Georgia Center for Opportunity’s mission to remove barriers to opportunity is greatly facilitated through partnerships with organizations engaged in dynamic work in the community. Over the month of May the Breakthrough Fellows and GCO team members have ventured out, meeting with non-profits that serve unique at-risk populations. On one such trip, we were fortunate to speak with Jenn McEwen about her work at Wellspring Living, an organization dedicated to sheltering and restoring victims of sex trafficking.
Tucked away just outside of Atlanta’s city limits, Wellspring’s secluded campus creates a warm environment for its residents. Close to one hundred minors and adult survivors participate in the Wellspring Living for Girls and Empowered Living for Women programs. Services through both programs range from intensive one-on-one therapy for Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (DMST) to job skills training. The women of Wellspring, who are almost all referred by the state-run organization Georgia Cares, generally stay up to eighteen months. However, additional time is provided where it is needed.
Our host, Ms. McEwen, noted that girls are often lured into the sex trade by pimps selling the fantasy of love, capitalizing on disruptive home lives, or through physical coercion. While many would still like to believe that sex trafficking is an issue confined to areas such as Southeast Asia, major American cities are now thriving hubs for illegal sex work and exploitation. Nationally, as many as 27 million people are victims of sexual exploitation, with a vast majority being children. In a town known for its glorified strip club culture, Atlanta’s underground sex industry generated more than $290 million in 2007. This figure is likely much higher now. More recent studies note that the average pimp in Atlanta makes over $30,000 a week.
In Georgia, much work remains to change policies that criminalize the victims of sex trafficking rather than the perpetrators who reinforce commercialized sex. Just last year, the city of Atlanta proposed to banish convicted prostitutes, pimps, and Johns, which would make it illegal for offenders to enter areas with high rates of prostitution. However, this city ordinance, referred to as Stay Out of Area-Prostitution (SOAP), was never successfully passed due concerns that such as measure would further disadvantage the exploited.
As prostitutes are arrested at higher and disproportionate rates to pimps and Johns, more intentional policies are needed that target both the supply and demand sides of sex trafficking. In San Francisco, CA and Knoxville, TN, convicted Johns are mandated to participate in classes that expose the truth about what happens to the exploited after services are rendered. These “John Schools”, as they are called, often include restorative justice elements where former sex workers run the one-day classes and share their stories.
One thing is for sure: more havens such as Wellspring Living are needed across the state of Georgia. Ms. McEwen shed light on the gaps in service and the resulting opportunities, both in policy and program delivery, that impact her work. Inter-agency collaborations and community partnerships remain an integral component to increasing the support available to the victims of sex trafficking. As family breakdown and limited access to quality education open the door for exploitation, we at GCO hope to establish a strong working relationship with Wellspring, creating new possibilities and better outcomes for victims.