N.Y. Struggles to Aid Child Prostitutes

S. met a pimp and entered prostitution when she was 15 years old and living in a group home, she said. Now 21, she is a development assistant and outreach worker at Girls Education and Mentoring Service, a Harlem center for girls who have been commercially sexually exploited.Audio by Robin Shulman/The Washington PostPhotos by Helayne Seidman
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.

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