Like many of us, Genise Shelton was shocked to learn 10 young black girls were missing from their homes in our nation’s capital late last year and with the exception of a handful of local and black news outlets, their stories had been virtually ignored.
We now know that much in a viral Instagram post reporting those claims wasn’t completely accurate, but this much remains true: 36.7 percent of missing people under 17 are black, according to the nonprofit Black & Missing Foundation.
That alone was enough to move Shelton, but knowing that missing children are often the victims of sex trafficking and that the kind of mainstream media coverage that follows the disappearance of white women in U.S. is often missing when it comes to black and brown girls was particularly disheartening.
“Black and brown kids can go missing in this country and are treated as an afterthought,” Shelton said. “As the mother of six black children, there was no way to let that happen on my watch and not do something.”
And so within days of hearing the news out of D.C., Shelton was marshaling every resource at her disposal on behalf of the children she believed were being ignored.
The Cobb County mom, perhaps best known as the wife of Atlanta internist Courtney Shelton from the popular reality TV series “Married to Medicine,” is a successful real estate broker and pro bikini fitness competitor.
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She reached out to the Black & Missing Foundation and in June traveled to Maryland to support the foundation’s Hope Without Boundaries’ 5K Walk/Run to do what she could to help raise awareness about missing children.
If you’re wondering why that’s important, here’s something to consider: The fewer people know a kid’s missing, the greater the chances she won’t be found, and there’s nothing to deter child predators from grabbing even more children.
“A lot of time, we wait until it hits home to act, but I had to ask myself why wasn’t anything being done to prevent this horror from happening,” Shelton said.
In July, just one month after returning home, Shelton launched Our Children’s Keeper, a nonprofit which seeks to help parents search and recover their children lost to human trafficking. But that wasn’t all. She also planned to host prevention seminars four times a year in cities like Atlanta, where the crime is most likely to occur.
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In August, OCK hosted its first event — Bring Our Children Home 5K and Family Fun Day — to both raise funds and awareness about sex trafficking. The event attracted dozens of law enforcement officials, community leaders, therapists, psychologists and district attorneys who participated in panel discussions about how to search for and recover missing children.
Shelton will begin the new year with the first of a series of teen summits she plans to host quarterly in cities hit hardest by sex trafficking. The summits, scheduled to kick off Jan. 21 at the Jon’Ric Salon and Spa and The Cave Luxury Barber Spa in downtown Atlanta, will target 25 youths who are in need of positive reinforcement and information to keep them safe. Kids can sign up for a spot at no cost or a sponsor can purchase a spot for $50.
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Atlanta has long been the No. 1 hub for human trafficking in the U.S. In October, 60 people were arrested and four children were recovered in Georgia during an FBI-led operation that focused on child sex trafficking.
Nationally, 120 suspected traffickers were arrested and 84 minors were recovered.
According to the FBI, the youngest victim recovered during this year’s operation was 3 months old, and the average age of victims recovered was 15.
There’s still a lot Shelton doesn’t understand about trafficking, but she thinks she understands how easily teens fall prey.
“Looking for love in all the wrong places,” she said. “It could’ve easily been me.”
Shelton grew up in a “very dysfunctional” family. Her father, a drug addict, was absent from her life. Her mother, with whom she butted heads, struggled to make ends meet. Some nights, she went to bed hungry.
“I never felt loved by either parent,” she said.
With her grandmother’s help, Shelton managed to stay focused on what mattered, and after graduating from high school, she headed to Olivet College, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in mass communication and theater arts.
By age 21, she was married with a son, but the union didn’t even last a year.
In 2001, she moved to Atlanta, where she met Courtney Shelton. They were married on July 11, 2009.
Watching him with their daughter was the first glimpse of the love she always longed for but never had as a child growing up on the South Side of Chicago.
It’s the kind of love she imagines teens are in search of when they’re duped into trafficking, hoping someone will utter those three little words — I love you — and mean them.
“I know what that feels like,” she said. “I can totally empathize.”
Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at email@example.com.
TEEN SUMMIT EMPOWERMENT SERIES
11 a.m.-6 p.m. Jan. 21. Free to registered youths or $50 to sponsor a child. Jon’Ric Salon and Spa and The Cave Luxury Barber Spa, 200 Peachtree St., Atlanta. www.ourchildrenskeeper.org.