In her role as counselor and mentor for young girls, Keisha Head is poised, polished and polite.
But she need only look in the mirror to be reminded of a troubled past. The name of her former pimp, "Sir Charles," is literally branded across the top of her back in a dark, swirling script.
On a recent morning, the 31-year-old settled into a chair in a cheerfully decorated room at the Fulton County Juvenile Justice Center where she helps girls identified as being at risk for child sexual exploitation.
Head didn't wait for questions before letting her life story unspool. It is a story of hitting bottom -- hard -- but then lifting herself above her past to become a positive role model.
Born to a schizophrenic single mother, Head was sent to live with a family member at age 4. The new home was far from a safe haven, though. She was sexually abused for the next eight years by two older male relatives.
By the time she was 12, Head was acting out so much that she was sent back to her mom. The situation was untenable from the start, with her mother wandering the streets at all hours and being committed several times to a state mental hospital.
Child protective services intervened when Head stopped going to school and placed her in emergency children's shelter. For the next four years, she bounced among 42 foster or group homes. That is, when she wasn't trying to run away.
At 16, she got pregnant and was so ill-equipped for motherhood that she gave custody of her newborn daughter to the father.
"After that I was very brokenhearted," Head said. "I became very numb."
Head was suicidal, dirty and hungry when she turned to a friend for help. Her friend said "I know somebody who can help you."
That was the night she met "Sir Charles." He seemed well-dressed, considerate, nice.
He set her up in his house with seven other girls who welcomed her like the family she never had.
He also told her that if she wanted to take care of herself, she needed to strip at a nightclub where several other of the girls worked. But that job lasted only three days before Sir Charles gave her a new task: prostitution.
He took her to Stewart Avenue (now Metropolitan Parkway) in downtown Atlanta and gave her a quota of $1,000 a night. If she didn't comply, Sir Charles threatened to harm her daughter.
For the next six months, she wore high heels and skimpy outfits as she worked the corner of 14th Street and Crescent Avenue in Midtown, carefully following her pimp's rules to avoid violent beatings.
During that period, Head said she was raped 15 to 20 times. Once, she was forced to jump from a car traveling 60 mph to escape from a john who tried to kidnap her.
"I saw a lot of girls getting in cars, and you never saw them again," Head said. "I knew if I stayed on that track, I would die."
One day, after a particularly brutal rape, Head decided to walk away. She got on a bus and went to an extended stay hotel, where a former john paid for a room.
She was glad to be free of Sir Charles, but she was also broke. And so she returned to the only business she knew.
Head became a driver for an escort service, where she quickly learned the tricks of the trade. At 18, she used her knowledge to become a "madam" with her own escort business. Head was careful to make sure the girls she hired were also over 18. She didn't want to be another Sir Charles.
Business was booming by 2006, and Head, then 26, said she was "livin' life." Her clients included celebrities, and her $10,000-a-week salary bankrolled a lavish lifestyle that included nice cars, a beautiful home and exotic vacations.
Her world crashed down when Head's live-in boyfriend, a drug dealer, was arrested in DeKalb County. He and Head were both charged with trafficking in cocaine.
Head was sentenced to 20 years in prison. She served three behind bars and now looks at that time as a turning point.
"I allowed myself to heal," Head said. "I pulled off every label. I told myself I was not a prostitute or a convict, but a powerful woman."
After her release, Head was determined not to return to her old ways. She got a job as a bill collector, got her GED, and met a wonderful man. But she couldn't entirely turn her back on the past.
"Etched in my memory were the faces of the girls who got in cars and never came back," Head said. "No one ever looks for them."
She did some research online and found out about the Juvenile Justice Fund campaign "A Future. Not A Past" (AFNAP). The campaign is aimed at stopping child prostitution in Georgia.
Kaffie McCullough, executive director of AFNAP, soon got an email from Head, introducing herself as a survivor of child sexual exploitation and offering to help.
McCullough had hoped to find someone who could relate directly to the experiences of the girls that AFNAP helps -- and she found her in Head.
"Keisha holds the hope for these girls," said McCullough, who hired Head as an advocate and program associate. "Girls with this kind of trauma in their lives, it's hard for them to have hope that they can lead a normal life."
Now a married mother of three, Head is happier than at any other point in her life. She acts as a sort of spokesperson for AFNAP and leads group counseling sessions with a dozen or so girls who are referred to AFNAP through the Fulton County Juvenile Court.
Sir Charles -- real name Charles Pipkins -- was sentenced by a federal judge in 2002 to 40 years in prison for operating a child prostitution ring. The tattoo of his name across Head's back has become the symbol of a past that she is no longer ashamed of.
"I thought about getting it covered up," she said. "But I think it's something that could connect me to the girls, and it reminds me of how far I've come."
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