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Week of 5.30.08

Transcript: Fighting Child Prostitution

BRANCACCIO: Former NY governor Elliot Spitzer made 2008 the year of the prostitute with all that media roar about the sorry and lurid details. At least Spitzer's women were adults. If you stop and take a serious look at prostitution, among the serious public policy issues that hits you right across the face is this: law enforcement sources say that across America tens of thousands of children are involved in prostitution. But one city is trying to do something. Senior correspondent Maria Hinojosa and producer Kathleen Hughes have our report from Atlanta.

SAFFOLD: If you were to stop and ask any young person over here if they know any teenaged prostitutes...they would tell you yeah. They would tell you, yeah.

HINOJOSA: Sharon Saffold is a successful writer and speaker who lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

SAFFOLD: How you doing?

Girl: Good, how you doing?

SAFFOLD: I'm doing well.

HINOJOSA: To look at her you'd never know she once navigated these streets as a homeless kid. Today she's out in Atlanta's neighborhoods talking to teenagers about one of the city's biggest problems.

SAFFOLD: Hey, my name is Sharon.

HINOJOSA: It doesn't take her long to find young people, very young people, who know what she's talking about.

SAFFOLD: How many other women do you know that actually have, young girls do you know that have actually prostituted themselves out for money?

Girl 1: Um, I would say at least five to six.

SAFFOLD: What are your ages?

Girl 2: Sixteen

Girl 3: And I'm sixteen

SAFFOLD: Two sixteen year olds. Do you know any teenagers?

Girls: Yes.

SAFFOLD: That are prostituting?

Girl 3: We know a couple of them

SAFFOLD: You know couple of them

Girl 2: Yes

SAFFOLD: So do you think there are a lot of teenagers prostituted

Girl 3: Yeah, she actually got a price on there. To do this, it's ten dollars. I was like no...

SAFFOLD: How old is the young lady with a price list?

Girl 3: She's fifteen.

Girl 2: Yeah, fifteen

SAFFOLD: She's fifteen?

HINOJOSA: The FBI says Atlanta has become a center for child prostitution...one of 25 American cities where the problem seems to be spinning out of control.

SAFFOLD: Bring me into the mind of a fifteen year old that would prostitute herself out.

Girl 1: Abuse, mother doing drugs. Father in jail. Being abused by her boyfriend, older brother selling drugs. It's just crazy.

HINOJOSA: In recent years the number of children bought and sold inside the U.S. has been growing steadily with little notice. Though it's hard to pin down, nationwide, it's estimated as many as 300,000 kids are at risk every day—on the streets, through escort services and, increasingly, through the internet.

FRANKLIN: When you buy sex from our kids, you hurt them, you hurt our families, and you hurt our city.

HINOJOSA: This is Atlanta's mayor, Shirley Franklin. About two years ago she commissioned this ad campaigns, promising to get tough on any adult buying sex from a minor.

ACTOR: I like 'em young...you know, pre-teen. And Atlanta? It's a great place to buy young girls.

HINOJOSA: The spots which ran for several weeks were meant to be shocking.

ACTRESS: I'm twelve years old. Twelve years old.

HINOJOSA: Why prostitution? Why was that the issue that you said, "This is what I want to tackle"?

FRANKLIN: Well, frankly, no one else was talking about it. It's one of those issues that doesn't get discussed.

HINOJOSA: This sounds like it should be happening in far, far, far away countries.

FRANKLIN: Well it is happening in Atlanta. It's 10 or 11 years old, and the age is getting lower. We're not talking about 17 and 18 and 19 year olds, although we could.

HINOJOSA: Mayor Franklin has pushed state and local law enforcement to throw the book at adult offenders. And she's backing initiatives to better protect children caught up in prostitution.
But spend time with people close to the problem and you quickly learn that the obstacles facing the nation's most outspoken mayor are many.

SAFFOLD: I commend our mayor because she's doing something. But she's going to need a whole lot of help, she's going to need a whole lot of help.

HINOJOSA: This fast growing city is home to some of the hip hop's biggest stars, as well as the Atlanta Braves and CNN. There's also a booming adult entertainment industry: Strip clubs, escort services and massage parlors that range from the upscale to the seedy. Sharon Saffold knows the seedy side all too well.

SAFFOLD: I know there are teenagers out here who are prostituting themselves. And I know this is a big haven for it and I know that Johns know if they come here they can find what they are looking for.

HINOJOSA: By the time Sharon was fourteen she'd been molested by a step father and kicked out onto to the streets by her mother ...along the way she, joined a gang, sold drugs and dated a pimp.

SAFFOLD: This is the book my sister and I co-authored ....

HINOJOSA: Saffold' story, how she survived and grew up to be a motivational speaker, is told in her three books. Recently she's also begun to speak out on the exploitation of children....

SAFFOLD: This is my Aunt Paulette, who's just a couple of years older than me. She's three years older than me...

HINOJOSA: As a teen Sharon watched as several of her closest relatives spiraled into prostitution. She introduced us to one of them, her aunt, Paulette Clark.
Who are the johns? Who are the johns that you saw, day in and day out?

CLARK: Family members, neighbors, pastors, tutors, teachers. It's anyone; you can put them in a hat and just draw -

HINOJOSA: Paulette started young...and continued on an off until just a few years ago...

CLARK: When you don't see the self worth in you....

HINOJOSA: She says the first time she was paid for sex, she was seven years old. It's not uncommon. Experts say the majority of women in the sex industry suffered sexual abuse at an early age, often at the hands of a close relative...

CLARK: Shhh....don't tell nobody. Nobody's to know.

HINOJOSA: Who was telling you?

CLARK: Who did this.

HINOJOSA: Who was telling you to be quiet?

CLARK: The uncle that I was being, you know, fondled by. You know it's like, Shhhhh, I'll give you some money. Come on out here, you know. So I grew up with the knowledge of knowing, don't tell nobody.

SAFFOLD: You've got to understand. These, these women, the majority of them have been molested before. So there is no sense of ownership to their bodies anymore.

HINOJOSA: Child abuse, poverty and neglect often coupled with some basic needs.

SAFFOLD: What's luring these women are things that you don't have to sleep with somebody to get, just a vehicle, nails, and a hair do, and a couple dollars in your pocket.

CLARK: if I could go back, you know just in magic and go back and somebody would have, you would have walked up to me and said "Why are you doing this?" And I could honestly, the honest factor would come out of my gut, I would probably say "Because I'm hurting inside."

HINOJOSA: What's behind us right now?

ADAMS: Right behind us is the bus station, Greyhound bus station. So actually a kid just running away from home my end up in this bus station and their introduction to Atlanta is, you know, the strip club directly across the street.

HINJOSA: Literally kitty-corner—

ADAMS: Yes

HINJOSA: is a big strip club—

ADAMS: Yeah, walking distance.

HINOJOSA: Alecia Adams has worked with dozens of children arrested for prostitution. Now she's with the Salvation Army, but for more than seven years, she worked as an advocate for children inside Atlanta's juvenile court system. Many were runaways, often kids fleeing from sexual abuse at home or in their neighborhoods.
In the courtroom Adams witnessed first hand how pimps brutalized and manipulated vulnerable children.

Talk to me, Alesia, about the first case that you saw in the court system. How old was that victim?

ADAMS: That child was what—12-years-old. We found her on the street naked. Well, law enforcement found her on the street naked. She had cocaine, marijuana and I think alcohol in her system...

HINOJOSA: Adams is talking about one of the children caught up in Atlanta's most infamous case. Back in 2001, the FBI and local police rounded up a gang of pimps accused of prostituting children.

ADAMS: Girls were coming into juvenile court and talking about the same pimp. The same pimps. And they had names that were branded on them, 'cause these are not tattoos. These are brands. Show ownership of the young person.

HINOJOSA: Fifteen pimps were tried under federal racketeering laws, prosecutors were able to prove that, like members of the mafia, the group was mapping out its activities in a conspiracy.

ADAMS: These guys spoke the same language. They treated the girls the same way. They moved them across state lines.

HINOJOSA: Interviews with two of the pimps were taped shortly after their convictions. This man who called himself 'Hollywood' turned state's witness and served five years. He ran teenage "prostitution parties" at an Atlanta hotel. Here he talks about how dangerous the life was for the girls.

HOLLYWOOD: You get out there at night and you risk getting in a car with a trick never knowing that this might be the last ride you ever take.

HINOJOSA: This pimp, known as Scooby transported teenagers as young as 13 across state lines: he also copped a plea and served six and a half years.

SCOOBY: Any kind of lifestyle where you have to approach a stranger and go off with that stranger, you could look for and expect anything and when I say anything, I mean anything. I've seen it all.

HINOJOSA: Shockingly it was the first time in nearly 30 years that any pimp had been put behind bars in Georgia.

ADAMS: We want to stop child prostitution....

HINOJOSA: The case woke people up to a startling reality: In Atlanta, prostituted children were going to jail while their pimps and johns ran free. The injustice, says Alesia Adams, had a lot to do with public attitudes.

ADAMS: Very few people see these children as victims. And they don't understand the—the victimization of this child and the dynamics of what has happened to her.

HINOJOSA: And people—and people who say, "Well, Alesia, this is a child who's running away. Has been in the system the whole time. Doesn't want help."

ADAMS: That's not true. That's not true that this child does not want help. Where do I go, who do I trust when every adult in my life has violated me. The only person that really cared about me was this pimp who came in who was so charming and suave and knew all—he could meet all of my needs. He told me I was beautiful.

HOLLYWOOD: Like all females that have dealt with me, I'm their man, their father, so my title is always daddy you know.

HINOJOSA: Publicity around the federal case fueled ongoing efforts by child advocates like Alesia Adams to create programs that would keep kids caught up in prostitution off the street and out of prison. In 2002 Atlanta opened a model program, the only safe house in the southeastern United States. It's called Angela's House.

ADAMS: It only has six beds.

HINOJOSA: Six beds?

ADAMS: Six beds.

HINOJOSA: And you're talking about—

ADAMS: Hundreds and thousands——of children who are being victimized through this.

HINOJOSA: The half million dollar a year program is run by the Juvenile Justice Fund and is largely paid for with private money. But in the six years since it was created Angela's House has been unable to expand.

ADAMS: To me if it's important you could have a hundred Angela's Houses and fill them immediately.

HINOJOSA: What needs to happen in order for that to take place?

ADAMS: Money. Money needs to happen.

HINOJOSA: Sgt. Earnest Britton runs the Atlanta police department's Child Exploitation Unit. He and the few officers who work here are attempting to treat children caught up in prostitution as victims, not criminals. But, Britton says, cops are often forced to charge a child with a crime just to get her off the street.

BRITTON: Now, what will normally happen is if we take them to a regular shelter, they just run out of that shelter. So that's another reason why some officers charge them with that charge, not because they wanna punish them, it's—there's no place we can place you. There's no one that will take you. And the detention center will only take you if we put this charge on.

ADAMS: As a society you're going to tell me that the only way we can protect these children is to lock them up in jail.

BRITTON: The system is not adequately designed to deal with this type problem.

HINOJOSA: What part of the system needs to change?

BRITTON: All of it.

HINOJOSA: It's a system in need of change that prompted this video.

JORDAN: What's the going rate for just sexual intercourse?

SHAY: Sixty, thirty...

JORDAN: Sixty? Thirty?

SHAY: Sixty, thirty...It's like-I don't know. Basically, If you are our there on the streets you are in need of money so you are going to go as low as they are going to offer you.

JORDAN: To try to get them off the street...

HINOJOSA: By day Judy Jordan is an employee for the Atlanta City Council. But she's been spending her nights interviewing children on the streets for a think tank called Stand Up Georgia.

JORDAN: You know this makes me feel really bad because I am not in a position to take these girls off the street.

HINOJOSA: She wants to use the tape to raise funds for an outreach program.
Jordan interviewed Shay, a runaway now 19, about the risks she took when she was just 14 years old.

SHAY: The majority of the time like the girls I hung out with they took chances like that. They took chances. Like, if the guy wanted to feel you raw, you know, then you can up the price—and go 'you need to give me a hundred dollars' this and that, it's to feel you raw, and—

JORDAN: And "to feel you raw" means?

SHAY: Without a condom.

JORDAN: the problem has just gotten so massive. I mean you really don't know how big it is until you actually go out there

HINOJOSA: Back in the neighborhood, even teens who aren't involved in prostitution know that the streets are far from the only place to find it.

Girl 2: On Facebook.

Girl 3: Moco Space

Girl 3: And Moco Space and a whole—- Friendster.

Girl 2: Friendster.

Girl 3: Black Planet. They're off the chain.

HINOJOSA: Like with just about every other business, nearly over night the internet has radically changed the dynamics of prostitution. It's not only making it easier, for young girls to turn tricks on their own but for pimps and johns to find them.

GIRL 1: There's a room you can go into for prostitution and you can click on a link that says "Pimp" and you send your picture, a picture of yourself to the person and if they want, if they want you, they'll give you information or details or later on that night, they come to your house and pick you up and you start working your job then.

HINOJOSA: It's a more efficient way to sell sex and it presents new problems for law enforcement in Atlanta and across the country.

FRANKLIN: What we know is that we have to monitor about 300 sites, about 300 sites on the Internet to really understand how the trade and- and the commerce occurs.

HINOJOSA: Take Craigslist, each day about 1000 people in Atlanta advertise in its "erotic services" section. The listings are explicit and often come with photos that we can't show on television. Experts tell us that there are certain phrases like "barely legal" signaling that the services involve underage children.

FRANKLIN: I wrote to Craig's List and I said, you know, "Our review of Craig's List suggest—that a lot of prostitution is taking place—over the—over the Internet and Craig's List is a primary source."

HINOJOSA: The mayor's letter of complaint to Craig's list made headlines. In response, the company posted a link to the Atlanta police department on the local erotic services portal page. The internet is just one aspect of the hypersexualized cultural landscape that modern kids, rich and poor, live in.

HINOJOSA: When the 2006 Academy Award for best song of the year went to one called: it's hard out here for a pimp. Adams nearly fell out of her chair.

ADAMS: Yeah. And I was outraged. So to say it's hard out here on a pimp? No, I—I don't think so. I definitely don't think so. It's not hard enough out here on a pimp.

HINOJOSA: She's not alone...Sharon Saffold believes the culture makes the sex trade seem glamorous to vulnerable children.

SAFFOLD: They see these women in nice cars with their hair done, with their nails done, and with guys, in their mind, just falling over them. Take a young lady with low self-esteem, and she's going to try to find a way to that path because she will think that will glorify her and make her a star.

HINOJOSA: Around Atlanta, the glamorization and availability of sex is a big underground selling point for the city's giant convention trade, which few seem willing to upset. So while adult entertainment generates millions in tax revenue each year. None of that money is channeled directly into the mayor's anti-child prostitution efforts. And the rest of Atlanta's business community? For the most part, it's demonstrated little interest in helping.

FRANKLIN: Dear John. You have been abusing our kids....

HINOJOSA: Even the mayor's ads, which were made and broadcast with the help of private donations won't be seen again until someone donates more cash or airtime.
And what about Mayor Franklin's promise to go after the johns who buy sex from children? She says the number of arrests has gone up. In 2007, 39 adults were arrested for soliciting sex from a minor up from 30 the year before. But so far it's been tough to prosecute them.

HINOJOSA: So we have statistics that say that under your state's tougher laws regarding johns, actually only one john has been prosecuted.

FRANKLIN: And that was a while ago. There's some arrest, it takes a long time.

HINOJOSA: You must feel like, as a mayor, you're swimming uphill here.

FRANKLIN: There are girls being prostituted in Atlanta. And shame on us if we are not loud and bold and willing to risk favor in order to correct that problem.

ADAMS: That's supposed to be a teen dance club there....

HINOJOSA: But the people closest to the problem are frustrated. They see young lives being wasted every day.

ADAMS: As much as we have done, we've done more than a lot of cities, to deal with this problem. But we are still woefully behind in safe places for children to go.

HINOJOSA: Two weeks ago, the Georgia state legislature voted to fund an assessment center, a place where law enforcement can bring sexually exploited children. It means seven more beds in the state. And while grateful, Alesia Adams says it's far from enough.

ADAMS: I'm extremely angry that for 10 years I've been talking about this and for 10 years this is as far as we've gotten.

HINOJOSA: Meanwhile, Sharon Saffold and her aunt Paulette Clark plan to continue speaking out

SAFFOLD: And so what I hope that Paulette's story does for people is that I hope that it gets people to actually pay attention to their neighborhood, because everybody wants to believe it's only happening in Atlanta. That's not true.

BRANCACCIO: Our story there focused on Atlanta, but there are other efforts around the country to combat the sex trade. Dozens of cities are rolling out so-called "john schools" where men detained for soliciting sex get counseling. Learn more about how these programs work and their impact on reducing prostitution. It's all on our website.

Before we get out of here, here's an important note. Public Television needs your support. My team here at "NOW" could not bring you the range and depth of stories we do without your contributions to your public television station...so please, if you can, give generously.

And that's it for NOW. I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week