ROSWELL, Ga. – In “The Music Man,” Professor Harold Hill trumps up trouble in River City to promote subscriptions in his boys’ band. But a group of concerned citizens met to discuss real trouble in North Fulton, and it is no con job.
The trouble in North Fulton and all over Atlanta is that of human trafficking – the sexual exploitation of children and young adults. At a panel discussion of experts Aug. 28 at the DoubleTree Hotel in Roswell, more than 200 people came to listen and to be part of the solution.
David McCleary, a board member of the Rotary Club of Roswell, arranged the meeting in Roswell that featured state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, Joel Thornton, chief of staff for state School Superintendent John D. Barge, Street Grace Executive Director Amy Walters and Judge Bill Riley, a former Atlanta Magistrate Court judge and city attorney for several cities including Johns Creek.
The panel told the audience in frank terms that the sexual exploitation of children starts in the homes of North Fulton. Most – but not all – are teenage and preteen girls.
“If you don’t think it is happening here, you don’t understand the problem,” said Riley, a judge and former prosecutor of child molesters. “It’s as real as it can be.”
Riley said he joined this movement to fight human trafficking because he is “tired of seeing broken lives.”
“The only way is to break the cycle. The first step is to tell the high schools what is going on,” Riley said.
Most often, it begins with running away, he said. They flee sexual or physical abuse at home and wind up on the streets of Atlanta. There they are soon scooped up in a net of practiced predators.
“Who are they? They are your neighbors’ children. Or they are from Fayetteville, or Ellijay or Dothan, Ala.,” he said. “They come to Atlanta with no money, no skills and they’re 16 years old. They are sold into prostitution and they didn’t have a choice.”
Soon, they have been turned into streetwalkers by pimps and are kept working seven days a week, barely kept alive and motivated only by fear, intimidation and drugs.
“The prostitutes I saw in my court were victims, not criminals,” Riley said. “They are on the street and they are in pain. Fifty-four percent of them are HIV positive.”
Thornton, representing State School Superintendent Barge, said the Department of Education is working to get a program set up in schools that will educate teachers to be alert and cognizant of the behavioral signs.
Georgia Public Television is working with the Department of Education to create documentaries on the problem that break the course down into six five-minute segments.
“They tell how to avoid risk, and how to talk about it if something happens,” Thornton said. “These are our kids. We owe it to them to stop it now.”
Unterman said she has been advocating for children in the Senate since 2007. In the beginning, she found it to be a Good Old Boys Club that did not even want to entertain a discussion about it.
“The first time I got up to speak about trafficking, they walked out,” she said.
But Unterman kept talking about it, and eventually, legislators began to listen. Stiffer penalties for pimping were enacted, and more legislation is on the way.
But it takes a grassroots effort to be effective, Unterman said. That is where nonprofit organizations can be crucial. Churches such as 12Stone Church, based out of Lawrenceville, have become active in the issue and established an interfaith movement to help young people caught in the web of trafficking.
Young people are more exposed today to predators with the host of media outlets – Internet, Facebook and Twitter for example.
Amy Walters at Street Grace works every day with girls trying to take back their lives from the streets. She said men need to get involved in this movement.
“This is a male-demanded product. It will be solved when men stand up and say, no more,” Walters said.
Everyone can get involved as trainers who go into schools and talk to the teachers. They can talk to civic groups and explain the warning signs, the “secret slang” of girls who have fallen “into the life.”
State Rep. Harry Geisinger, R-Roswell, who was also in attendance, said support for anti-trafficking laws is there in the legislature.
“I’ve signed up to do presentations, because it is a good thing to do. People don’t want to admit this goes on their county, but it does. I agree with Sue [Unterman] that the best way to attack it is through a grassroots movement.”
McCleary is convinced that by creating a working model of combating human trafficking in Atlanta, that it could be used as a template all over the world.
“Rotary took on the eradication of polio as a worldwide goal, and has about accomplished that,” he said. “Rotary can do this because it is nonpolitical and has chapters all over the world. This is the largest Rotary district in all of Rotary, and Roswell Rotary is the largest club.
“If we can make it happen here, I am sure we could get Rotary International to take this globally. This could be Rotary’s next polio [crusade],” McCleary said.
Roswell Councilmen Rich Dippolito and Jerry Orlans were among those in attendance, and agreed trafficking was a huge problem that no one likes to talk about.
“It’s time to start talking about this and providing a solution,” Dippolito said. “This is about our children.”