Sunday Conversation with Jennifer Swain

Working to keep children out of sexual exploitation

The Sunday Conversation is edited for length and clarity. Writer Ann Hardie can be reached by email at

For more on youthSpark and lobby day at the Georgia Capitol on Feb. 12 to end the trafficking of children, go to

No one likes talking about the selling of children for sex. Not Jennifer Swain, interim executive director of youthSpark. Since 2000, the nonprofit, based at the Fulton County Juvenile Court, has been on the front lines of protecting mostly girls but lots of boys from sex traffickers.

“People are uncomfortable with the topic because it exists in the first place or because it breaks your heart,” Swain said. “It breaks my heart.”

But the collective voice of youthSpark, public officials, advocates and increasingly survivors themselves is being heard, resulting in new laws aimed at traffickers and programs for minors at risk. And Georgia, once known as a hotbed for the exploitation of children, is drawing attention for its efforts to protect them.

Q: What is the biggest misconception about minors who are trafficked?

A: That they should just run away from these situations. These are kids being exploited for the basic needs of life — food, shelter, clothing. About 80 to 90 percent of victims have a history of sexual abuse. Many girls who come to our intervention program through juvenile court believe that that 30-year-old man really loves them.

Q: Is that man a pimp or a customer?

A: We have to change our thinking about what a pimp looks like. If you are looking for a guy in the purple suit with purple gators, you are going to miss the mark. Today a pimp can look like a woman or the guy walking next to you going to work. It can be child abuse and neglect and poverty or a lack of community support or parental accountability. We have to be as equally passionate about disabling the demand for prostituted children as we are rescuing and restoring them to the life they were designed to have.

Q: Do those kids ever get back to that life?

A: Yes they can. We use the word victim a lot but those who come out on the other side are really survivors. We have seen girls integrate back into a homelike setting, go on to college, go on to become great moms. We have seen more survivors speaking out, empowering other survivors not to feel ashamed.

Q: Does the discomfort in talking about this issue make it hard to tackle?

A: Initially. Because it is more visible, it is getting easier.

Q: Why is Atlanta such a hub for the sex trafficking of minors?

A: Atlanta has an international airport and about 1,200 miles of interstate connecting us to other major cities. We have a high convention and tourism industry. Atlanta has an overly sexualized or highly glamorized adult entertainment industry.

Q: How is that connected?

A: While there isn’t a direct connection between the adult entertainment industry and the trafficking of children per se, at a high level, it really helps to desensitize how women are perceived as sexual objects.

Q: What do you want out of the Legislature this year?

A: We are going for a “Safe Harbor” law that says a minor can’t be charged with prostitution. We already have a law that expunges the records of minors charged with prostitution. It just makes sense that minors should not be charged in the first place.

Q: How did you get to youthSpark?

A: I ask myself that all the time. I was working in the engineering department airing shows for a television news station in Alabama. It was a cool job but I wanted to feel connected personally and emotionally to my work. I took a temporary administrative position at youthSpark and learned there is nothing else for me.