into a prostitute.
For many teens—without food or shelter and often already the victim of sexual abuse—selling their bodies seems like the only way to get a meal.
“For a lot of our kids, it’s survival sex,” said Nancy Chandler, CEO of the Georgia Center for Child Advocacy. “You want a meal? Well, this is what you’ve got to do for it.”
Stopping that cycle is difficult—some 400 girls are commercially sexually exploited each month in Georgia, according to the Governor’s Office of Children and Families. The vast majority, Chandler said, have been abused in their homes and ran away to escape the abuse.
A search for solutions is what a conference Thursday at Kennesaw State University is all about. It gathers child-welfare advocates, law enforcement and medical professionals for what organizers said is a call to action on behalf of abused children.
“The first part of a call is really for people to recognize what’s going on,” said Chandler, who is vice chairman of the group organizing the gathering. “I think people don’t really understand the issue. ‘That sure can’t be my kid that’s out there.’ It’s always that it’s somebody else’s child.
“Our point is to raise the awareness around how this kind of stuff gets into kids heads,” she said. “The images and what kids are seeing on the Internet, what kids are seeing in stores—our kids are being sexualized as such an early, early age.”
Chandler said turning the tide is a combined issue of law enforcement and social services.
“We’ve got to protect kids in their homes. We’ve got to intervene early. And we’ve got to convince the people who are buying sex that they’re going to get arrested,” she said
Chandler pointed to awareness campaigns like “Georgia’s Not Buying It” from the state attorney general’s office as one effort to reduce that demand.
But she said it’s also “people understanding that these kids are not willing victims. They’re not doing this because, hey, they think this is a great life. They’re doing this in order to survive.”
Chandler said adults have to “take the blinders off” and talk about the problem.
“It is real. It is happening every single day,” she said. “One in 10 kids is going to be sexually assaulted before the age of 18 by someone in a trusting relationship. One in 10 kids. That’s fact.
“We have to talk about it. We have to get the words out. We don’t live in the Victorian age anymore. We really have to talk about what’s for real.”