Georgia to vote on millions for sexually exploited children

State Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, is asking Georgia voters to approve a new fund to bankroll services for children who have been victims of sex traffickers.
State Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, is asking Georgia voters to approve a new fund to bankroll services for children who have been victims of sex traffickers. Maggie Lee

On her desk at the Capitol in Atlanta, state Sen. Renee Unterman has a stack of purple-and-white fliers to hand out. They ask Georgians to vote this fall to set up a “Safe Harbor” fund for services to help heal sexually exploited children.

Every year, hundreds of Georgia children, some as young as 9, are lured to run away, or they’re brainwashed. They’re pimped, sold for sex.

“People in the rural areas they say, ‘It doesn’t happen here.’ (But) it happens any place you got the internet. You got chat rooms and kids run away from home. Or they make an acquaintance in the chat rooms, and they get picked up,” she said.

And it happens wherever you have a lot of potential buyers passing through, she said. Like say, on the big highways through Macon.

So, the Buford Republican wrote the legislation that is putting a question in front of all Georgia voters this fall: Should strip clubs and people convicted of sex trafficking-related charges pay into a fund to help children who have been sexually exploited?

If Georgia voters approve, people convicted of things like pimping would pay a new $2,500 fine, above whatever a court may fine them. And strip clubs would pay a fee of either $5,000 or 1 percent of their annual revenue, whichever is greater.

Those collections would be worth about $2 million for services for children who have been extracted from the sex trade.

“A lot of it is 24/7 watchful oversight,” said Unterman. “A lot of them are suicidal. These are kids that have basically been brainwashed, they’re under the control of a pimp … it costs a lot of money and a lot of time. You’re talking about psychologists, psychiatrists, counselors, social workers if they’re in foster care.” And it costs about $80,000 a year.

That new cash would come on top of state funds that already pay for things like foster care for the children.

Unterman’s bill had some opposition in the Legislature. She convinced most fellow lawmakers there is a link between strip clubs and child sex trafficking that makes it fair and legal to charge this fee to the venues.

But the opponents, mostly libertarian-leaning Republicans, objected to charging law-abiding strip clubs. They asked why strip clubs should be targeted and not other venues that sex traffickers might use: massage parlors, truck stops, hotels and, most especially, websites.

Unterman said she has a good reason for targeting strip clubs: they promote sex and they promote the buying and selling of sex, she said.

“Why shouldn’t they help pay for the restorative services of children” who have been sold into sex, said Unterman.

Jill Chambers is the executive director of the Georgia chapter of the Association of Club Executives. The trade group for adult entertainment owners has 16 member clubs — mostly famous and flashy Atlanta venues.

Her clubs, which are a tiny portion of the state total, take part in annual training from federal law enforcement about how to identify suspected sex trafficking.

For example, if a girl comes in to audition without an ID but with a man who speaks for her, that’s a red flag.

“Our Georgia ACE members do not tolerate criminal behavior in our facilities. We’re very proactive on that,” she said.

Prodded for an opinion on the fairness of the ballot question, Chambers demurred. She said generally sex trafficking occurs on the internet. Her member clubs, she said, “are just interested in running their businesses right now.”

Unterman has worked on child sex trafficking issues for years. She said she’s seen a change of mind in the Capitol. Many there used to see children not as victims, but as criminals who should be prosecuted for prostitution, she said.

The state senator said she’s going to keep working on the issue, and she wants Georgia to attack the demand side and get tougher on buyers, johns.

As for the question of the fund for victims, early voting begins Oct. 17. The final day to vote is Election Day, Nov. 8.

Maggie Lee: @maggie_a_lee