“You do not have to have a pimp to have sexual exploitation,” said Kirsten Widner, director of policy and advocacy at Emory University’s Barton Child Law and Policy Center. “Runaway and homeless youth are frequently involved in what we call ‘survival sex’…so they will exchange sex for food, for shelter, for some sense of safety or security.”
Widner’s presentation on commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) was just one of many child welfare topics discussed at the 2013 Georgia Youth Law Conference this week. The three-day event starting Monday, hosted by the Georgia Association of Counsel for Children, is sponsored by numerous agencies and organizations, including the Supreme Court of Georgia Committee on Justice for Children and the State Bar of Georgia Child Protection and Advocacy Section.
Widner, whose presentation served as the opening session of the conference, said that commercial, sexual exploitation of a child occurs any time an adult takes advantage of a minor’s vulnerability in exchange for sex. As a result, she said, “buyers” of commercial sex can be found guilty of sex trafficking just as easily as pimps under federal law.
“Both federal and state law recognize youth who are engaged in commercial sexual exploitation as victims of human trafficking,” she said. Compared to general human trafficking victims, she said that CSEC victims tend to usually be domestic as opposed to international; due to the underground nature of trafficking, in addition to underreporting of victims, she believes a total enumeration of CSEC victims in the nation to be a much larger number than currently estimated.
In the three years that the Georgia Care Connection Office (GCCO) has been in existence, Widner said that the upstart initiative has served more than 500 children, with about 150 being “clearly commercially exploited.” The typical CSEC victim in Georgia tends to be female, usually 15 or 16, she said, with homeless and runaway shelters reporting high percentages of LGBT youth that may be CSEC victims.
Many children that are commercially, sexually exploited may not “identify” as victims, she said, with some becoming involved in “relationships” with older, adult males that often serve as their pimps. About four-in-five CSEC victims have substance abuse issues, Widner added; some may end up “recruited” into commercial sexual exploitation by other CSEC victims, false advertisements for dancers or even Internet postings.
“Your best resource if you’ve identified a potential victim is the Georgia Care Connection Office,” she continued. “On most indicators of child welfare, Georgia is in the bottom 10 [but] on responding to commercial sexual exploitation, we’re actually one of the best in the country.”
The GCCO can help link up young people with assessments and peer support counselors, Widner said. “They are the referral connection for all of our appropriate services that are tailored for commercially sexually exploited children,” she said, “so they can get the residential facilities [and] they can get the trained counselors.”
Under Rule of Professional 1.6(b), she said that attorneys could potentially “break confidentiality” if it is necessary to “avoid or prevent harm or substantial financial loss to another as a result of client criminal conduct.”
“So if you’re confident that trafficking is going on, and if you don’t report the trafficking, it will continue,” she concluded, “I think you are allowed under the rules of professional conduct to make that report.”
The annual conference draws child welfare lawyers from all across the state, allowing specialists to interact and collaborate on legal issues. The key aspect of the annual conference, Dekalb County, Ga. public defender Linda Pace said, is “communication.”
“Bringing together attorneys who work with children, often the same children in different contexts, creates lines of communication,” she said. “And hopefully, collaboration that prepares us to act to benefit a particular child or our children as a group.”
The conference also drew attendees from the state’s highest court, as well as representatives of national child welfare law organizations.
Georgia Supreme Court Justice P. Harris Hines said that the core values of children are established very early on in their lives. “We know a lot of things affect children,” he said. “And we know [that] stressors harm children.”
While Justice Hines said that Georgia’s proposed juvenile code re-write “isn’t perfect,” he similarly does not want “perfect to be the adversary to good” when it comes passing new juvenile law statutes.
“I used to say Georgia is doing a good job and we’re getting there,” he said. Now, he thinks Georgia is “right at the top,” citing the presence of 40 National Association of Counsel for Children-certified child welfare law specialists in the state as an indication of system progression.
“Most things, we do now collaboratively,” he said. “But there are some things that just take courage.” In Georgia’s child welfare system, judges, he believes, are not the state’s “indispensable” figures. Rather, he believes that the state’s child welfare advocates are a more important component to improving the lives of children in Georgia’s welfare system.
“Those who look after children [are] the most noble I can possibly think of,” he said. “You are the ones that are truly ‘indispensable.’”
Georgia is a prime example of what can happen when child advocates come together, said Kendall Marlowe, executive director of the National Association of Counsel for Children. “The momentum for reform here is tremendous, and we really have to give credit to the legal community in Georgia for moving systems forward on behalf of kids.”
Nationally, there are currently more than 500 child welfare law specialists in more than 30 states, he said. The days of child welfare law being thought of as an “afterthought” or the domain of “second class proceedings,” he said, are now long gone.
“We all have an obligation to advocate for children,” he continued, “and not just do the right work, the right thing, for the individual cases that we’re involved in, but to move out and advocate for systems reform.”