N.Y. Struggles to Aid Child Prostitutes

Posted on request:

Bill Would Divert Girls to Social Programs; Opponents
Say Threat of Jail Is Needed
By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 13, 2008

NEW YORK — The girl is very slight, pretty, with
glasses, nervously fingering the blue and gold beads
on a bracelet she made herself.

She seems like a typical shy high school kid. Little
about her suggests the tortured story she tells: At 14
she ran away from sexual abuse at home and met a
24-year-old guy who seemed like he wanted to be her
boyfriend — until he told her he wanted to be her
pimp.

“I was like, wow,” recalled the girl, now 16, though
she looks younger. She was shocked, but desperate, she
said. “At the time I needed a place to sleep, so I was
like, ‘Fine, I’ll go along with it.’ ”

On and off for the next two years, she said, she
traded sex for cash, under the control of several
different men who took most of the money for
themselves. Her work as a child prostitute caused her
to be arrested in March and placed in detention.

“The whole thing makes me sick to my stomach,” said
the girl, who did not want her name to be used, like
several others who worked as prostitutes and gave
interviews for this article. “Most of the time we do
not have the right to say yes or no.”

Now New York is struggling with the question of how to
treat young girls who are involved in prostitution.
Are they criminals — or child abuse victims?

Gov. David A. Paterson (D) is considering signing a
groundbreaking bill that would divert young girls
arrested for prostitution to social programs rather
than punishing them.

The bill, known as the Safe Harbor Act, stipulates
that the first time girls 15 and younger are arrested
for prostitution, they should be designated “persons
in need of supervision,” not delinquents, and get
counseling and a safe house to protect them from
pimps.

Advocates say the bill helps to redress an inequity in
state law, which sets the age of consent for sex at 17
but sets no age limits on the crime of prostitution,
so that if a 12-year-old is paid for sex, even if she
turns the money over to a pimp, she can be arrested,
charged with an act of juvenile delinquency, and
prosecuted.

“This law is going to protect children who mostly come
from broken or dysfunctional families, who have either
been enticed or coerced into commercial sex, who need
help,” said state Assemblyman William Scarborough, a
Democrat from Queens who sponsored the bill. “We will
surely spend much more on these children if we do not
get them out of this life.”

But prosecutors have argued that it is necessary to
hold the threat of jail over young girls to encourage
them to testify against pimps.

And the administration of New York City Mayor Michael
R. Bloomberg opposes the bill, saying that the best
way to keep girls from running away from services is
to keep them in the criminal system.

“Legal leverage is the best way to provide services,”
said John Feinblatt, the mayor’s criminal justice
coordinator.

Across the country, cities and states are grappling
with this issue. Las Vegas has decided to arrest and
detain kids to keep them safe. Boston considers them
child abuse victims and generally does not charge them
but treats them. San Francisco has a hybrid model of
arresting girls and then diverting them to services.

These questions arise because incidences of very young
girls being coerced or forced into prostitution have
become alarmingly common, according to law enforcement
agencies, researchers and advocates. The age girls
most frequently enter prostitution is between 12 and
14 years old, according to a University of
Pennsylvania study, which also estimated there could
be several hundred thousand youth being paid for sex
across the country.

And although prostitution in New York has largely been
chased from the Times Square area, the streetwalker
culture — often built on young girls — is thriving
in poor neighborhoods in the Bronx, Brooklyn and
Queens.

“It’s a huge, huge problem,” said Kenneth Kaiser, an
assistant director at the FBI, which has launched a
special task force, Innocence Lost, to arrest pimps
and help children forced into prostitution. “You’ve
got young children, 12, 13, 14 — these are innocent
victims nobody ever hears about.”

Another young, former sex worker is trying to change
that. With sad, long-lashed brown eyes and a smile
that lights up her face, she speaks publicly about her
history in prostitution and has advocated passage of
the bill.

At 15, she said, she was an honor student at
Manhattan’s Art and Design High School but left home
to escape her parents’ alcoholism and abuse. She ended
up in a group home, she said, where she tried to
commit suicide — but no one even noticed.

Then she met a pimp, she said.

She said he told her, ” ‘I’m going to be your
everything. I’m going to be your mother, your father,
your sister, your brother, your best friend. I’m going
to take care of you, I’m going to love you.’ ”

She was inducted into a world with the trappings of
family — a girl often calls her pimp “Daddy,” his
friends “uncles-in-law,” his other girls
“wives-in-law.” But this world also has its own brutal
hierarchy: If a girl looks another pimp in the eye,
that pimp has the right to kidnap her. When her pimp
was jailed, he bequeathed her to an “uncle-in-law,” a
“guerrilla pimp” who used violence. She said one of
his tactics was to hold a hot iron so close to her arm
that she could feel the steam melt her skin.

There were beatings, a kidnapping, a gang rape, she
said, but she was always put back to work. “I felt at
that point that my soul was dying. You’re just going
through something that’s so unimaginable you just
can’t even think, you just can’t even feel.”

Then she was referred to Girls Educational and
Mentoring Services, a nonprofit group that helps about
200 commercially sexually exploited girls each year,
and is perhaps the best model in the state for
delivering services and creating the safe and
nurturing atmosphere envisioned in the Safe Harbor
bill.

“Sweetie, let’s see your report card,” said Rachel
Lloyd, the founder and director, to one of her girls
on a recent afternoon. Lloyd read aloud a string of
A’s. “I’m very proud of you,” she said.

Lloyd, who years ago worked as a prostitute, oversees
a staff of 19 to provide counseling, tutoring and job
training, along with classes in subjects such as
cooking and yoga. She will do anything for the girls:
go searching the streets at night when they disappear,
confront their pimps, and give them Christmas parties,
baby showers and the other missing rituals of family.
Sometimes it’s enough to help a girl leave her pimp.
Sometimes it’s not.

“One of the girls called me on Mother’s Day,” Lloyd
said. “She said, ‘I want to come by, but it’s like
going to church. It makes me want to do better, but I
feel wack about where I am in my life.’ ”

Research shows the girls in Lloyd’s program are likely
to have certain things in common. A study by the New
York state Office of Children & Family Services found
that about 85 percent of the girls in prostitution
were the subject of an open child welfare case, often
because of abuse or neglect, and that 75 percent had
been in foster care.

Their numbers seem to be growing. Katherine Mullen, a
New York lawyer with the Legal Aid Society who
represents youth involved in prostitution, said that a
decade ago she might come across perhaps two such
children under 16 in a year. Now she represents about
200 a year, many of them 12 and 13 years old, and this
year she represented two 11-year-olds.

These girls are likely to come from the country’s
poorest urban neighborhoods, said Kirsten Widner, a
fellow at Emory University’s law school. She said they
may have been caught in a changing profile of local
crime that has yet to be fully assessed: At some point
in recent years, the neighborhood drug dealer might
have realized that it’s more lucrative to sell
neighborhood girls.

“The word on the street is they can sell a packet of
drugs once, they can sell a person many, many times,
so it’s a better business model,” Widner said.

2 Responses

  1. The answer to that question is easy:

    They are child abuse victims.

    Yet they’re put in jail.

  2. […] Yes, still, today, in the 21st century. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, damned if you do what you have to do. And as long as we continue to fall into the trap of putting each other down to defend the validity […]

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