ATLANTA (CNS) — The girls Keisha Head mentors today remind her of herself 15 or 20 years ago.
They are from the margins: runaways from tough family circumstances, truant from school or on probation from the Fulton County Juvenile Court for one offense or another.
And all are potential targets of predators looking to commercially exploit them, selling them on the street for sex.
Head, 32, is a volunteer and former program associate for the Voices Project at youthSpark, an initiative that assists at-risk teens. She helps the girls understand they can avoid the same mistakes she made as a teenager.
Most of the girls are from inner-city neighborhoods; many are from single-parent families. Usually they have been to court repeatedly and come to youthSpark via the Georgia Care Connection, which identifies commercially sexually exploited children and links them to services.
“We try to provide those resources and to also lift them up and not judge them off of their behavior,” Head explained. “We look at them in a light that is positive and to help them look at themselves in a positive light. Through that they are able to change their behavior because someone believes in them and someone supports them.”
The Voices Project is just one program in metropolitan Atlanta's wide-ranging, coordinated effort to combat the commercial sexual exploitation of children. It is an effort that finds child advocates, social service providers, judges, law enforcement authorities, faith communities and government agencies coming together to unravel the web of sex trafficking that entangles 200 to 500 girls in Georgia monthly, according to the Governor's Office for Children and Families.
Head is a credible resource for the girls. She once was sexually exploited herself, being forced to solicit sex for a year. Homeless and a new mother at 16, Head was one of several young women victimized by a man who is serving a 30-year prison term.
“We have to tell the girls if you have sex for anything, it's a form of prostitution, whether it's getting your nails done or getting a meal,” Head said in an interview with Catholic News Service. “That is an eye opener for most of our girls because we live in a society that almost teaches our girls to use their sexuality as a means to get what they need and what they want. We have to undo that mentality and break it down to the basics.”
Head knows how easy it is to fall into the trap. Sexually and verbally abused throughout much of her childhood and in and out of foster homes and group homes beginning at age 12, Head said she is not afraid to reveal her past in the hope of changing the behavior of teenagers today.
It was at 16, homeless and vulnerable with no one to turn to, that Head met her perpetrator, Charles Pipkins. It turned out that Pipkins — known as “Sir Charles” and now in prison — was trafficking young women and pocketing thousands of dollars each night.
“At that time I was very naive, very quiet, very reserved” Head recalled. “I did not know what a pimp was. In my mind I had the Hollywood version of what a pimp looked like, this guy with fancy clothes. I didn't know they come in all types.”
Pipkins began working his charm and before long Head spilled her story to him, explaining how she gave up her infant daughter to her boyfriend's family and ran from a group home with no place to go.
“He told me that I was beautiful and I didn't have to be homeless,” she said. “He knew a way I could provide for myself. I didn't even know what prostitution was until it was introduced to me. He didn't say, 'I want you to be a prostitute.' He was very clever.”
At first, Pipkins had Head dancing at a strip club, but that lasted just a few days because of her age. Pipkins then dressed her in high heels and a new dress and took her to a street corner where he told her what he expected her to do.
“He told me a rule book of what I needed to do to make money,” Head said. “I remember saying to myself, 'No, I can't. I'm not going to do that. That's nasty.' He looked me in the eye and said, 'Oh, you'll do it. You know that little girl (her daughter) you introduced me to? I'll make sure something happens to her. And I'll make sure something happens to you.'”
Pipkins set her quota at $1,000 a night.
“I got out of the car,” she said. “I remember I couldn't even walk in the heels because I had never worn heels before. I remember standing there. I stood on this corner for about two hours and the police pulled up to me and shined this bright light and said, 'Hey, what are you doing out here?' I was like, 'I'm waiting for a ride.' He said, 'You don't belong out here. You belong on Peachtree Street where the pretty girls are.'
“That was the first time that I realized it was not only acceptable in my community where I grew up, but it was acceptable in my society to be bought and sold and be viewed as livestock … and nothing is wrong with that.”
Head spent about a year in Pipkins' grasp before fleeing. In a public service announcement produced for a Voices Project sister program, Head explained how during that time she was beaten, raped repeatedly, had a gun held to her head and was thrown from a speeding car. She said Pipkins branded her with his name on her back as if she were his property.
Even after escaping Head faced severe challenges and later served a three-year jail sentence for activities she wishes she would have avoided. But life behind bars made a difference, Head said, and in 2010 she joined youthSpark. It was, she explained, a way to give back to the community.
Today, Head is raising her daughter, a high achieving high school student, providing the care and support she did not receive as a child.
And, thanks to her newfound faith in God, Head has no fear that predators will seek to harm her for exposing the shadowy world of the commercial sexual exploitation of children.
“I know my raising awareness can upset a lot of people,” she told CNS. “I do feel I'm spiritually guarded by anything that could come against me. If it happens, then hey.”
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— By Dennis Sadowski Catholic News Service
For more information on Head's experience, go online at www.youth-spark.org/category/a-future-not-a-past.