ATLANTA (WOMENSENEWS)--She was in first grade when her stepfather started rubbing his genitals to her hand, warning her not to tell her mother.
"It would hurt her if she found out that I love you more," he said.
At 14, she was on the streets of Atlanta with a 22-year-old boyfriend and a bad attitude, expelled from 11 elementary schools and five high schools. When Sharon Saffold-Harris heard other adults talking about her, they always seemed to be betting against her.
"I did not like or trust adults," said Saffold-Harris, now 34, the author of a women's self-help book, "Cake and Combat Boots," and a motivational speaker.
Her rough start echoes that of hundreds of other young women in Atlanta and many other big cities across the country.
Abused by adults, troubled, they run away from home and into the arms of an older man. He offers them a home and showers them with clothing and attention. They're thrilled, until the day the man takes them aside and orders them to have sex with a stranger.
"When you can't beat it, you learn to join it," said Saffold-Harris.
129 Girls Prostituted
More girls under the age of 18 are prostituted in Georgia on a typical weekend night than are killed in car accidents in the state in an entire year: 129 versus 58, according to a statewide campaign called "A Future. Not A Past." The campaign, a project of the Atlanta-based nonprofit Juvenile Justice Fund, formed in 2007 through a partnership between a private family foundation and the Atlanta Women's Foundation to stop the prostitution of children in Georgia.
Although Saffold-Harris was never a prostituted juvenile herself, she knew many girls who were sexually exploited and often speaks at the campaign's training programs to shed light on what life is like for girls on the street.
But getting a handle on the extent of the prostitution of juveniles is difficult.
Estimates of the number of juveniles involved in prostitution in the United States range from 100,000 to 3 million, according to a report prepared by cultural anthropologist Debra Boyer for the city of Seattle in June 2008.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services puts the number at 300,000, based on its estimates of runaways who become involved in prostitution.
"There is wide disparity between police reports, social service observations and global estimates," said Boyer. "Prostitution is illegal for all parties involved and is universally underreported. Given the surreptitious and clandestine nature in which prostitution is conducted, it is impossible to arrive at an exact number of prostituted youth."
Seeking Better Estimates
A Future. Not A Past wanted to get a better estimate of girls on the street, so it funded independent researchers to track how many adolescent girls are being hawked. The research was based on scientific probability measures and estimates of the age of prostitutes, using methods similar to those used by scientists to determine the population of endangered species.
The number of young victims has been increasing since 2007, according to that research.
An estimated 374 juveniles were being commercially sexually exploited in August 2009 in Georgia, up from 251 in 2007 and 361 in 2008, according to Danielle E. Ruedt, public health programs coordinator for the Governor's Office for Children and Families, which took over funding of the research from the campaign.
Numbers for the street, hotels and escort services have remained flat, but "the Internet number is going through the roof," said Kaffie McCullough, campaign director of A Future. Not A Past.
Internet ads promising "young girls," "barely legal" females and other code words for underage females got a much higher response from potential customers than other ads, the campaign's researchers found.
While applauding the decision of Craigslist, an online provider of information about goods and services for sale, to eliminate its "erotic services" category, McCullough noted that many ads pimping girls have moved to other Web sites.
Among the warning signs that a child may be a victim of commercial sexual exploitation:
Inappropriate dress, overly sexy clothing, poor personal hygiene.
Has large amounts of money, angry, aggressive, clinically depressed, withdrawn.
Diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease, target of rumors about sexual activity.
Older boyfriend, male friend or relative or older female friend.
Runaway or throwaway child, without adult supervision or support.
Sexual abuse at home, with a history of interventions by children's services.
Hangs out, or arrested, in or around an area known to be a gathering place for prostitution.
Behind in school, truant, chronically absent, low functioning or developmentally delayed.
Sleeping in class, behavior issues in school.
In the juvenile court system.
Georgians who know of a child being prostituted or abused are urged to call the Dear John/Human Trafficking Hotline at 404-379-3602.
"Death will come sooner than later," said Saffold-Scott. "We've got to help them rediscover their dreams by any means we have."
Editor's note: The second part of this story details an innovative program to divert girls and teens out of "the life."
Diane Loupe is a freelance writer and mother of two teenagers in Decatur, Ga.
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A Future. Not A Past.
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