ATLANTA -- It's America's dark secret, and we want to shed light on it to help bring it to an end. The sexual exploitation of our children is rampant across the country and right here in Atlanta. It may be happening in your community.
We spent several nights on the streets in Metro Atlanta. We went to communities to the north, to the south and in between. What we witnessed was unbelievable and happening all around us. Children being bought and traded for sex.
"I started off prostituting at age 11," said one young woman who did not want to be identified. She asked us to call her 'Beautiful.'
Beautiful, like so many young women and men who are lured into prostitution, ran away from home.
"I met this guy, and he swore it could be a better life for me!" Beautiful told us.
It was a life of hell.
"I ended up sleeping with one of his friends. I didn't know it was for money in the beginning but after one friend become two friends and two friends became five friends and five friends became," Beautiful trails off, lost in thought.
She was trapped in a life of prostitution and stayed in it for 6 years until she managed to escape.
"This is a problem that is not reported, that the average people don't see, and when they hear about it, they are so disgusted. It's so distasteful they couldn't possibly think it's true. But it's true," said Ernie Allen with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
"They can find 500 girls on the streets in Atlanta in any one given evening," Lisa Williams, with Living Water for Girls, told us when we sat down with her to discuss the problem. She found 'Beautiful' and helped get her off the streets.
"Before Miss Lisa Williams, I didn't really receive help," Beautiful said, her eyes welling up as she relayed what had happened to her.
She was traded from pimp to pimp and kept in hotel rooms while men were paraded through.
"You just feel filthy that these men are doing this to you," she said.
When she was 14, 'Beautiful' got into a car with a John and she thought her life would end.
"He held a screwdriver to my neck and basically raped me," she told us.
Every once in a while some girls are rescued. In June the FBI conducted a sweep across the nation including one in Gwinnett County where 3 juveniles, held in hotel rooms, were pulled to safety and 5 Johns were arrested. It was part of an ongoing sweep called the Innocence Lost National Initiative, which so far has resulted in more than 1000 convictions.
Changes in Georgia law now treat the woman forced into prostitution as victims and changes have also been made to beef up the laws to help prosecutors go after human traffickers with tougher penalties.
"For Atlanta SVU we've always treated these children as victims," said Sgt. Ernest Britton with the Atlanta Police Department's Special Victims Unit and Child Exploitation.
"They keep a lot of the underaged off the streets out of view because they know if we know about it, we'll be able to shut them down quickly," he said.
We witnessed it. We were tipped off to a location in North Atlanta about what appeared to be a legitimate business. We watched men pull up as very young girls were paraded out to their cars.
We've since reported what we saw to authorities.
"If they do not produce per se a certain amount of money, they risk being beaten," Sgt. Britton said.
"I've been beaten; I've been pistol whipped by pimps. Bottom line I didn't make quota," said 'Beautiful. As she talked, she began to tell us more and more graphic detail about her horrible experiences.
"I feel like I'm a survivor because I lived to tell my story," she said.
She's now working on getting a college education.
Fortunately, Atlanta has been making great strides in offering assistance. There are now many advocacy groups like Living Water for Girls and others who rescue young prostitutes from the streets and who work to help the FBI track known locations where kids are being sold.
"They are demanding our attention, they are our children and these are our daughters," said Williams who encourages young women and boys to escape and seek help.
Websites for agencies that offer assistance:
Living Water for Girls
Street GRACE in Atlanta
Project Safe Childhood
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
Princess Night Solomon House (Rescue Shelter) 404-941-6024
If you see suspicious activity involving, children call Crime Stoppers 404-577-TIPS (8477)