WALKING INTO THE YOUTHSPARK offices for the first time can feel a bit like stepping through the back of C.S. Lewis’s enchanted wardrobe into Narnia. First, you have to get through security at the Fulton County Juvenile Court, then travel up a couple floors on the elevator, and then proceed down an impressively dreary hallway, passing fluorescent-lit rooms with clinical-looking labels on the doors—until you reach the very end, where you are instantly flooded with warmth, color, and light.
It is evident how much thought and care went into creating this atmosphere of welcome and safe harbor, even within a building associated with court dates and bureaucracy. Founded in 2000, the nonprofit is strategically positioned directly in the path of the 5,000 young people, ages 12 and up, who pass through the juvenile court’s doors every year.
Every little detail in this office is aimed at helping young people and their families feel comfortable enough to share their pain and push forward in hope.
The centerpiece of the youth center is a brightly colored, sun-filled area that youthSpark Executive Director Jennifer Swain calls “the Opportunity Room.”
“This is where the magic happens,” she said.
In the middle of the Opportunity Room lies a spiral rug, which is where youthSpark’s case manager and Voices program manager, Dorsey Jones, often sits in a circle with the teens who come through the doors, gives them a big hug, and then shares honestly and openly about what happened to her as a girl, earning their trust and showing them that there’s hope on the other side of this process.
Now 48 years old, Jones has survived a lot. She endured extreme neglect and hunger from the time she was an infant. And on top of not having food, the home where Jones lived with her mother and other siblings didn’t have electricity or running water consistently.
When she was just 11 years old, Jones was first offered money or food in exchange for her body. This abuse continued until she was almost 18 years old. Even when the surrounding community saw and knew what was happening to her, Jones said, no one intervened.
The unrelenting shame and hurt she carried inside gnawed at her, even as various outside life factors began to improve. She enrolled at Morris Brown College, where she excelled in her studies and earned a degree in criminal justice. She began a career as a probation officer for Fulton County. But still, she hadn’t told anyone about her trauma.
“I didn’t want anyone to know what I had been through,” she said.
As a probation officer, she saw a lot of cases of young girls in the system and began to connect their stories with her own. It dawned on her that, as painful as her childhood had been, perhaps her experience might benefit others. “A lot of the kids that come through the doors, they looked just like I did at that age,” she said.
At one point, a judge told Jones to refer a young girl, who was about to be sentenced, over to youthSpark. That was the first time Jones and Swain had the opportunity for an in-depth conversation, and it was a pivotal moment for Jones, who decided to divulge what had happened to her, saying she had been a “prostitute” starting at age 11.
“(Swain) said, ‘Dorsey, you were not a prostitute. You were a little kid, and they took advantage of you,’” Jones said. “At that moment, I was able to breathe.”
A report published by the FBI in 2005 cited Atlanta as among “14 cities with the highest incidence of prostituted children,” though that fact still remains hidden to large portions of the population.
Executive Director Jennifer Swain said before she started working with the organization, she had never quite known the gravity of Atlanta’s trafficking crisis, despite experience as a volunteer for other youth-focused nonprofits.
– Jennifer Swain
Year-round, youthSpark leads a multitude of trainings for law enforcement personnel, social workers, teachers, and faith communities—anyone who might be in a position to intervene on behalf of a vulnerable child but may not recognize warning signs or red flags.
“Trafficking happens in every culture, in every community,” said Swain. “It just looks different. No one is exempt. Some people, yes, are in more vulnerable situations than others, but if your kid goes to the mall, leaves your sight to go to school—has a computer—your kid is vulnerable. Every kid.”
Swain says she sees cases come in from all areas of Atlanta—from some of the poorest neighborhoods in Fulton County to some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in areas like Sandy Springs and Alpharetta.
In her work with faith communities, particularly churches, Swain said she encourages the notion of welcoming kids just as they are and listening to them, and creating space for them. “I want the church to recognize the power that they have in educating and mobilizing,” she said. Whatever doctrine you believe in, “this is not an issue about sex at all. It’s an issue about kids and adults, about power and control.”
Sometimes fighting trafficking can feel like an uphill battle. As Swain explains, to prevent and address the exploitation of minors requires unraveling cultural norms like misogyny and unpacking and defusing messages about women’s bodies that are pervasive not just in Atlanta but throughout American culture.
On its website, the organization discourages use of the term “prostitution” when it comes to child trafficking, due to the word’s “negative connotations that tend to blame the victim, such as implying the person made a bad choice, or purposefully chose to be in the life.”
There is a glimmer of hope on the horizon for Atlanta, especially as awareness about trafficking grows. In 2018, Atlanta was one of three cities (along with Chicago and Minneapolis) selected to participate in Pathways to Freedom, an “anti-trafficking challenge to develop citywide approaches to better prevent human trafficking and support survivors.”
As they press onward, Swain and her team make time to celebrate the seemingly small successes that are actually huge breakthroughs—like a truant kid who has gone to school for three whole days in a row.
And of course, some of the wins are “big,” like legislative milestones the organization has pushed for, such as the mandatory reporter law in 2008, or a passed bill that holds buyers accountable, or the safe harbor law, which means not charging kids under 18 as criminals.
It’s rewarding but exhausting work, and through it all, Swain encourages her staff to recognize and honor that there will be times when it’s too much, when they’ll feel angry or sad. Part of her role as director is to let her staff allow themselves to feel whatever they’re feeling, and take a break and walk away from whatever’s going on when necessary.
“I try to show gratitude for my team and really put them in positions to see them grow and share,” Swain said. “I think that’s what feeds us here. When we can change the system, because of the work.”