By Nancy A. Boxill, Deborah J. Richardson and D. Scott Weimer

On June 11, 2000, an op-ed by then-Chief Judge of Fulton County Juvenile Court Nina R. Hickson, “An Epidemic of Tragic Proportions,” was published on these pages. That op-ed was a first step in shedding light on a tragedy happening in our own backyards — the commercial sexual exploitation of children across our county and state. 

Since then, thanks to the work of advocates throughout Georgia, progress has been made toward ending the sexual exploitation of children in the form of policy change, increased funding for systems of care, increased law enforcement engagement and heightened public awareness.

Despite these gains, a decade later the “epidemic of tragic proportions” persists. Research by the Shapiro Group, funded by the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, proves that the “scope” if not the incidence of the problem is growing. Why?

In Georgia — in February 2010 — through coercion, abuse and imprisonment, nearly 500 adolescent girls were victims of commercial sexual exploitation in hotels, escort services, online and in the streets, up from 250 in August 2007.

Viable solutions to any problem come from accurate representation of the problem. And that is where metro Atlanta finds itself today.

Perhaps we have been looking at this from the wrong angle.

Rather than continuing to focus on the girls who have been victimized, it is time to shift the conversation to what and who is sustaining this growing business market.

The tragic epidemic of the commercial sexual exploitation of our children doesn’t plague Georgia alone. As many as 300,000 American children — particularly girls — are at risk for being victimized by prostitution each year in our neighborhoods, through escort services and online.

We all have a role to play in building stronger barriers to prevent the purchase of our children for sex.

The business community is an important partner and should do more to help.

It’s been recently reported the online site Craigslist is expected to bring in $40 million in revenues from its “Adult Services” section, which includes ads for underage girls. Craigslist is enjoying large profits by allowing criminals to publish children for sale and by providing commercial offenders an easy path to buy them.

Where is the outrage?

The site serves up more than 20 billion page views per month, with over 49.4 million unique monthly visitors in the United States alone. Craigslist visitors and the public at large need to voice their concern and urge Craigslist to do more to protect our children.

While “johns” are anonymously buying sex from minors who are trafficked by adults in a virtual world, transactions with children are blatantly playing out in front of our own eyes in the real world. A study also conducted by the Schapiro Group interviewed 20 employees in major hotels in Atlanta during November and December 2008. The results showed widespread awareness and acknowledgement of prostitution occurring in major hotels and of the involvement of distinctly “younger” females.

Hotels must take action. Hotel staff members have to be trained on easy and acceptable corporate policies to report incidents of sex solicitation in their hotels, particularly when they believe that a minor is involved. Similarly, hotel management needs to stress that reporting such activity is expected. Hotel guests can also be made more alert by receiving information on warning signs and where to call to alert authorities — just by adding this information to their hotel key cards. Sofitel Hotel in Rio de Janeiro is commended for putting this tactic into practice.

Airlines must also take notice. There is encouraging activity among a group of concerned flight attendants who train their peers to recognize signs of a sex-trafficked minor on board. This type of training should be replicated by flight attendant unions and airline management.

Businesses are not the only ones that have to make a shift.

Campaigns like Mothers Against Drunk Driving changed society for the better by turning drunk driving into an unacceptable behavior carrying harsh penalties.

The time is now to make a societal shift to create a zero tolerance zone for buying sex from a minor across our counties, states and country. This can be done through an aggressive public awareness effort, by exposing and targeting both the pimps and johns, and shifting public will from concern to outrage.

So let the men who fuel the demand and the businesses that make it too easy to buy our children be warned: The spotlight is now on you.

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