By Michael Jacobs |mjacobs@atljewishtimes.com

Four years after Georgia greatly increased the penalties for adults who traffic in children for sex, Sen. Renee

Sen. Renee Unterman

Unterman is leading a drive with Jewish support to protect the children forced into the sex trade.

“No child wakes up at 6 or 7 years old and says, ‘I want to be a prostitute,’ ” said Unterman, a Buford Republican. But prosecutors too often believe that underage sex workers should be treated as criminals and sent into the juvenile justice system, which she said does more harm than good.

S.B. 8, which she filed before this month’s start of the General Assembly session, would correct that situation and ensure that child sex slaves are treated as victims and given the psychiatric and other services they need.

The bill also would create the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund and an associated commission to pay for those services, extend the statute of limitations for sexual abusers until their victims reach age 23 or 25 (depending on the abuse), ensure that the victims have time as adults to sue their abusers, and incorporate guidelines from the new federal Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act.

With the support of Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, the General Assembly enacted legislation in 2011 to overhaul the laws on sex crimes, increasing the prison sentences and fines for the pimps and providing the option of an affirmative defense for the child sex workers, who Unterman said are brainwashed, abused and coerced and don’t know why they’re in the sex trade.

This year’s legislation would set up a comprehensive system of care for those abused children. A companion measure, S.R. 7, would give the state’s voters a chance to pass a constitutional amendment to fund that system of care through asset forfeitures that could not be diverted to other uses.

Unterman has worked to overhaul Georgia’s laws on sex trafficking since 2009 when leaders of North Avenue Presbyterian Church showed her that children were being sold on the streets right outside the church. She went before the Senate’s Republican caucus, all men other than her, and said: “I’m going to investigate this. I’m going to talk about 50-year-old men having sex with 12- to 15-year-old girls.”

When Unterman decided to promote her legislation with a candlelight vigil in mid-December, North Avenue Presbyterian was the natural choice for the location.

A natural choice for one of the night’s speakers was Rabbi David Spinrad, the newest rabbi at The Temple. Not only was his predecessor, Rabbi Rachel Bregman, the first Jewish leader to contact Unterman about the fight against human trafficking, but Rabbi Spinrad also had taken up the fight against modern versions of slavery before moving to Atlanta in June 2013.

“I think it’s a big issue of our time,” said Rabbi Spinrad, who uses biblical texts on his Chocolate Moses website (chocolatemoses.org) to explain seven reasons Jews have a responsibility to fight modern slavery, from the creation of all people in G-d’s image to the protection of free will for all workers.

The Temple started an initiative against sex trafficking after its senior rabbi, Peter Berg, spoke about the problem in Atlanta during a High Holidays sermon in 2012, Rabbi Spinrad said.

That initiative has included hosting an anti-sex-trafficking seder, an event The Temple will repeat this year; packing up nonperishable food for schoolchildren to make them less vulnerable to predators; and creating a coalition of synagogues to attack the problem together.

The distance between The Temple and the dozens of congregations scattered around metro Atlanta makes such a coalition difficult, but Rabbi Spinrad said Ahavath Achim Synagogue has been a strong partner in part because it’s so close in Buckhead. He also cited the involvement of Temple Sinai, Congregation Shearith Israel and Temple Kol Emeth, among others.

Unterman said she has had huge turnouts for panel discussions at The Temple and AA and has spoken almost every year at Federation, which has lobbied for anti-sex-trafficking measures.

“The rabbis have been fabulous,” she said. “They grasp it and are ready to take the ball and take it through the goal line, which is passing legislation like this.”

The Unterman legislation fits a national drive by Hadassah and the National Council of Jewish Women to get Jews to speak out against human trafficking. The two organizations held a day of action against human trafficking Jan. 13.

“We look forward to our work ahead in the states to pass legislation recognizing trafficked children as victims, not criminals,” NCJW President Nancy Kaufman said in a statement.

“The Jewish community has been kind of late to the table, but they have now made a commitment,” Unterman said.

The Temple is participating in a special lobbying day Feb. 12 at the state Capitol and was scheduled to hold a training session for that effort Jan. 22.

Unterman said about 50 people altogether attended the anti-sex-trafficking lobbying day in 2010, but the turnout rose to 800 last year. The senator said she expects 1,000 people this year.

“There wouldn’t seem to be opposition” to the Unterman legislation, Rabbi Spinrad said, but “we don’t take it for granted. We need to make sure everybody sees how important this is.”

Unterman said such support is important because too many legislators think her bill would increase teenage prostitution by offering protection from prosecution.