ATLANTA (WOMENSENEWS)--Working with prostituted girls can be very difficult.
Just ask Sharon Saffold-Scott, an author and motivational speaker who was sexually exploited as a girl. She wasn't ever prostituted, but she knew girls who were.
"They might have bad attitudes, they may push you away," said Saffold-Scott. "I didn't want to be around me. I felt that my life was a series of tragic events that I didn't choose. These girls don't trust police and don't know who to call for help."
Kaffie McCullough, program director of a statewide campaign to stop the prostitution of children in Georgia, agrees. "They're not your soft and cuddly victims."
The campaign McCullough leads, "A Future. Not A Past," was formed in 2007 as a project of the Atlanta-based nonprofit Juvenile Justice Fund, a private family foundation and the Atlanta Women's Foundation.
One of the campaign's major activities was forging a coalition of women's rights activists to lobby for a government program that would throw prostituted girls a lifeline instead of into a jail cell.
The fruit of that effort is the Georgia Care Coordination treatment program. It was launched on July 1 with $991,000 in support this year from the federal welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
Refuge and Rehabilitation
"Right now, police all over the state are locking these girls up in hot Southern jails and they're being criminalized instead of getting the treatment they need," said Stephanie Davis, policy advisor on women's issues to the Atlanta mayor. "We finally have the resources to put into place services, refuge and rehabilitation for these kids instead of treating them like little criminals."
So far, eight girls have been enrolled in the program.
"We anticipate that will continue to grow," said Jennifer E. Bennecke, executive director of the Governor's Office of Children and Families.
Intending to mend what can often be a fractured approach, Georgia Care Coordination brings city and state agencies and service providers into the same room to develop unified case plans, said Bennecke.
Angela's House and Wellspring, two residential facilities for victims of sexual exploitation that are among only a handful of such facilities in the country, are at the table. Both are in metro Atlanta, but their exact locations are not publicized for the security of the victims.
Long-Term Treatment Plan
Girls who stay at these facilities get physical, psychological and educational assistance, along with mental health therapy. Staff members develop a treatment plan and referrals for longer-term care and services.
The girls live in a nurturing, family-like home, sharing a bedroom with another girl. They participate in yoga classes, work with horses, try West African drumming and learn about journalism through writing workshops with a local teen newspaper. Accredited schooling helps enable the girls to resume classes at grade level when they leave.
Case-planning sessions also include experts and officials representing mental health, law enforcement, the court system and the Division of Family and Children Services, the primary state agency investigating child abuse.
"The child and family are in the room and are an integral part of making the case plan," said Bennecke. "They are an active voice in making that plan for themselves."
One major advantage of this approach is that it gets a juvenile's birth family involved.
"Eventually, the girl is going to go back to her family and one of the things in system of care is that we take care of the needs of whole family, not just the child," said Bennecke.
The program also trains professional groups, such as emergency room personnel, law enforcement and school resource officers, about identifying the signs of juveniles who have been exploited or might be exploited.
More States Needed
McCullough, director of "A Future. Not A Past," hopes Georgia's program spreads beyond the state's borders. "Pimps and traffickers don't recognize boundaries of states, so if Georgia gets tough they may take the girls to South Carolina, Florida, Alabama or Tennessee," she said.
"A Future. Not A Past" got off the ground with a million-dollar grant from the Harold and Kayrita Anderson Family Foundation, given in part because Georgia-native Kayrita Anderson was horrified at news stories about prostituted girls.
"We had to face the fact that if we kept funding only victims' services there would always be more victims to serve," Anderson told Women's eNews.
"A Future. Not A Past" helped pass a state law this year that expands the definition of child abuse to include those who are exploited by someone other than a parent or caretaker.
And Atlanta police and courts have gotten tough with pimps in recent months:
In July, a 32-year-old Atlanta man was given a maximum sentence of 20 years for pandering and pimping a 14-year-old.
In June, a 26-year-old Atlanta man was sentenced to 10 years for pimping his 16-year-old cousin. Testimony in the case indicates the man may have been pimping teens for up to four years.
In April, a man and woman were indicted on federal charges for pimping a 17-year-old girl in a hotel in Buckhead, an upscale section of Atlanta. The couple allegedly traveled to Atlanta because of the city's high demand for female teens, according to "A Future. Not A Past."
Diane Loupe is a freelance writer and mother of two teenagers in Decatur, Ga.
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A Future. Not A Past