It was a sea of black and purple in every direction on the steps of the state capitol Tuesday morning. An estimated 800 people showed up to join in the third annual “lobby day” event to raise their voices — and overall awareness—about the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) in Georgia.
“When we first started this we were told that 10 people showing up at the state capitol was a groundswell; now we’re rocking it,” says CSEC activist Cheryl DeLuca Johnson. “The first time we did this we had 50 people come out; then the next year we had 100. Last year it was about 500. It’s great to see people of all ages and races all come together for one purpose.”
Supporters, mostly from local churches and community organizations, wore black shirts and the purple scarves that were handed out for the event co-hosted by non-profit organizations
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Alex Trouteaud of The Shapiro Group, were among the dignitaries who addressed the crowd before, everyone was directed inside. Once there, supporters were encouraged to sign form letters expressing their concerns about the issue that included their contact information. The forms were delivered to their respective state representatives and senators.
“It’s been a great day,” says DeLuca Johnson, executive director of Street GRACE. “The first year we had one or two legislators come out and address us. Today we wondered if the stage would hold them all.”
Some attendees observed legislators on the floor and also spoke with lawmakers directly about their concerns.
“We take single white roses to the elected officials at the state capitol and ask them to do something to protect our children from being exploited,” explains Street GRACE Strategy and Volunteer Coordinator Amy Walters.
It is estimated that 375 girls are sexually exploited in Georgia each month, with the majority of the illegal incidents occurring in Atlanta. In that same time frame, about 7,200 men knowingly or unknowingly purchase sex from teen girls in the state.
Here’s what some supporters had to say about lobby day and CSEC.
Carolyn Bales, Tucker Georgia
“There’s nothing more precious than our children and it just breaks my heart to see people take advantage of them like this. I hope to draw attention to this issue, especially to people who are not involved. We need lawmakers to know that we care about this issue so that we may get all the help we can to punish the people who are doing this to our young people.”
Sue Landrum Rother, Chamblee
“I am here today because I want to make a difference. We must leave a legacy for our children for their futures. I want to help change their future, because they are the next generation. They’re going to be our future leaders. I also want to let them know that they are loved by the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Katrena Holmes, Riverdale
“Last year I attended the premiere of The Candy Shop film about this issue at the Fox Theatre. That movie was about the power of one in ending child sexual exploitation. I decided that I wanted to make a difference on this issue so that’s why I came out to Lobby Day. It has been a very eye-opening experience because I am not a very political person. This has been a very good experience because any type of movement begins with awareness. If people don’t know about it then they can’t mobilize and make a difference. This was an important way let people know about the problem and that we all can get involved.”
Teresa Royall, Lawrenceville
“I have heard about the issue for a while and my heart is breaking for the kids who are being sexually exploited. This is a great day because I felt like I could do something tangible to help laws get passed to prosecute these people. I hope to send a message to legislators to pass legislation that will help to prosecute these people who are doing this to our children.”
Beth Ann Williams, Dacula
“I work for the Georgia Baptist Convention in the women’s area and we have adopted this issue for the next four years; through 2013. My job is to let our 3,600 Georgia Baptist churches know how they can be a part of the solution. Both prevention and mentoring are critical. We’ve got to work with kids to keep them from falling prey to those who don’t have their best interest at heart.”
Robert White, Executive Director Georgia Baptist Convention
“Some people told me that they’d left from their church at 3am to be on time today. That let’s you know how important this issue is. I appreciate the hundreds of folks over Georgia who came out for the event. It is inconceivable to me that people take advantage of our children like this. We’re here to influence legislators. The only way to curb this issue is prevention with our kids and strong legislation for the perpetrators of these crimes on our children. The General Assembly needs to impose stiffer laws. It’s important for all of us to be involved. A lot people have told me that this was the first time that they’ve been involved in something like this. It’s important for people to get out and let their voices be heard.”
Esther Grissom, Southwest Atlanta
Shirley Fomby, Southwest Atlanta
Aaronde Creighton, Street GRACE Volunteer
“The turnout was great, especially for a cold overcast day. I got involved in this issue because I have two daughters ages 6 and 9. While I am active in their lives, a lot of children don’t have active parents. They need to have a voice and someone to fight for them too. The victims of CSEC often come from broken homes; they need more advocacy. My wife and I have been mentors for years. I think the first step is awareness. There are a lot of people who are not aware of this issue and some are aware but ignoring it. We are here to support the rights of the victims. “
Cheryl DeLuca Johnson, Executive Director Street GRACE
“We are so thrilled by the turnout. It’s great to see because all of this was done on a grass roots level. To see so many people come out in rainy weather with MARTA breaking down is so inspiring. We’re here to let lawmakers know that this is going on in Georgia and that we don’t want it to. We’re trying to send a message to lawmakers to prosecute the perpetrators. We’re sending a message to the community that the sexual exploitation of children is wrong and Georgia needs to get off the list. We know that 300 to 400 children being raped for profit each month in Georgia is too many."
Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Atlanta Magazine and Fox 5 News in Atlanta.