youthSpark was founded in 2000 as the Juvenile Justice Fund, an independent nonprofit organization with a focus on providing real solutions for vulnerable children and families affected by the court.
Over time, we've expanded our work to include policy advocacy and research, to lead change in the community. We also provide comprehensive wrap-around services to address trauma and vulnerabilities for girls, boys, and LGBTQ youth in our Center.
Today, we serve 150+ youth annually, ages 12 and over, with complex cases and needs each year with one mission in mind: to spark a bright future.
The youthSpark journey began as the Juvenile Justice Fund in the early 2000s when young girls repeatedly appeared before former Juvenile Court Judge Nina Hickson with prostitution charges, and were then treated like criminals. She and founding Executive Director Deborah Richardson, alongside other community leaders sparked Georgia's first response to sex child trafficking leading to community outcry and legislative changes.
We opened and operated the first safe house in the Southeast region of the United States – Angela's House – for girls ages 11-17 who were in need of critical services and a safe haven from the adults who exploited them. In 2010, youthSpark transitioned Angela's House to the full management of Youth Villages.
Led by former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, youthSpark (then the Juvenile Justice Fund), law enforcement, and others created the Dear John educational awareness campaign to bring the topic of sex trafficking to the forefront in the community. Shirley Franklin is the first Atlanta mayor to focus on this issue. The Dear John campaign is widely regarded as a historic step by a public official in fearlessly acknowledging the need for a comprehensive approach.
Through the launch of the first coordinated statewide awareness effort, our “A Future. Not a Past.” Campaign (AFNAP), youthSpark hosted Georgia's first Lobby Day at the State Capitol, successfully advocated for tougher laws, higher penalties and victim protections. After the successful passage of Senate Bill 69, we trained over 400 mandatory reporters across the state, in partnership with the Junior League of Atlanta and others, on exploitation as a reportable form of child abuse. During this time, begin developing our train-the-trainer program specifically geared towards law enforcement and community volunteers.
In 2009, we commissioned a nationwide count on victimized children. Shortly after, we commissioned research profiling buyers and the demand for child sex trafficking - The Georgia Demand Study. This initial research methodology and other components of our campaign were replicated nationally through the Women’s Funding Network. Other research studies commissioned over the years include our groundbreaking “Adolescent Males in Metro Atlanta and Their Buyers.”
By partnering with officers who routinely investigated these cases, we developed training and education which shifted law enforcement's response to identifying youth appropriately, disrupting practices that led to the adultification of exploited and trafficked minors, victim blaming, and targeting the real perpetrators through demand efforts. We trained 3400+ officers in 51 counties through 2011.
youthSpark shifted ourfocus to reaching potential victims as early as possible, creating Georgia'sfirst early intervention program in partnership with Juvenile Court. Our VoicesProgram still operates today for girls in need of community-based service inFulton County and we have since used this early intervention framework tocreate programs for boys and LGBTQ+ youth in our Center.
Through the support of our generous donors, we officially cut the ribbon on our Youth Services Center inside Fulton County Juvenile Court on the 2nd floor. The newly designed space allows us to serve more youth and offer basic care items, including toiletries, clothings, and more, through the boutique-style Dream Closet. The Center also provides access to food, computers, a small library, and a resource information wall. Specialized weekly group sessions are held in the Center's Opportunity Room, equipped with a state of the art interactive Smart Board, journaling and vision boarding supplies, karaoke machine!Take a virtual tour
In partnership with Georgia Equality, youthSpark launched the Court's very first training focusing on LGBTQ+ youth. Upon being accepted into Georgetown University's Center for Juvenile Justice Reform Fellowship program, we began to analyze and understand how we can create systemic change. Our four-year capstone project offers a roadmap for evidence-based policies and practices to cultivate a fair, inclusive, and respectful culture in the justice system. This includes a multi-year assessment of LGBTQ+ inclusivity and implementation of non-discrimination policies and trainings for court staff/partners, helping kids identify allies and safe-spaces, and community-based alternatives to incarceration.
Jennifer Swain is one of the driving forces of youthSpark. She oversees the organization and leads strategic development, administration, and services implementation at youthSpark. For almost 13 years, she has served in several executive capacities, including youthSpark’s Deputy Director, where she led the design and vision of the agency's early intervention model and the Youth Services Center.
She offers training and technical assistance to various groups to address proactive responses youth sexual exploitation, including presentations to local and national conferences on best practices and advocacy initiatives.
Jennifer is a founding member of the Georgia Statewide Trafficking Task Force—formerly serving as the Chair for the Keeping At-Risk Youth Safe work group. She routinely provides expert witness testimony in trafficking cases. In 2018, she was named the City of Atlanta's first "Amazing Atlantan" under Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms highlighting nonprofit leaders in Atlanta working to make a difference in the community.