By: Dr. Monica Henson
It seems so long ago that I was a stay-at-home mom in Lawrenceville, Georgia, in the late 1980s, pondering what seemed very far in the future my plans to resume my career in teaching when my children got into elementary school. I had already been bitten by the alternative education bug and knew that my work would be in that path one day. My friend Cheryl DeLuca-Johnson, also a stay-at-home mom in Suwanee, talked about pursuing her degree in counseling and going into a helping profession. We met when we made the decision to take a life-changing trip to Romania to adopt, drawn by the call we both felt (and still feel) to help save disenfranchised children. We sat up late at night in Bucharest talking about our dreams and professional plans. Meanwhile, Renee Unterman was making news as a young mom who had won the mayor’s race in Loganville and was launching a bid to serve on the Gwinnett County board of commissioners. Little did we know that our work would converge nearly thirty years later in the interest of helping some of the neediest children in Georgia, with child sex trafficking being the cause that brought us all together, Cheryl having launched Street Grace, I having opened Graduation Achievement Charter High School, and Renee’s attainment of her outstanding and distinguished career in the state legislature, most recently culminating in her sponsorship of Amendment 2, popularly known as the Safe Harbor Act.
Renee’s agenda has my full support. The Safe Harbor Act will permit the state to levy on adult entertainment businesses an annual tax of $5,000 or 1% of the gross revenue for the company – whichever is greater. The monies collected will fund services and rehabilitation of sex trafficking victims. An ancillary benefit of this amendment will be helping to curb the horrific practice of enslaving children and women and forcing them to have sex with strangers, sometimes hourly for days on end.The average life expectancy of a child trapped in sex trafficking is about seven years after entry.
Regarding the assertion that passage of Amendment 2 will “do nothing” to curb sex trafficking, the bills were supported by Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vernon Keenan, the Prosecuting Attorneys Council of Georgia, and Attorney General Sam Olens. Since the 1980s, law enforcement has understood that supporting victims of crimes is part of their mission of convicting offenders. Looking at the situation from that perspective, a victim who has been able to receive counseling is more likely to be able to testify effectively against his or her victimizer. These law enforcement professionals believe that providing for child victims is an important part of the fight against sex trafficking. Their opinion gives weight to the effort.
Another argument is that this amendment was not proposed with the promise of doing away with sex trafficking. Actually, yes, it will help prosecutors get convictions by ensuring that victims receive medical and psychological services, but that’s only part of the reason to support it. It is our duty as a state to protect the children who live in Georgia. When the state finds a child who has been exploited, we have a moral duty to ensure that the child gets the help she needs to have a future rather than to become yet another who discards her.
Many of the children who are exploited have come from unstable home situations, sometimes from the state foster care system. They will likely be in state custody, and while that is the case we owe it to them to provide them with medical and psychological treatment. Allowing psychological wounds to fester is no different than allowing a broken leg or arm to go untreated. As for the question of whether strip clubs ought to be taxed to help cover the costs of victim treatment and rehabilitation, testimony on this issue was presented to the committee working on the legislation. The General Assembly found that a correlation exists between adult live entertainment establishments and the sexual exploitation of children sufficient to justify the imposition of a fee on these businesses to help pay for the deleterious secondary effects of adult entertainment establishments.
The mechanism of funding these services through a constitutionally-dedicated source was chosen for two reasons. First, these child victims have no lobbyists and no voice – they can’t even vote yet – in the legislative process, and without an advocate for this funding, it would likely be redirected to other needs. Second, the General Assembly is notorious for taking fee money and using it for other purposes, like the tire disposal fee. Constitutionally mandating the purpose of these funds prevents the money from being used elsewhere through the appropriations process. Our children are too important to leave to the whims of politics. For all of these reasons, I support Amendment 2.
Dr. Monica Henson is superintendent and chief executive officer of Graduation Achievement Charter High School, a statewide blended-learning school serving nontraditional students, including rescued victims of child sex trafficking.